BS: I did a lot of freelance gigs,such as studio work with pianist Marco Rizo, reedman Mauricio Smith, and bassist Victor Venegas I remember that we played music for Bacardi commercials. I also got to play with Jon Faddis
. He asked me to come play with the Afro-Cuban Orchestra. And the rest is history. I eventually became Mario's straw boss since he came up at a time when cats didn't know too much about setting up sound equipment, making floor-plans, or making line checks before performances. This is because Mario came up at a time when even the big bands only used a few mics during performances or recordings. I also made sure the band members showed up to rehearsals and gigs on time, as well as being on time for traveling. You can not over-exaggerate the contributions that Mario (Bauza) made to the development of modern jazz and Latin jazz.
He was the man who bridged the gap between African American jazz and Afro-Cuban music. When Mario joined Chick Webb
in 1933 he helped make Webb's band the top swing ensemble during the 30's. He encouraged Dizzy to step out of the swing idiom and make his own music, which as we all know, became that revolutionary artform known as be-bop. When Mario was the musical director for Machito
he composed the first piece for Afro-Cuban jazz, called "Tanga." Just think, being present at the inception of Afro-Cuban jazz and Be-bop was like being around when Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart were starting to create their music! Every cat who plays Latin jazz or salsa owes Mario Bauza) a debt of gratitude!
AAJ You were fortunate to have been with Bauza when he returned to the studio. What was it like to have played on those recordings?
BS: Words cannot begin to describe the exhilaration I felt when I was in the studio with "El Maestro" (Bauza) making Tanga, (Messidor, 1992), My Time Is Now (Messidor, 1992), and 944 Columbus Avenue.(Messidor, 1993). Even though Mario Bauza) had long since stopped playing, his skills as a bandleader were impeccableplus he was an inspiration to all of the musicians in Mark Weinstein AfroCuban Jazz Project
on those dates. The Orchestra also had a lot of veteran players in it, and cats like trumpeter Victor Paz gave up more lucrative gigs to play and tour with Mariojust because of the man's genius and virtuosity. Now there was an air of poignancy when we were in the studio for 944 Columbus because we knew that Mario was dying, and this was going to be his last project.
AAJ: When did you go on your own as a leader, when Mario (Bauza) passed?
BS: Well, I always wanted to have my own band, which would play my compositions and be an expression of my musical ideas. So around ('92?) I started Ascencion which I am proud to say has become the oldest continuous Latin-jazz aggregation since Fort Apache Band
AAJ: You're always involved in a variety of musical projects that you actually at times produce. You just had a busy month in November. Tell me about the recent Rafael Hernandez tribute and a little background on him for our readers.
BS Yeah, with the big band we just did a huge concert on 1 November in honor of Latin America's greatest composer, Puerto Rican Rafael Hernandez. November is Puerto Rican Heritage month so it was natural. Hernandez actually played trombone during WWI in the U.S. Army's 369th all Black Regiment's Band conducted by James Reese Europe
. The Germans called them "fighters from hell," hence their nickname "Harlem Hellfighters" for their ferocity in combat. Besides Rafael, (Hernandez) there were 17 other Afro-Puerto Rican's in the regiment's band which at full strength was 65 musicians. Only 44 of the musicians went to Europe, but all of the Puerto Ricans were part of the 44 so that meant that almost half the band were Latinos. They were able to be recruited because in 1917 Puerto Ricans had achieved citizenship through the Jones Act in Congress. In Puerto Rico we have a tradition of well-trained musicians who play in what are known as bandas municipales, municipal bands. Europe had heard about that and Hernandez traveled down there to recruit these players because Hernandez basically needed well-trained musicians of color who played woodwinds as well as brass.