sábado, 31 de octubre de 2009

Boricua jazz pioneers

Boricua jazz pioneers
Latin Beat Magazine

The January 22, 2006 edition of El Nuevo Día, the Puerto Rican daily with greatest readership on the island, had an article that was titled "Pioneros del jazz" and was focused on the contemporary jazz environment there. The article also described the work of Victor Orta Salamán, who was the founder of a big band jazz orchestra on the island in the 1960s. Orta Salamán is a pianist who recruited a number of musicians who were devoted to the jazz genre, including trumpeters Juancito Torres, Elías Lopes, Lito Peña and Tommy Villarini; drummer Tony Sánchez; and saxophonists Roberto Jiménez, Mario Ortíz and Emilio Reales, among many others. There were few locations where jazz was played on the island and as such, it was quite a struggle to find playing time before live audiences.

Since those days, the popularity of mainstream jazz and Latin jazz in San Juan and other Puerto Rican cities has grown incrementally. Today, there are numerous venues for jazz and several annual concerts, including the gigantic Heineken Jazz Fest that is held every spring. Jazz is also widely accepted among the general public and in the 2006 Festival de la Calle San Sebastian, several jazz presentations were part of the program. A very impressive segment featured trumpeters Luis "Perico" Ortíz, Humberto Ramírez, Charlie Sepúlveda, and the pioneering Elías Lopés.

Today's boricua communities, either on the island or the U.S. mainland, have produced a number of legendary jazz artists. Recently, the late percussionist Ray Barretto received the coveted NEA's Jazz Master Award. Other fairly contemporary jazz greats of Puerto Rican heritage include the late Tito Puente, Giovanni Hidalgo, Papo Vázquez, William Cepeda, David Sánchez, Miguel Zenón, Dave Valentín, Néstor Torres, Hilton Ruíz, Eddie Gómez, Carli Muñoz, and Andy and Jerry González among many others. Eddie Palmieri was the recipient of the 2006 Grammy Award in Latin Jazz.

Although jazz may be relatively new to the island (if we acknowledge the fact that the Puerto Rican branch of the jazz idiom flourished in the 1960s), the boricua participation goes back to the incipient days of the genre, the early 1900s. The most influential early jazz pioneer was, arguably, Juan Tizol. Tizol left a legacy as an innovative composer of jazz, Latin jazz, ballads, and exotica. He was a valve trombone trailblazer and an early transcriber of the music called jazz when it was in its infancy. Tizol's compositions, such as Caravan, Perdido, Jubilesta, Bakiff, among others, continue to be recorded. However, this article will focus on the participation and accomplishments of other Puerto Rican jazz pioneers and in doing so, we may better understand why jazz and Latin jazz becomes part of music repertoire of the island, as well as in boricua communities of the United States.

Rafael Escudero

Among the first boricuas to receive some recognition in the fledgling genre was Rafael Escudero. He was born on April 10, 1898, and was known in U.S. jazz circles as Ralph Escudero. Today, however, Escudero is largely forgotten. Nevertheless, this native of Manatí was instrumental asa link between the fledgling jazz bands of Washington D.C. and New York and the musicians who came from Puerto Rico. Escudero has been identified as one who (following the example of Lieutenant James Reese Europe) successfully enlisted musicians from Puerto Rico and found places for them to play in the continental U.S.A.

At the early age of 14, Escudero boarded the steamer Caracas at the port of San Juan on his way to New York, where he arrived on June 13, 1912. Records of his arrival are now part of the archives of the Ellis Island Museum. The youngster was listed as a "Porto Rican" on the ship's passenger manifest. He came to New York to play professionally under the auspices of the New Amsterdam Musical Association (NAMA). His fledgling musicianship had earned him a valuable scholarship.

Escudero was an accomplished tuba player (and later a bassist) who played professionally in 1920-1921 with the NAMA band that featured the great Ethel Waters. Later, in March, 1923, Rafael Escudero was a member of the Wilber C. Sweatman band, with whom he played both the tuba and the bass, while Duke Ellington played the piano. In a book authored by jazz historian Gunther Schuller, he makes numerous references to Escudero's talents on the tuba. He described Escudero as the one who put "swing" on a recording of the memorable Put it There.

Escudero was also a member of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, considered the most popular African-American band in New York during the 1920s. Although his band was extremely trendy, when Henderson was contracted in 1924 to play in the Roseland Ballroom opposite a white band, the white musicians objected. A few months later, they quit in protest. As a dark-skinned islander, this experience was probably one of Escudero's multiple encounters with racism in the United States mainland.

Standing next to his tuba, Escudero appears in a photograph of the Fletcher Henderson Band, taken circa 1924. The photograph reveals Escudero to be a tall, dark, handsome man with a receding hairline. Interestingly, a youthful Louis Armstrong was a member of the same band. Escudero was recruited by Henderson when he heard the tuba player with the Sweatman band at the Howard Theater in Washington.

Escudero left Henderson's band to join the Detroit-based McKinney's Cotton Pickers, led by Don Redman. Drummer William McKinney organized the Cotton Pickers in 1926. At times, that band included such jazz greats as Benny Carter, and Rex Stewart. The band conducted all-star sessions with such players as Jabbo Smith, Sidney de Paris, Coleman Hawkins and Fats Waller.

In 1928, Rafael Escudero also recorded with the Cotton Pickers, labeled as the Chocolate Dandies (with Lucille Hegamin, Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters). Later, Escudero became a member of the early Louis Armstrong band (where he contributed to several recordings that are available today on CD format) and also toured with W.C. Handy.

By his mid-age, Escudero may have grown tired of traveling through the New York and Los Angeles club scenes; he may have also felt homesick, and thus returned to Puerto Rico, where he kept a busy work schedule, and continued to perform in more traditional Caribbean-music venues,

"A stalwart of the tuba" was how Gunther Schuller described Escudero. Schuller refers to a certain recording as "firmly anchored by Escudero's deep tuba." According to Eugene Chadbourne of the All Music Guide, "this Puerto Rican musician was a valuable rhythm section member in some of the most prominent of the larger classic jazz ensembles." According to the Tom Lord Jazz Discography, Escudero participated in approximately 87 jazz recording sessions between 1920 and 1931.

Despite a solid reputation playing the large horn, as many other tuba players, Escudero made the transition to the string bass when it carne into vogue. We will never know if Escudero preferred to stay with the tuba, but instead gave in to the pressures that led him to convert to the bass.

Escudero was related to the award-winning, contemporary composer with the same name, Rafael "Rafi" Escudero. Rail Escudero composed Puerto Rican danzas with much acclaim. The island-based Escudero has fond recollections of the late Escudero, who he called Tiranía (Tyranny). Rail Escudero reminds us that his uncle was also a respected musician on the island, where he played with the reputable Rafael Muñoz Orchestra. The surviving Escudero said that when he first recorded, at age 20, the late Rafael Escudero played the accompanying bass.

Unfortunately, the legendary tuba player and bassist met an untimely and tragic death at age 72. He was the victim of a hotel fire on April 10, 1970, in Old San Juan (Aponte-Ledée, 2000). Today, more than 50 CDs are available in which Rafael Escudero is listed as playing either the tuba or the double-bass.

Ramón Usera

One of Puerto Rico's premiere band leaders in the middle 20th century was Ramón "Moncho" Usera. He organized his first bands in New York and subsequently became a bandleader in his native homeland.

Ramón Usera was born in Ponce in 1904. He arrived in New York (via Ellis Island) in 1924. By the time he arrived in the U.S. mainland, Usera was a well-trained musician who played piano, flute, clarinet and saxophone. Usera stayed briefly in New York and by 1925, was enrolled at the Escole Normale de Musique in Paris, France.

Unlike most of his compatriots, Moncho Usera entered the jazz scene in Europe, when he joined Lew Leslie's Blackbirds, an all-black musical in París. In 1928, that band traveled through Europe and also recorded there. In 1929, Usera returned to New York, where he joined the Noble Sissle Orchestra. It is possible that he had been recruited by the older Puerto Rican musician Rafael Duchesne, who was also a band member. Both were in the band when it went to the recoding studios in February and April of 1931.

In 1933, Usera joined the band led by trumpeter Arthur Briggs and returned to Paris, where he performed at the Ambassadeur Club. In 1934, the band traveled to England to perform at the London Jazz Club. That band included the great players Sidney Bechet and Noble Sissle. Usera participated in approximately 10 jazz recording sessions (between 1928 and 1937) as a violinist, clarinetist, and tenor and alto saxophonist.

Usera left the jazz scene to return to the Latin American music scene, where he performed with outstanding bandleaders such as Enrique Madriguera, Desiderio "Desi" Arnaz and Eliseo Grenet. Usera participated in numerous recording sessions and traveled throughout the United States, South America, and Europe. Afterward, he recorded and arranged music for several bands led by Vincent López and Don Maya, among others.

Moncho Usera was a composer of different genres. Among his compositions, we find the tune titled Under the Creole Moon, which he wrote with Sidney Bechet and Noble Sissle. His other compositions include Añoranzas, Boga Boga, Caribbean Fantasy, Ha Ha Ha, Moment that We Fell in Love, Mosquito El, Tal Es la Vida, and There is No Tomorrow, among others.

A number of recordings in which Moncho Usera is featured as a participant or bandleader are available. Most recently, Harlequin Records released a CD titled Ramón Moncho Usera 1941-42.

Rogelio Ramírez

Rogelio Ramírez (also known as Roger or "Ram") was born in San Juan on September 15, 1913. He arrived on Ellis Island in 1920. Ramírez was an accomplished pianist who was comfortable in swing, bop, and traditional jazz settings. He was raised in New York and by 13 was a professional musician. Ram Ramírez was also a composer and he is best known for Lover Man, a tune that is considered a jazz standard and has been recorded by numerous artists, including the great Duke Ellington.

Ramírez worked with the Louisiana Stompers and Monette Moore in 1933. The following year, he joined legendary trumpeter Rex Stewart for a set of recordings that are available today on the Columbia and Classic labels. In 1935, he joined Willie Bryant and in 1937, he went to Europe with a group led by Bobby Martin.

A highlight in Ram Ramírez's career carne at the age of 21, in 1934 when he literally substituted for Duke Ellington in a small group led by Rex Stewart, with whom he recorded Stingaree and Baby Ain'tcha Satisfied.

He also backed the legendary Ella Fitzgerald and worked with Frankie Newton and Charlie Barnet in 1942. In 1944, he joined the John Kirby Sextet and this was followed by stints with his own trío. In the 1950s he also doubled on the organ.

Ramírez lived until 90 years of age, and he remained active in the music world almost until his death. He was quite active in the 1970s, when he worked with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band. Through this period, he was best known primarily among members of the musicians' community. He led recording dates for the labels Gotham (1946), Super Disc (1947), Black & Blue (1960) and Master Jazz (1973-74).

Ramírez recorded as a pianist and organist, and according to the Lord Jazz Discography, he participated in approximately 62 jazz recording sessions between 1934 and 1981. Anyone interested in collecting music in which Ram Ramírez is featured as pianist or organist has many opportunities to do so, since many of those recordings are available. Of particular interest to collectors is a 2005 release called I'll Remember April by the Roger "Ram" Ramírez Trío, in which he was the leader, pianist, composer and arranger.

Fernando Arbello

Fernando Arbello was one of several trombonists from the island who made their way to the early U.S. jazz scene. He was born in Ponce in 1902, and as a youngster, he headed for the U.S. mainland with the skills he had accrued at home. His training was such that he was able to perform with a symphony. Once in the States, Arbello had tenures with several great bands including those led by Jimmie Lunceford, Fletcher Henderson, Claude Hopkins, and Chick Webb. In 1933, he was captured on a nine-minute short film, "Barber Shop Blues," with Claude Hopkins' band.

A reputable trombonist, Arbello was also a jazz composer when there were few in the genre. His best known composition is Big Chief de Sota that he wrote in collaboration with famed Andy Razaf. The tune was recorded by the leading bands of the period.

Fernando Arbello had many opportunities to record with the numerous bands with which he had extended stints starting in the 1920s. He recorded with the Henderson, Lunceford, Hopkins bands, in addition to Fats Waller, Roy Eldridge and Rex Stewart, to name a few. He was essentially a trombonist but had limited experience with the tuba and the trumpet. Arbello participated in approximately 54 jazz recording sessions as a trombonist or trumpeter between 1931 and 1953.

Although Arbello enjoyed a fascinating experience with jazz orchestras, in his later years, he chose to join the Machito Orchestra that performed Caribbean music, and subsequently returned to Puerto Rico, where he died in 1970.

Rafael Hernández

Rafael Hernández was born in Aguadilla in 1893. He received his musical training on the island, where he became a member of various bands, including one led by Manuel Tizol. Hernández was a bandmate of both Juan and Francisco Tizol. He participated in the earliest recording sessions held on the island with the Tizol led bands.

In 1917, he and his younger brother Jesús were recruited by Lieutenant James Reese Europe for the Harlem Hell-Fighters band. Hernández was an accomplished trombonist and was recruited for that reason. He arrived on July 23 at Ellis Island, where he indicated that he was 24 years old. When recruited, Hernández chose not to leave with Reese Europe in May when 13 of his compatriots left; an indication of his fierce independent nature. His initial experiences with jazz came as a member of the Hell-Fighters; the band that is credited with introducing jazz to France.

When the Hell-Fighters returned to the U.S., Hernández participated in the first recordings sessions of the band. In March of 1919, he was a member of a four-piece trombone section and among the recordings was one titled The Moaning Trombone. He was one of 20 Puerto Ricans who comprised the band.

After Hernández left the military, he had opportunities to play with several groups thanks to the contacts he had established and the reputation that he enjoyed. For a time, he joined the C. Luckyeth (Luckey) Roberts' group. Roberts was considered significant among the "stride pianists," although he did not leave behind many recordings. Roberts was also a composer and a writer of musical comedies.

Hernández also spent time in Cuba, and eventually made his way to México. He achieved substantial recognition as a composer and/or band leader in both of those countries before returning to his homeland. Hernández was incredibly versatile: He played the violin and the guitar, sang, and was also a premier composer. Rafael Hernández is considered Puerto Rico's greatest composer and his compositions reflect his varied musical experiences.

Rafael Duchesne

Rafael Duchesne was born in Fajardo, in May of 1890. He was among the musicians recruited by Lieutenant Europe for the Hell-Fighters band in 1917 when he proved to be a standout clarinet soloist. Duchesne is among the musicians that took jazz to Europe and among the first to record the genre in 1919.

Duchesne did not stay in the States-side jazz scene too long. However, he was here long enough to record with the Noble Sissle band. He also recorded in Europe. Sissle was a former member of the Hell-Fighters. After the 1919 recordings with James Reese Europe, Duchesne participated in a least six jazz recording sessions as a clarinetist, as well as alto and tenor saxophonist, between 1929 and 1932. When Sissle and the Southern Syncopated Orchestra traveled to Europe, Duchesne participated in a performance at London's Buckingham Palace in 1929. The band included Sidney Bechet and other jazz greats. The recordings of that period are available today on the British Proper label. Duchesne's last name was, at times, misspelled and therefore, documenting all his record participations can be difficult.

Duchesne subsequently chose to return to Puerto Rico and entered the Orquesta Sinfónica, the Municipal Theater Band, and the Club Armónco. Later, he directed an orchestra for the blind and became a music teacher. He was also a prolific composer of danzas, minuets, marches and hymns. He also wrote songs, a symphony and an overture. In recognition of his talents as a composer of danzas, a collection was recorded by the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña and is available on CD.

Francisco Tizol

Francisco "Paco" Tizol y Tizol was born on October 10, 1893. He was the son of a distinguished island government leader, José de Jesús Tizol. At an early age, he went to live with his uncle Manuel Tizol and the family that included Juan Tizol. The family lived at Calle de la Cruz #31, in Old San Juan. His uncle was an outstanding musician and band leader. Manuel was an aggressive supporter of the island's music and musicians and organized many bands and orchestras. Manuel Tizol was a great humanitarian who adopted three boys into the large family.

Francisco Tizol played the bass and the cello in Puerto Rico, where pictures were taken of him holding either one of these instruments. This Tizol was also known to be a bandleader while still residing in Puerto Rico. Once in the U.S. mainland, Paco Tizol entered the jazz world as his cousin Juan Tizol. Paco at one point collaborated with Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle and other jazz greats in the production of the very successful Broadway revue, Shuffle Along. That show band also included Moncho Usera, Rafael Escudero and a group of Puerto Rican dancers. The immortal Josephine Baker was also a dancer. Shuffle Along was considered the first successful all African American Broadway show. It is also considered the catalyst to a cultural surge among Black Americans known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Paco Tizol left the jazz scene to play more often in Latín American venues in the rapidly growing Latin community of New York. At one point he joined a band led by the great Rafael Hernández and that resulted in a series of recordings that are available today from World Records.


In addition to the musicians described, a number of others played lesser roles in the jazz environment primarily because they preferred to incorporate themselves into the Latín American music arena or they chose to return to the homeland. Those with brief tenures in jazz include several of the musicians who carne with James Reese Europe, such as clarinetist Jesús Hernández, Antonio González, Gregorio Félix Delgado, Genaro Torres, Eligio Rijos, and Arturo B. Ayala. Others in that group include saxophonist Ceferino Hernández, bassoonist, Pablo Fuentes, mellophonists Francisco and Eleuterio Meléndez, euphonium players Nicolas Vázquez and José Froilán Jiménez, and tuba players José Rivera Rosas and Sixto Benítez.

In addition to the Hell-Fighters, other boricuas such as Bob Escudero had limited stints. Escudero played the tuba from 1922 to 1925 and he participated in at least nine jazz recording sessions. Bob Escudero, like Rafael, was from Manatí.

Oscar Madera, from a distinguished family of musicians, was born in 1905 and died in San Juan in 1992. He was a violinist in early jazz bands and participated in at least two jazz recording sessions up to 1936. Ariosto Cruz was an accomplished cellist on the island who briefly came to the States to be a member of the pit orchestra of the Howard Theater in Washington, D,C. Cruz had been a member of the Manuel Tizol bands where he was a bandmate of Rafael Hernández. Francisco Dulievre was another participant from an island-based family of musicians, who also became a member of the Howard theater orchestra.

Although Augusto Coen achieved substantial popularity as a band leader who played primarily Afro-Caribbean music in New York, he was also a participant of early jazz bands. Coen was among the musicians that participated in Lew Leslie's Blackbirds revue. Coen was known to play with other jazz bands, including the one led by Duke Ellington. Coen was originally from Ponce, where he was born in 1895. He arrived on Ellis Island in 1919. After a significant career in New York, Coen returned to the island, where he died in San Juan in 1970.

Discussions on Latin American participation during the fledgling period of jazz and the development of Latin jazz do not often address the Puerto Rican presence, and this may lead some to think that jazz is new to the boricua experience. Thanks to the oral history projects, discographers, jazz historians and music ethnographers, more and more of the participation of different ethnic and immigrant groups in jazz is becoming known to a larger audience.

Basilio Serrano "Boricua jazz pioneers". Latin Beat Magazine. FindArticles.com. 31 Oct, 2009. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0FXV/is_3_16/ai_n16359885/
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