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Percussion sits at the heart and soul of Latin Jazz, providing the music's cultural lifeline and rhythmic vitality. The use of percussion certainly sets Latin Jazz apart from straight ahead jazz, but it is so much more than a simple novelty. Embedded in each hit of the drum is a cultural legacy, associated with centuries of social development. When that deep legacy blends with the rich cultural history of the African American experience through jazz, miracles can happen. Percussionists are the ones that make these earth shattering revelations apparentthey can speak volumes about history and culture with their performances and they can make the music move with the power of the generations behind them. With percussion playing such a dominant role in Latin Jazz, it shouldn’t be any surprise that some of the style’s biggest heroes are drummers.
Four of the towering figures in Latin Jazz percussion celebrate their birthdays in Jazz Appreciation Month, giving us a chance to cherish their amazing contributions to the music. Conguero Mongo Santamaria was born on April 7th, 1922, growing up in Havana, Cuba. He brought an impressive technique and knowledge of folkloric music to the United States and eventually became adored around the world for his mixture of Latin Jazz and funk. Timbalero Tito Puente came into the world on April 20th, 1923, destined to become one of the genre’s most cherished band leaders. His jaw dropping virtuosity, entertaining showmanship, and outstanding musicality took him around the world, embedding his contributions into the fabric of popular culture. Conguero Candido Camero entered into life on April 22nd, 1921, in Havana, Cuba, and ninety years later, he’s still hitting the drums. A core figure in Latin Jazz through his work with bands like Machito And His Afro-Cubans, the “thousand finger man” was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2008. Conguero Ray Barretto joined this crowd on April 29th, 1929, arriving in New York City, where he later would define the sound of music. Experiencing early success in boogaloo and later salsa, Barretto always held onto a deep love of jazz that he shared through a series of outstanding Latin Jazz albums late in his career. Each one of these musicians embodies the dynamic energy of Latin Jazz and symbolizes the cultural relationships that flow through every performance; their contributions are deep and will never be forgotten.
Summarizing the careers of these four brilliant musicians into a few sentences certainly doesn’t do them justicethe recorded output of any one of these percussionists presents a lifetime of study. The history behind their musicianship holds much of the beauty of Latin Jazz; digging deeper into their work is a worthwhile endeavor. Jazz Appreciation Month is a great time to celebrate these great musicians, so today’s Weekly Latin Jazz Video Fix is dedicated to Puente, Santamaria, Candido, and Barretto. The first video finds Puente delivering an astounding display of percussion virtuosity on one of his signature pieces, “El Rey Del Timbal.” The next clip shows the depth of Santamaria’s playing with a performance of one of his most famous compositions, “Afro Blue.” Even at 90, Camero can be found playing around New York today, as seen in the next snippet, where he plays alongside The New School’s Afro- Cuban Jazz Ensemble. The last video features Barretto applying his unique approach to the instrument with his group New World at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Take the time to see these musicians demonstrating the power of percussion in Latin Jazz and experience the full depth of the musicenjoy!
Tito Puente Performing “El Rey Del Timbal”
Mongo Santamaria Performing “Afro Blue”
Candido Camero Performing With The New School Afro-Cuban Jazz Ensemble
Ray Barretto Performing With His Group New World Spirit
I love jazz because it mixes intellect and emotion in a very spontaneous way.
I was first exposed to jazz by liberating a Coltrane and a Pharoah Sanders record from a friend in NYC and listening to them over and over until I got it.
My advice to new listeners is you have to take the time to listen to some jazz tunes a number of times until it starts to make sense.