IN A MELLOW MOOD: ME, MRS. LUCY AND LATINO JAZZ.
Recently, I attended a jazz concert that stirred many memories of my days as a jazz guitarist. From 1946 to 1953 I jobbed with many union and non-union groups, combos, quintets, ensembles, bands, and orchestras. At the same time I gigged with polka bands, Hawaiian bands. Country bands, and swing bands. But it was progressive jazz that most stimulated my musical interests and aspirations. During most of this time, I was an undergraduate student in Comparative Studies (languages, literature, and philosophy) at the University of Pittsburgh (1948-1952), though my stint as a jazz guitarist stretched from 1946 to 1966. However, my last paid professional gig was in 1990 as a singer/songwriter performer in Phoenix, Arizona.
But that was many years after Mrs Lucy taught me the guitar and who depended on me to turn the pages of her piano music at the black Baptist church in Brinton, Pennsylvania. Mrs Lucy was the spitting stereotypic image of Aunt Jemima as she appeared in those years on the boxes of pancake flour—red bandana and all. She was married to my father’s cousin Rumaldo Mendes, though in Spanish we say they were arrejuntados—living together. There were no cries of miscegenation about them as a mixed racial couple. My father died in 1936 and in 1940 Rumaldo and Mrs Lucy took me in as a wild waif from the sun. They were my foster parents until I joined the Marines in 1943.
Mrs Lucy taught me gospel music, the blues, and the early rhythms of New Orleans jazz. One day she came home with parts of a guitar she’d found at a local Salvation Army Center. She brought that guitar to life and gave it to me. In the ebb and flow of life that guitar disappeared. But the music she helped me to bring forth on that guitar lies in the conduits of my veins and memory to this day. Whenever I hear a gospel song, or a blues song, or some jazz piece I think of Mrs Lucy.
In the Marines I learned a lot about the guitar from professional guitarists who had joined the Marines for the duration of World War II. There was lots of strumming in the Marine Corps Barracks and aboard ships at sea, I learned guitar licks, runs, and riffs that still reverberate in my mind though at 88 my arthritic hands are unable to play them anymore. But my foot still taps to their rhythms. I served with the Marines during World War II in the American, Pacific and China theaters of operation.
After the war in 1946 I sought out professional jazz guitar instruction with Joe Negri whose trio The Deuces Wild dazzled jazz aficionados in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That year I bought one of the first thin flat-f, two-knob electric guitars put out by Martin. I still own it. A year later I studied guitar techniques with George Barnes. After that I was on my own, improvising a guitar style on the Martin which I restrung with five strings, eliminating the A string and moving the bass E string into the A position. I called the guitar a Quinto. By 1948 I was in demand with the Quinto and its unusual inverted chords. The Quinto has a mellow voice accentuated by the bass E-string in the A position.
Playing with Caribbean musicians and their musica tropical steered me to Latin jazz. But Latin jazz is more than just Caribbean music. It sprang as well from the musical forms of Mexico—boleros, cumbias, and a fusion with American jazz. When listening to progressive American jazz, a synesthesia of melodic sounds tumbles through my mind—in a stream of consciousness like James Joyce’s Ulysses. In that synesthesia a string of images carry me back to all the clubs and dance halls I played during my run as a jazz guitarist. Those are the images I sought to plant in “Chicago Blues” my short story about a jazz guitarist in the Chicago jazz scene. In 1958, the story won an international fiction award in Europe judged by Richard Wright.
I lived and worked in Europe from 1955 to 1958, first in England then in France where I sharpened my facility with French hanging out with French jazz musicians and ex-pat black musicians from the U.S. I sat in with many improvisational groups from Germany, Italy, and Denmark, especially at the Copenhagen jazz festivals. I was most surprised in France once to hear Miles Davis blowing Latin jazz sounds.
But it was in the U. S. where the rhythms of Latino music and American jazz fused into Latino jazz which is more than just jazz from Latin America. The exact origins of “Latin jazz” are dim though Cubans have staked a claim on it. Some of the great “Latin jazz” musicians have indeed been Cubans. But progressive “Latin jazz” is not just genre-specific like “bossa-nova” a la Antonio Carlos Jobim or as performed by Charlie Byrd.
Like straight-ahead jazz, progressive jazz is improvisation-specific. Alli ‘sta la mata. The pioneers of “Latin jazz are legend: Machito, Bauzá, Puente, Barretto, and Palmieri. But everywhere across the country there are Latin-jazz musicians tweaking the genre into hitherto occluded sounds. I recently heard a jazz version of “Jesusita en Chihuahua” which
I’ve dubbed “Jesusita en Chicago.” The rendition blew me away.
Unfortunately, in 2012 The Recording Academy eliminated “Latin jazz” as a category from its Grammy Awards. But Latin-jazz musicians are not daunted. They’ve organized their own Lain jazz concerts and awards. Cool Latin jazz sounds are emerging with John Stein and the Mingotan Project with the tango and Afro-Latino instrumentation. Out-of-the-box sounds from the Richie Zellon Trio, for example, augur the future of Latin jazz.
The word “salsa” has become a proffered equivalent for “Latin jazz” but its smooth tones aren’t as exciting as the improvisationally-driven Latin jazz ensembles of flute, conga, bass, and guitar—these aren’t the only ensembles. The startling innovation of Latin jazz is taking standard American jazz tunes and investing them with the rhythms of Latin jazz. Juan Tizol’s 1936 “Caravan” for Duke Ellington is a good early example of this fusion. There are many others. More than likely, any number of tunes we hear are vetted with Latin jazz appurtenances—we’re just not attuned to hearing them.
Heading that jazz concert that spurred this reminiscence was Danny Reyes, a young Chicano jazz trumpeter who personifies the current beat of Latino jazz. Reyes is professor and head of the music program at Western New Mexico University at Silver City, New Mexico.
On a parting note, I left the music scene for a career as an academic. This year marks 50 years in that career as a college and university professor. I’m Scholar in Residence at Western New Mexico University. Though not in professional music, over the years I’ve written a fair number of songs (words and music) for a number of performers, including Nashville singer Karen Taylor Good.
In 1968 with Mark Medoff (Tony Award playwright of Children of a Less God) we wrote the book and lyrics for Elsinore—musical version of Hamlet. And in 1982, I wrote the music and lyrics for Quinqas: King of the Vagabonds, my stage adaptation of Jorge Amado’s novel mounted at Incarnate Word College of San Antonio, Texas, May 1982.
Copyright 2014 by Dr. Felipe De Ortego y Gasca
Scholar in Residence (Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Public Policy), Western New Mexico University