Machito & Mario Bauza

The story of how Latin Music became embedded in America’s cultural mainstream has many beginnings. One moment of genesis occurs in 1930, with the arrival of a nineteen-year-old musical prodigy, a classically-trained clarinetist from Cuba, Mario Bauzá. It was Bauzá who would introduce “Machito” to the New York jazz scene.

New Yorkers were no strangers to Latin rhythms. The Conga had revolutionized ballrooms and dance halls in the 1930s and remained a feature of the American big band. But Bauzá wasn’t interested in playing Conga. He had fallen in love with jazz.

He switched from clarinet to trumpet and began to play for the legendary Cab Calloway orchestra at the Savoy ballroom in East Harlem.  But the rhythms of his native Cuba were never far away. Bauzá began to imagine a big band like Calloway’s but with an Afro-Cuban rhythm section. According to percussionist and drummer Bobby Sanabria, Bauzá told a skeptical musician in Calloway’s band, “One day there’ll be a band, just like this band, the Cab Calloway Band, real classy, elegant, with modern harmonies. It’s going to have an Afro-Cuban rhythm section. And I’m going to tell you, it’s going to sound better than this band.”

Machito enters the genesis story here, though the names require close attention. Bauzá’s first step was to recruit his brother-in-law, Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo:  better known as Macho.  The son of a cigar manufacturer, Macho grew up in Havana’s heavily black neighborhood, Jesús María, in the district of Marianao.  In his teens and twenties in Cuba, he became a professional musician, playing in various ensembles from 1928 to 1937. He arrived in New York in 1937, and in 1940, with his “macho” moniker tamed down to Machito (little Macho), he formed his own Machito and his Afro-Cubans.  He was the front man, conductor and played the maracas for the Afro-Cubans, while Bauzá was musical director. 

Bauzá’s fusion of an African-American big band with traditional Cuban rhythms was ground-breaking; “like lemon meringue pie, jazz in the top and African-Cuban rhythms at the bottom,” Bauzá later commented.  It spoke directly to a new generation of New York Latinos, mostly Puerto Ricans settling in New York in growing numbers. They provided both an audience, and musicians for the band.

Machito and his Afro-Cubans had many firsts: The first band to put the triumvirate of congas, bongo, and timbales, the standard battery of percussion, at the center of their most significant compositions: “Sopa de Pichón,”  “Nagüe” and “Tanga;” the first band to feature a “descarga” (Cuban jam session); the first band to explore jazz arranging techniques with authentic Afro-Cuban rhythms on a consistent basis, giving it a unique, identifiable sound. Because of Machito and his Afro-Cubans’ fusions with jazz, Latin music became embedded as a permanent fixture of American mainstream culture.

They were also the first truly multi-racial band in the United States.

Machito and his Afro- Cubans went on to headline at the Palladium Ballroom in the glamorous years of the Mambo and made numerous recordings from the 1940s to the 1980s. Machito changed to a smaller ensemble format in 1975, touring Europe extensively. He brought his son and daughter into the band, and received a Grammy Award in 1983, one year before his death.  

Credit: William Gottlieb

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