Juan Tizol: His Caravan Through Life and American Culture
Basilio Serrano is a seasoned educator, historian and a person who is all too familiar with the plight of Puerto Ricans whose contributions to jazz have been ignored or forgotten. In 2000 he wrote a series of articles on Juan Tizol's cross-cultural collaborations with Duke Ellington, Harry James and other nationally known orchestras. In addition he has written articles about Boricua Pioneers in Latin Jazz, Puerto Rican Musicians of the Harlem Renaissance and essays on pianist Noro Morales, actress Miriam Colon and political activist Lolita Lebron among others. In the opening pages of the book Serrano makes it clear that his purpose in writing the book was to set the record straight and give credit where credit is due.
During a recent Q&A with Serrano I asked him why he chose to write about Juan Tizol. "I chose Tizol because when he arrived in the U.S from Puerto Rico he spoke no English and was not familiar with American culture. Tizol knew little of jazz, and he played an unusual instrument that was considered more suitable for marching bands than orchestra ensembles. Many would say that Tizol had three strikes against him, if not four," said Serrano, "yet despite the odds, he went on to have an extremely successful life in music."
Juan Tizol hails from Vega Baja, Puerto Rico where he grew up in a musical environment. His first instrument was the violin however he switched to the valve trombone at an early age. In large part he received his musical training from his uncle, Manuel Tizol, who was the director of the municipal band and symphony in San Juan however he also gained experience by playing local operas, ballets and dance bands. Ironically, Tizol came to the U.S. as a stowaway aboard a ship that was bound for Washington, D.C., where he set up residence, established himself at The Howard Theater and played for touring shows and silent movies. It was at the Howard Theater that Tizol and Duke Ellington crossed paths.
Tizol is best remembered as a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra however he was also a consummate musician, sight reader, composer, arranger and transcriber. In addition, he was the first significant musician to use the valve trombone in a jazz setting, which added a new dimension to Ellington's sound. Tizol is also responsible for incorporating Latin influences into Ellington's repertoire with compositions such as Moonlight Fiesta, Caravan and Perdido among others. As a senior member of Ellington's orchestra Tizol was also responsible for rehearsing and integrating new musicians into the band during Ellington's absence. In his autobiography, Music is My Mistress (Da Capo Press, 1976) Ellington describes Tizol as "A tremendous asset to our band, a very big man, a very unselfish man and one of the finest musicians I've ever known."
Tizol was also a racial trailblazer who paved the way for the next generation of Latin musicians. During his lifetime Tizol endured was forced to endure the indignity of being described as, a "blob of sour crème in a black bowl of caviar," was forced to adhere to color codes and blackening his face for the films Black and Tan (1929) and Check and Double Check (1930s). The fact that Tizol made a conscious choice to work with primarily black jazz orchestra's, an African American, Rosebud Tizol Brown and lived in an African American community during a time when racial inequities were rampant, which speaks volumes about his moral fiber. When the Duke Ellington Orchestra toured the Southern states and restaurant's refused to serve his band mates Tizol's typical response was, "If you don't serve them, you don't serve me." Ironically, some of his detractors accused him of "trying to pass for black."
One of the most compelling sections of the book is titled, The Progenitor of Latin Jazz: Trombonist Extraordinaire. The chapter raises a number of questions about Tizol's role in the development of Latin jazz. Prior to reading Serrano's book I shared the opinion that Mario Bauza's Tanga was the first Afro Cuban jazz recording. Now, I am not quite so sure. "Tizol is often credited as a pioneer of Latin jazz," says Serrano, "however credit is denied to the roles played by he, and Duke Ellington in the development of the Latin jazz genre. For example the classic tune, Caravan, which contains elements of Latin rhythms and jazz, was recorded eight years prior to Tanga." And that's just one example. In the end, Serrano chose the term, Progenitor of Latin jazz, because when it comes to the Big Band music of the 1930s, Tizol experimented with Latin rhythms and jazz most often.