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Latin Jazz Conversations: Benny Velarde (Part 1)


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When recounting musical legacies, history books show a partial picture, capturing major trends but neglecting the wider scene. We tend to associate musical movements with towering historical figures, but forget that individuals can't create vast styles on their own. Every musical legacy has a hidden history, filled with names and faces that spent years working hard on their own artistic statements. Behind every major historical figure in Latin Jazz, there are countless musicians that filled their local scene with the evolving sounds. Sometimes these musicians found their way into society's collective consciousness and sometimes they didn't, but their stories all deserve to be heard.

Percussionist and bandleader Benny Velarde played a big role in the history of Bay Area Latin music over several decades, consistently creating strong music that sits both in and out of the history books. Born in Panama City in 1929, Velarde grew up with a declared love for music, despite a lack of professional musicians in his family. He heard Cuban music over the radio and soaked up the sound of the music scene around him. Still underage, Velarde regularly snuck in Panama City nightclubs to hear visiting Cuban bands, coming into contact with some of the island's greatest musical figures. Despite an interest in learning the saxophone, Velarde's family couldn't afford lessons for him, but he continued listening intently. Velarde and his family moved to San Francisco in 1945, bringing him into contact with the music of Tito Puente, Machito, and more. Inspired to perform, he started playing percussion and soon joined together with a group of fellow high school musicians. Soon after graduation, Velarde's reputation spread among the scene and he soon found himself traveling throughout the Bay Area to perform with Salvador Guerrero and Professor Cano. These opportunities led to more work around San Francisco, and Velarde soon joined together with pianist Manny Duran and bassist Carlos Duran in a regular gig at Ziro's club. Looking to build upon his experience with Latin music, Velarde spent a year in New York soaking up the sounds of the scene. Upon his return to San Francisco, Manny Duran recommended him to established bandleader but Latin music newcomer Cal Tjader. The vibraphonist auditioned Velarde and soon invited him to join his band, raising Velarde's profile and giving him invaluable professional experience.

Velarde's early experiences with music etched a certain sound in his head, helping him become a valuable piece of San Francisco Latin music's unwritten history. As Velarde became a member in Tjader's early Latin Jazz group, his participation in several key recordings and performances solidified his page in the history books. In Part One of our interview with Velarde, we discuss his exposure to music in Panama, the beginnings of his musical career in San Francisco, and his transition into Cal Tjader's Latin Jazz group.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You were born in Panama City; did you grow up around music?

BENNY VELARDE: Not exactly. I was born in Panama, and as a kid, I always loved music. In those times, we didn't have television or anything; it was all radio. My mother would put the shortwave radio on to stations in Cuba. We would listen to a lot of music from Cuba and a lot of the musicians from Cuba would come to Panama in those times.

I'm going back to the time when World War II started; there were a lot of Cuban musicians in Panama because they were making money. I used to sneak in to see them when they were playing in clubs just to listen to them.

I still liked music and I wanted to play saxophone, but we didn't have a chance because my mother didn't have that much money. I started on percussion once I came into the United States in San Francisco. Then I started buying Tito Puente, Machito, and Tito Rodriguez records and the music from that time in New York. That's how I got into music.

LJC: You mentioned seeing some Cuban bands in Panama, who were some of the bands that you saw?

BV: In those times, one of the biggest musicians was Miguelito Valdes. There was another band from Cuba that came to Panama quite often—Casino De La Playa. Another one was Sonora Matancera. There was another very famous singer, Orlando Guerra; he used to be called Cascarita. He came to Panama quite often. To me, Orlando Guerra and Miguelito Valdes were the two biggest singers.

LJC: Were there groups from around Panama playing as well?

BV: Oh yea, there were bands from Panama. There was one led by Armando Boza, he had a pretty good band in those times. There were quite a few good groups that were around.

LJC: Were they playing Cuban music?

BV: In those times, Cuban music was the one type of music that was mostly going around South America and Central America. Cuban musicians were the ones that had the most fame.

LJC: So you were interested in playing the saxophone . . .

BV: I wanted to study saxophone, but I didn't get a chance; I didn't get to go to the conservatory or anything because you needed money. The teaching wasn't free. We didn't have any money so I couldn't do it. That's why I started thinking that I would play a little percussion.

LJC: You moved to the United States in 1945. What brought your family to the Bay Area?

BV: We came to the Bay Area for personal reasons. My mother and father wanted to get a divorce. In those times, getting a divorce in countries like Panama or Costa Rica was a big scandal. That was the reason that we immigrated. At that time, I was fifteen years old and I didn't have a choice to stay in Panama or come here. I was a minor, so I had to stay with my mother. That was the reason that me and my brother came over.

LJC: When you got to the States, you said you got into Puente, Machito, and the New York groups . . .

BV: The most famous ones that were happening were Tito Puente, Machito, Charlie Palmieri, and Tito Rodriguez. Those were the bands that I was listening to; there were other bands of course, but those were the biggest ones. I started listening to them in the late forties� or 1949. I bought the records that they were making, and I started listening to them when I was in high school on Mission Street.

We got together with some of the other Latinos that were there and we formed a little group to play. That's how I started getting a little better on percussion instruments like bongó and congas. I started picking up those instruments. When I graduated from Mission High School, word got around and I started playing some gigs with that little group from Mission Street.

At that time in San Francisco, there were a couple of Mexican bands that would play what was known at the time as Latin music. I started playing gigs with a guy named Salvador Guerrero who was living in Berkeley and had a big band. They would hire me on weekends to play in places like Watsonville, Sacramento, Stockton, and stuff like that. I was in another band as well with a guy named Professor Cano; he was an invalid and he used to play saxophone. It was the same thing; I used to play all over with them. That's how I got experience playing percussion.

LJC: So you were still a teenager playing on the San Francisco music scene in the fifties.

BV: Yea. I was studying at that time in City College.

In the fifties I started playing with a guy from San Salvador, his name was Alonzo Polio. He had a band in San Salvador, but he was living here is San Francisco. He had a job at a club called Jai Lai; it was a restaurant, but it opened as a nightclub after 9:00. He was working with a quartet when he heard that I played some percussion; so then he called me and asked if I wanted to play.

You had to be in union to play, because the union was very strong in those times. So when he told me about the gig, I went to the union. I went to join the union and I did. I started playing with him and we were there almost four or five times a week. I played with him for two or three years.

There were a couple friends of mine that started to bring a lot of attention to Latin music—the Duran brothers, Manny Duran and Carlos Duran. We formed a quintet and after I finished playing with Alonzo Polio, we started playing. There was a club in San Francisco called Ziro's nightclub, it was located on Geary Street. There was also a club on California Street called The Weekender. The Duran brothers and I started playing at Ziro's, trying to compete with the people that were working at The Weekender—a group with Armando Peraza. It was a competition between them and us. We did that for a couple of years, but then the club went broke or something.

LJC: Were there groups from New York, like Puente or Machito that would come out to play in San Francisco?

BV: Yea. The first one that came over was Tito Puente. He came over to a ballroom in Oakland.

LJC: The fifties was a golden age of Latin music in San Francisco—were there a lot of opportunities to play?

BV: During the late forties, there were the Mexican bands. There was a big band that played Saturday nights at a place on Valencia Street called Sapian Hall. It was a place that they used to rent on weekends to bands. This guy was playing here; he was one of the first ones that I saw, going to dances and stuff. During the early fifties, there weren't many bands around that I remember.

On Broadway and San Francisco, there was a club called The Castleview—there was a Mexican pianist playing there, Pablito Molina; he had a quintet also. He was playing there four or five nights a week. Another local group that was coming up in the late fifties was Jeff Torres—he had a quintet also. Pete and Coke Escovedo, they also started having a group during the fifties.

I decided in the early fifties that I should go to New York. So I went to live in New York around 1952. I went because of the music—I wanted to see it and study it. I spent about a year in New York watching that. When I came back, that's when Cal Tjader called me up.

Tjader was playing with George Shearing at that time. They traveled to New York and Cal went to The Palladium to hear Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez play. He got bit by the Latin sound. When he came back over to the Bay Area, he called Manny Duran because he wanted to form a Latin Jazz group. He thought that there weren't any percussionists around. Manny Duran mentioned me so I auditioned for him and that was how I started playing with that famous group.

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