Machito and his Afro-Cubans, with music director Mario Bauzá, cut “Tanga,” the first jazz recording in clave, essentially the beginning of “Latin Jazz,” in 1942.
The band was one of the Big-Three Palladium bands who helped integrate dancers and popularized Latin music across the United States. Machito and his Afro-Cubans was also important because it was the first band to promote its African heritage.
Then there is Graciela, and Mario Bauzá and Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie. Machito is a huge figure in jazz and Latin music. Once you know his music, you will hear references to the band’s songs in a lot of jazz and Latin music that follows.
“Machito arrived” to this world as Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo in either Havana, Cuba or Tampa, Florida. Nobody really knows and these things were not so well documented back in the day.
Anyway, Machito’s birthday is celebrated as February 16, 1908 and he was raised in Havana, Cuba. Francisco Raúl got the nickname “Macho” (manly) because he was the first boy in a family with three girls. He was raised in the family of his foster sister, Graciela Grillo.
Machito came to New York City in 1937. He played with several bands including with Spanish-Cuban Xavier Cugat. Cugat’s orchestra playing at the Cocoanut Grove club in Los Angeles and later as the Waldorf-Astoria Orchestra at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City was one of the early instances of Latin music in New York City and the United States. Cugat played for the elite. Machito went on to play for the people.
Machito and His Afro-Cubans
Machito founded Machito and his Afro-Cubans in 1940. In 1941, Mario Bauzá joined. Machito sang and played maracas up front. Bauzá directed the band.
Promoting the band as Afro-Cuban took some courage. This was still the time of race music when African-American music was segregated into Black bands and White bands that played basically the same music, but only the White bands were heavily promoted.
The band deserves acknowledgment for their courage. There is also a marketing lesson in this. If you have a disadvantage that you can’t change, flip it around into an advantage. Turn your weakness into strength.
In 1942 or 1943 Bauzá wrote a song called “Tanga” which is an African word for herb and the Spanish word for a g-string. At a rehearsal, Bauzá spun the song into essentially the beginning of Latin jazz.
It had clave, the five-beat African bell pattern (3-2 or 2-3) which is the fundamental rhythm of Latin music. It had a rhythm section of conga, bongo and timbales, and gave the timbales a more central role. It was Cuban music arranged as jazz. It was a big band sound in Cuban music. It incorporated improvised jazz soloing in Cuban music and broke the three-minute song mold for Latin music.
The song showed a number of arrangement innovations that musicians understand, but were later followed by all Latin jazz artists and explored by legendary mainstream jazz artists like Miles Davis and Gil Evans.
“Tanga” set a new standard and just changed everything. If you get to know one version, you’ll wonder why the other versions are so different. It’s jazz, so it’s improvised. Jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker would sit in on jams. The song with solos by Howard McGhee was recorded as “Cu-Bop City” in 1948.
In jazz, there was before Louis Armstrong and after Louis Armstrong. In Latin jazz, there was before “Tanga” and after “Tanga.” Bien polvo. 😂
Machito was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 during World War II. While he was away, his sister Graciela Grillo led the band.
Graciela opened the door for women in Latin music. We might not have had La Lupe or Celia Cruz without Graciela.
There used to be music all the time in every little bar in El Barrio East Harlem and The South Bronx. Back in the day, the drum never stopped.
But the Palladium Ballroom at Broadway and 53rd St was the first night club to open its doors to Latins. It was also the first where all races and social classes could get together.
Latin nights became so popular that the Palladium went all Latin. It stirred the Mambo Craze which swept the United States in 1948 and was followed by the Cha-Cha-Cha Craze of 1955.
Machito and his Afro-Cubans were one of the “Big Three” most popular Palladium orchestras, along with Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez.
The Palladium was also important because Latin musicians would sit in at the jazz clubs on 52nd St, and jazz musicians would sit in at the Palladium. There was a whole lot of mixing going on.
Dizzy, one of the founders of bebop and modern jazz, was one of the musicians sitting in with Machito. Dizzy decided he wanted congas in his band and asked Mario Bauzá for help.
Bauzá introduced Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo to Gillespie. Together they wrote legendary hits like “Manteca” (1947) and “Tin Tin Deo.”
Today nobody thinks twice about hearing congas in a jazz band, but it comes through Machito and his Afro-Cubans.
Machito’s son Mario Grillo learned to play timbales on the road with his dad when he was five years old. He played his first “gig” at the Palladium Ballroom. In 1975 “Machito Jr.” played with his father and Dizzy Gillespie on “Dizzy Gillespie, Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods” with arrangements by Chico O’Farrill (another Cuban New York legend) that was nominated for a Grammy.
Mario Grillo later took over as the Afro-Cubans’ music director. He continues to appear with the Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Cuban All-Stars.
Jazz is Latin and Latin is Jazz
It has to be said that though jazz comes from New Orleans, it comes from New Orleans via the Caribbean. Jazz is Latin from its very beginnings.
But Machito and his Afro-Cubans with Mario Bauzá represent one of the key moments in the history of jazz and Latin jazz.
Machito Square in New York City
The intersection of East 111th St and Third Avenue in El Barrio Spanish Harlem was named “Machito Square” by Mayor Ed Koch in 1985.
The name is a reference to “Congo Square” in New Orleans. In the time of human enslavement, Africans in French and Spanish Louisiana were usually given Sundays off. Lacking any place of their own, they would hang out together in remote public places. One of these places was on Bayou St. John which became known as Congo Square.
In those times it was possible to buy your freedom, so Africans set up a market for trading to earn money. When we get together we like to sing and dance. That’s still true today. La Placita, the old central market in Santurce, San Juan, Puerto Rico turns into popular street party at night with singing and dancing. In a way, karaoke nights in small towns in the Caribbean play a similar role. There’s nothing to do in small towns so we get together to sing and dance and mix and mingle. “Tanga.”
Drumming was banned in British colonies because the British understood the power of the African drum as a form of communication and feared it. But drumming was allowed on Sundays in Congo Square.
The Haitian Revolution 1791-1804 caused a diaspora of French, Africans and Creoles across the Caribbean and even to New Orleans. Congo Square not only attracted Africans, it became something of a tourist attraction. Renowned Louisiana Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) incorporated some of the rhythms of Congo Square in his famous composition “Bamboula, Op. 2.”
Eventually, like all things African in the United States, Congo Square was suppressed. It died out before the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865).
Today Congo Square is remembered as one of the roots of African-American culture. It is one of the roots of blues, jazz, U.S. country music, and everything that came after from rock and roll to reggaeton.
Today the old Congo Square is part of Louis Armstrong Park.
The drumming, singing and dancing of Congo Square is part of who we are as Americans of the United States. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin or where your family comes from. “Black history is American history,” (Morgan Freeman, MSNBC, 2005).
Like Machito sang in “Relax and Mambo”:
You know, you better dig the fact after you pay your tax. Relax and dance my mambo. You don’t have to be a Latin, just relax and dance my mambo. Dig the fact. Don’t retreat.”Machito singing in “Relax and Mambo” (1956)