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Interview: Ray Santos (Part 2)


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Ray Santos
For years, Latin-jazz has been ignored or unduly dismissed as repetitive novelty music by jazz fans who should know better. While Latin-jazz is certainly foreign to those who have little knowledge of or connection with the Latin experience in America, the music's tempos and syncopation remain exceptional and worthy of scholarship. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie understood this in their early forays into Afro-Cuban music in the late 1940s. When Latin-jazz moved into the ballrooms in the 1950s, the music took on a sexual energy and dramatic excitement that was rivaled at the time perhaps only by rhythm & blues. Latin-jazz saxophonist-arranger Ray Santos was both an eyewitness and a participant in the revolution. [Pictured at top from left: Ray Santos and percussionist Bobby Sanabria]

Yet Latin-jazz differed from r&b in a fundamental way: it had a nostalgic component. Many Latin-jazz instrumental arrangements in the 1950s harkened back to jazz's big band era while songs' lyrics yearned for homelands and customs being lost through assimilation. Viewed this way, the big band era never really ended in America. It simply morphed from jazz to Latin-jazz in the late 1940s as the latter became more commercially viable as cross-ethnic dance music. As Ray Santos noted yesterday, Latin-jazz entered the popular culture in the 1950s as everyone from secretaries to celebrities mastered mambo dance steps.

In Part 2 of my two-part interview with Ray, the saxophonist and arranger for Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez talks about the Big Three bandleaders, the Palladium's “Killer Joe" Piro, Tito Puente's gutsy move, Tito Rodriguez's shrewd way of keeping up with Havana music trends, and Ray's favorite of the three dominant Latin-jazz bands:

JazzWax: What was it like playing with Machito in 1956?
Ray Santos: When I sat down on the bandstand for the first time in Machito's orchestra at the Palladium Ballroom, I felt like I had arrived. But there was still a lot of work ahead in my audition. It was a Wednesday, the big night for dancers. When Machito's band opened, the first tune we played was El Resbaloso ("The Slippery One"). Machito choose it to warm up the band and allow Killer Joe [pictured] to give his mambo lesson.

JW: Who was Killer Joe?
RS: Frank “Killer Joe" Piro was the Palladium's master of ceremonies. He also gave mambo lessons to dancers. He had a different mambo step for each band that played there. As Killer Joe continued to give his lessons, Machito played more simple mambos and boleros for Graciela [pictured], Machito's vocalist and sister. She has so much passion and emotional power. She's still around today. Back then, the Palladium audiences loved her. Soon Machito started choosing harder arrangements for us to play.

JW: Such as?
RS: Stuff like Mambo Inn and Sambia, a very swinging chart by pianist Rene Hernandez. And those were easy compared to the ones that followed. Each of the sections in Machito's band came in and out on those charts with perfect timing. Classic mambos had the saxes playing a rhythm while the trumpets played a riff. When these riffs kicked in, the beat would pick up and dancers really started swinging. I think Machito chose those harder charts to see if I could keep up. We were playing for dancers, but it was also my audition.

JW: Did you keep up?
RS: Yes. Fortunately I had baritone saxophonist Leslie Johnakins on one side of me and tenor saxophonist Jose Madera Sr. on the other. I managed to keep my end up with the help of these guys. I think the hardest song that night was Chico O'Farrill's [pictured] Carioca. It had 10 million notes. That really floored me. I struck out on that one.

JW: What did Machito say to you after the gig?
RS: He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Welcome home. It's nice to have you in the band." I couldn't believe it. The next day I went out and bought the recording of Carioca to practice and keep up. The next time we played the song at Birdland, I had no trouble with it.

JW: You were at the Palladium with Machito during the mambo dance craze.
RS: Yes. The bands that played the Palladium were very competitive. Everyone referred to Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez as the Big Three. Each of those guys took the music very, very seriously.

JW: For example?
RS: One night when I was with Machito, we opened our set with a medium-tempo mambo and finished with a heavy arrangement. When we were done, Tito Puente's band took the stand. But instead of playing an easy-going chart to warm up like we did, Puente's band came on really hot from the start. Man, they sounded like they had been on the stand all night.

JW: What happened?
RS: After Puente's band finished, I asked one of the guys in the orchestra about Tito's choice. He said that Puente had rehearsed the band for two hours before across the street in a studio above the Ed Sullivan Theater [laughs]. So when they got on, they had already been warming up for hours. That's how hungry these bands were for audience approval and how competitive to be thought of as the No. 1 band by fans. You wanted the dancers to leave talking.

JW: On the bandstand, you had a bird's eye view of the Palladium's dance floor.
RS: The best dancers would always be up close to the bandstand. You'd get Cuban Pete and Millie, Augie and Margo [pictured], and others. They were patrons, but I doubt they ever paid to get in [laughs]. They were so good they were an attraction, a draw. People came to the Palladium on Wednesdays just to see their latest steps. [Photo of Augie and Margo Rodriguez with Palladium owner Maxwell Hyman in the center by Palladium photographer Harry Fine]

What would happen on Wednesdays?
RS: That was the big night of the week. The Palladium featured mambo lessons and contests on that night. The first set began at 9 p.m. and always opened with Killer Joe shouting, “Vaya means go!" That was the cue to start the music. Then Killer Joe would give his lessons. The night would last until 1 a.m. Different bands would play in half-hour sets, never running over their time allotment. There would be just five-minute breaks between bands.

JW: Could you dance?
RS: Me? No. I had two left feet [laughs]. I was so envious.

JW: The Palladium must have been some scene.
RS: It was. A lot of homely guys would meet really great looking girls there. On that dance floor, looks for a guy no longer mattered. How well you danced was the whole thing. Only rarely would things get out of hand with the rivalries and the shoving. When that happened, the Palladium had plenty of bouncers. They'd lift you off the floor and put you out on the street.

JW: Who came to the Palladium on Wednesdays?
RS: You had a hip Broadway crowd of actors, musicians and other celebrities combined with mostly Jewish and Italian girls from Brooklyn and Queens. It was quite a show. They were seriously into the dancing. I was surprised at how fast girls who weren't Latina picked up on the steps and developed independent, creative approaches. It didn't matter how famous you were in the newspapers. The stars were the dancers, no matter where you were from. If you didn't know what you were doing out there, you stood and watched. Friday nights featured mostly Puerto Rican guys and girls from East Harlem and the boroughs. On Saturday nights the Palladium had merengue bands. Different nights had their own scenes. I used to memorize my music just so I could watch what was going on [laughs].

JW: Did jazz musicians show up at the Palladium to play with Machito and other Latin bands?
RS: All the time. Dizzy Gillespie was friendly with Mario Bauza. They had both played together in Cab Calloway's band in the late 1930s. Dizzy loved the Afro-Cuban rhythms. Milt Jackson came to play with Tito Puente. At Birdland, Herbie Mann, Johnny Griffin, Zoot Sims, Howard McGhee and Brew Moore came.

JW: After you left Machito in 1960, you were in Tito Puente's band until 1964 and then with Tito Rodriguez starting in 1964. How did the two Titos compare?
RS: Tito Rodriguez [pictured] was more sociable with the public. Puente was more interested in impressing the public, and his timbales playing was unequaled. Rodriguez was more of a charmer. He was an impeccable dresser. His idol was Frank Sinatra, and he copied Sinatra's style and personality.

What about off the stand?
RS: People gravitated more toward Rodriguez. But he had a temper if things weren't going right, like if musicians weren't giving it their all. All three of these guys could go off the deep end from time to time. Machito was low key when he was angry. But Puente and Rodriguez would pull out the whip. The whole band would get it. For example, if a take in the recording studio wasn't up to their standards, we'd get a dressing down. We'd record over and over again if we didn't get something right.

JW: Musically, what was the big difference between Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez?
RS: Before the Big Three, you mostly had just bongos in Latin bands. In the mid-1940s, Machito put in the conga player as a steady member with Carlos Vidal. Also, the bass figure became more syncopated. This sound was coming out of bebop and from bassist Cachao [pictured] and tres guitar player Arsenio Rodriguez. The hipper players and bandleaders were always on top of whatever was coming out of Cuba. The dance music there was on the cutting edge, with leaders trying new sounds and rhythms all the time. The goal was to make it big, and to make it big you needed a sound that drove dancers wild.

JW: How did bandleaders in New York keep up with what was going on in Cuba?
RS: I remember Tito Rodriguez had a Webcor reel-to-reel tape recorder hooked up to a shortwave radio, and he picked up on everything being played in Havana that night. So the next night, by the time the band played, he'd know everything that was hot coming out of Cuba [laughs].

JW: You played in Tito Rodriguez's band in the early 60s.
RS: After I left Tito Puente in 1964, Tito Rodriguez's wife called and asked me to sub at the Limbo Lounge. So I went up there and played. After the gig, Tito asked me to join the band for a tour of Argentina. That's how I joined.

JW: Was there hard-drug use at the Palladium?
RS: Not that I could see. The most I saw was marijuana smoking. There was a closet in the men's room to the right of the bandstand. There was a closet in there where the musicians kept their coats. One night I was in the men's room and the door to the coast closet sprang open. Twenty people must have come tumbling out smelling of marijuana [laughs].

JW: Did Latin-jazz bands have the same problem with hard drugs that jazz bands did years earlier?
RS: The bandleaders discouraged that. The competition was tough, and they had too much to lose if they messed up. Also, the bands didn't tour around the country as much as the jazz bands. Touring put a lot of stress on the guys in terms of loneliness, fatigue and other issues.

JW: What are your favorite Ray Santos arrangements for the three bands you were in?
RS: With Machito, I'd have to say Cooking the Mambo and Azulito, which I wrote after studying with jazz pianist Hall Overton, who hipped me to modern blues, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. With Tito Puente, my favorites were the 3-D Mambo, Cochise and Caribe. With Tito Rodriguez, I wrote arrangements for El Agua de Belen ("Water of Bethlehem"), Modulando ("Modulating"), Tomame Ya ("Take Me Now") and Azucon ("Sugary").

JW: Which of the Big Three was best in your opinion?
RS: Wow, what a question. That's very tough to answer. I think I'd have to give the edge musically to Machito. He established the style of his band with those exciting big band arrangements based on swing of the 1930s and 1940s.

JazzWax clips: Here's Ray Santos' arrangement of El Agua de Belen. Dig the reed writing halfway in and the syncopated punch of the trumpet section...

Here's Eguie Castrillo's version of Ray Santos' Caribe...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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