When Prudencio Mario Bauzá stepped off the boat from Havana onto the docks in New York, in 1930, he brought with him a sophisticated knowledge of Cuban music, and a respect and penchant for American jazz. He would be a key figure in the integration of both musical principals and come to be known as “the father of Latin Jazz”.
Born in the Cayo Hueso section of La Habana, Cuba, on Apr. 28, 1911, Mario had a special musical talent, and began formal lessons as a child. He studied music at the Municipal Academy of Cuba, and by the age of nine was clarinetist at the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra, where he remained for three years. He underwent intensive tutoring under Maestro Antonio Maria Romeu, joining his band Charanga Francesa and in 1925 traveled to New York with them to record. He had just turned fourteen years old! Upon his return to Cuba, he trained and practiced trumpet under Lázaro Herrera, a stellar trumpet master for the Septeto Nacional, the finest band on the island.
He returned to New York in 1930 and hooked up with Antonio Machin, who had a recent hit with “El Manisero”. He worked with several dance bands, then to Hy Clark’s Missourians, and in 1933 joined up with Chick Webb, the so called ‘King of the Savoy’, the baddest cats around. Chick Webb taught the young Mario how to phrase and pronounce the trumpet like a jazzman, and also the dynamics and confidence of musicianship. This he witnessed first hand in the legendary battles of the bands, where Webb’s band would wipe the noses of the white guys and sent them back downtown. It was around this time he met and jammed with Dizzy Gillespie, and begin a lifelong friendship He would stay with Chick Webb for five years, went through the bands of Don Redman, and Fletcher Henderson, joining Cab Calloway in 1938. He talked Cab into hiring Dizzy, they were band mates for two years, spending time working on their chops, and were even roommates on the road. He would be a major figure in the legacy of Dizzy.
He had tried to get something going with his brother in law Frank Grillo better known as Machito, but they couldn’t make it happen. Machito, an accomplished singer in his own right, started his own band the Afro-Cubans, and in Dec. of 1940 debuted at the Park Plaza Ballroom. Mario, resigned his chair with Cab Calloway, and in 1941 became the music director of Machito and his Afro-Cubans, where he remained for thirty five years. They were a new kind of band. Latin music is defined by the clave. The clave creates the essential tension and release that propels the music in a forward motion that is conducive to dancing. The clave is a five beat pattern that is played over two measures, setting the pace and determining the rhythm, it is the secret to this music. Machito and Mario of course had innate knowledge of this, and merely adapted it to the jazz arrangements they were playing. Thus began the fusion now called Latin Jazz.
Their first recording for Decca in 1941, had a great mix of Cuban vocalizing over jazz charts, as Mario still had the Cab Calloway influence. In 1942 they brought in a young timbale player named Tito Puente, though in a few months he joined the Navy. They recorded a second album simply titled “Afro Cuban Music (Decca) featuring Miguelito Valdés on vocals, Puente, timbales, Machito maracas, Chino Pozo (Chano’s cousin) bongos, Mario on trumpet leading the horn section over the percussion in what turned out as a milestone recording. The mix and overall quality was excellent. Mario wrote the bands theme song “Tanga”, which would forever be associated with him and Machito. There was after this a short lull due to WWII. Machito himself was drafted, and upon his return in 1944, changed the rhythm section lineup to consist of timbales, conga, bongo.
The band really took off after the War, and went on a recording and performance run that took NYC by storm. Mario introduced Dizzy to Chano Pozo in 1947, and he took off into Cubop, they all played together at Carnegie Hall in the “African American Cuban Drum Suite” receiving rave reviews and broader exposure. They shared the bill, and recorded with Stan Kenton. By 1948 Machito and his Afro Cubans were the undisputed ‘Kings of the Palladium Ballroom’ where they played to packed dance floors, were the toast of the town, and the envy of other bands. They brought in many jazz players into their recording sessions and gigs. The Latin sound was being picked up by every band from coast to coast, and everyone had more than a few of their arrangements in their books.
Machito and his Afro-Cubans, under the musical direction of Mario Bauza would go on through the ‘50’s, and ‘60’s, to record over thirty albums under a variety of labels as Decca, Mercury, CBS, Seeco, Tico/Roulette, and GNP. They would perform steady through this period, though by the end of the ‘60’s the gigs were drying up. The times and music were changing. People wanted something new, and the younger people found it in salsa, the latest craze.
Mario left the band in 1976, feeling it was best for all. He recorded a solo effort in 1976, then there were several for the Caiman label as “Mambo Inn” and “Afro Cuban Jazz”. In the ‘90’s he continued with “Tanga Suite”, “My Time is Now”, and his last recording of “944 Columbus”, (all Messidor). This last one was titled after his lifelong address in the Bronx. It was very well received, and is still available. In 2004 there was a compilation “Tanga” (Pimienta).
In a musical trajectory that spanned over seventy years Mario Bauzá covered and mastered the realms of symphonic, Latin, jazz, African American, and popular dance music. He was a multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, bandleader, and teacher. He earned the respect of all the musicians he played with by being talented and by commanding respect by example. He was a true innovator of his craft and had the vision and determination to see it manifested.
Mario Bauzá died at home on July, 11 1993
Source: James Nadal