Jack Costanzo (1919-2018)


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Jack Costanzo, whose fierce bongo playing added drama and heat to hundreds of recordings and performances by jazz, pop and Latin artists starting in the late 1940s before moving on the TV and film, died August 18. He was 98.

Costanzo wasn't the first to record jazz on the bongos. The instrument first appeared on Latin 78s as early as 1925 and on Afro-Cuban recordings by Machito in 1941. He also wasn't the first to record on the bongos in the post-war era. That honor in the late 1940s belongs to a long list of superb Latin players, including Chano Pozo, Lorenzo Salan, Diego Ibarra, Ramon Rivera, Emanuel Vaharandes, Jose Mangual, Sabu Martinez, Manny Oquendo, Bill Alvarez and others.

But Costanzo, who became known as “Mr. Bongo" while in Stan Kenton's band in 1947, was the first to crossover from jazz to pop by joining the Nat King Cole Trio in 1949. As recording formats expanded from the 78 to the 10-inch LP and then the 12-inch album in the early and mid-1950s, Costanzo was in huge demand.

In addition to his spirited polyrhythmic playing on the high-pitched knee-held skins, Costanzo, who was Italian, toured with white bands without drawing racial animus so prevalent then in segregated America. And since he spoke English, looked like a movie star and was at ease on stage, Costanzo became highly marketable on an expanding number of West Coast pop recording sessions that called for Latin or dramatic bongo flavor.

Costanzo's timing was perfect. The bongo's popularity surged in the late 1940s and early '50s with the rise of Afro-Cuban jazz and the mambo. The proliferation of TV noir also created opportunities for the high-strung percussion instrument. By the late 1950s, the bongo's popularity exploded with the rise of crime jazz and exotica, a faux Polynesian-African fantasy genre favored by bored suburban couples yearning for excitement beyond daily commutes and casseroles.

At the tail end of the 1950s, the bongos saw a resurgence with the beat generation. Easy to carry, the instrument accompanied coffee-house poetry readings and exemplified subculture moodiness, discontent and rebellion against conformity and the status quo.

In the rock era, the bongos largely faded, migrating to action TV themes such as Mission Impossible and to Latin-pop forms such as the boogaloo. By the late 1960s, the bongos were as dated as the clarinet had been in the 1950s.

Over the course of his career, Costanza appeared behind virtually every major TV and recording pop star and on dozens of pop and jazz albums. He also led his own orchestra and recorded many excellent Latin albums that featured the cha-cha-cha. His pop recordings include Googie Rene's oddity, Romesville.

Costanzo's standout jazz recordings include Stan Kenton's Malaguena (1955), Art Pepper's album Mucho Calor (1957) and Constanzo Plus Tubbs: Equation in Rhythm, featuring Tubby Hayes (1962). But his bread-and-butter albums were Latin dance records that included Mr. Bongo, Mr. Bongo Has Brass, Bongo Fever Bongo! Cha-Cha-Cha, Naked City, Latin Fever, Vivo Tirado and Afro Can-Can.

Here's a documentary promo of Costanzo...

JazzWax clips: Here are a handful of my favorite Jack Costanzo clips:

Here's Go Bongo! with Nat King Cole in 1949...

Here's Mucho Calor with Art Pepper and Conte Candoli in 1957...

Here's Adjaye Adjaye, featuring Costanzo and Tubby Hayes on flute in 1962...

Here's Mira Como Los Pollos in 1960...

Here's Mr. Lucky in 1961...

And here's Costanzo with Gerrie Woo singing Hey Boy in 1972...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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