Vibraphones, flutes and California Latin jazz

I’ve posted extensively about Afro-Latin music in California (here, here, here and here). The subject fascinates me, so I’ll try not to belabor the point too much.

Latin jazz in the post-War Bay Area and Los Angeles was a diffuse, small-scale phenomenon. It’s not entirely accurate to summarize the cities as “scenes” the way one refers to Latin music in New York City as a “scene.” Even so, the West Coast version of Latin jazz had its own sound. If one were pushed to generalize, one might say that it was more atmospheric, less fiery than the East Coast version. Jazzier, if you will. Why the difference? To some degree, it’s a matter of demographics.

At least initially, the West Coast didn’t have the substantial Puerto Rican or Cuban communities to nurture Afro-Latin music, and, consequently, early California Latin jazz experiments were comprised to a greater degree of jazz musicians. East Coast bandleaders like Tito Puente or Eddie Palmieri, on the other hand, had groups with higher ratios of Cubans and Puerto Ricans, musicians who’d grown up playing Afro-Latin music as actual participants in the culture. These New York City groups played Afro-Cuban jazz, or mambo jazz, usually as part of a broader repertoire of guaguanco, cha cha, guajira, son montuno, plena and bomba.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, California society orchestras and Mexican-American bands like Chuy Reyes’ had updated their repertories with fashionable boleros, rumbas and danzones, of course, but their music remained polite – supper club stuff. There was mambo and montuno in the pioneering Mexican-American swing and R&B; of the Pachuco Boogie Boys and Lalo Guerrero, too, but only in the most elemental form. Latin jazz in post-War California would largely begin as an import, that is, not an in situ development of the community as
New York City’s Latin jazz was.

The Panamanian-born percussionist Benny Velarde summed up the differences another way in an interview:

“On the East Coast they were playing music that was called “Afro Cuban Jazz”. It was heavily influenced by Chano Pozo who played with Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauza. On the West Coast we were playing what was called “Latin Jazz” – which meant jazz standards with Latin percussion …Another difference was that on the East Coast the music was played by Big Bands like those lead by Dizzy Gillespie and Machito. But on the West Coast we did not have Big Bands but the music was played by smaller combos.”

Post-War appearances of Latin jazz pioneers Machito and His Afro-Cubans and the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra (with Chano Pozo) – and later Tito Puente and mambo king Perez Prado – dazzled West Coast audiences. Few in the audience, it seems, would be more greatly affected than jazz musicians. They were a diverse bunch, the early California converts to Afro-Latin music and Latin jazz. Pianist Eddie Cano and vibraphonist Bobby Montez, for example, were Mexican-American, and major draws in Hollywood clubs. White vibraphonist Cal Tjader came from a bop background, and so did black bassist Al McKibbon, though Tjader was basically a native son, and McKibbon arrived from New York City. Percussionist Ricardo Lewis played in some early (and sadly underdocumented) Bay Area Latin jazz combos, and hailed from New Orleans, where he began as a jazz drummer. Like so many others, Los Angeles bandleader Stan Kenton began adding Latin rhythms to his arrangements after a firsthand introduction to the Machito Orchestra. Pianist George Shearing was British, and blind. The list goes on.

The remaining, and most critical, component of early Latin jazz sessions was the seasoned Afro-Latin congueros, bongoceros and timbaleros. Percussionists like Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, Luis Miranda, Benny Velarde, Carlos Vidal, Armando Peraza and Francisco Aguabella had grown up in playing in the tradition. They were masters, and they were indispensable.

Together, at least in Los Angeles, these groups might play huge music ballroom events like the Mambo Jumbo, Joe Garcia’s nights at the Zenda ballroom or Lionel Sesma’s ongoing Latin Holidays at the Hollywood Palladium – events that presented visiting Afro-Latin orchestras.

More often, however, Latin jazz groups traveled along the same circuit of jazz venues, supper clubs and upper-crusty nightspots that jazz combos did, playing places like the Crescendo, the Latin Quarter, Ciro’s, the Garden of Allah and Slapsi Maxi’s in Los Angeles and the California Hotel, the Copacabana Club, the Black Hawk, Bop City and the Frisco Club in the Bay Area.

These places fostered a certain dynamic, which brings us finally around to this week’s artists. Jazz players found that an exotic tone poem in the setlist was a clever way to transform a club’s atmosphere, and, additionally, it afforded a certain latitude to explore new sounds, modes, and time signatures. Latin jazz combos, too, found the same experimental freedom in exotica. Certainly it was a great way to put those vibraphones to dramatic effect.

Their audiences didn’t quite get all this, but found it all very diverting nonetheless – long enough to idly consider flute lessons before the last gin and tonic kicked in, at least.

1. Tony Martinez and His Mambo Combo, Pharaoh’s Curse (GNP)
Singer, bandleader, bassist, percussionist and vibraphonist Tony Martinez was an incorrigible showman. He wound up – where else – in television in the late ‘50s, and, for better or worse, those years as Pepino on The Real McCoys will probably be the ones that he’s remembered for.

Martinez’s spotlight flair bore its greatest fruit in music, however. There is drama in his handful of brilliant mambo-jazz 45s from the early- to mid-‘50s – this selection, for instance, as well as previously posted “Ican.” The virtuosic performance with his combo (with Eddie Cano on piano) in 1956’s Rock Around the Clock is pure showmanship.

Tony Martinez was born in 1920 in Puerto Rico. A gifted musician, he studied in San Juan, moving to New York City in the ‘40s to attend Juilliard. He’d form a few groups of his own there, and play bass for pianist Noro Morales, a pioneer of jazzy rumbas. Destined for balmier shores, though, Martinez relocated to Hollywood in the late ‘40s. His combos would be among the first to play the mambo and heavier Afro-Latin material. He was a local phenomenon; by the ‘50s he was a featured act both at upscale Sunset Strip clubs and at huge ballroom events like the Palladium’s Latin Holiday dance nights.

The Pharaoh’s Curse (1957). Thanks to the fabulous Bleeding Skull for the screen shots.

Though unusual, especially the organ, this selection – written for the 1957 mummy must-see Pharaoh’s Curse – was not that uncharacteristic of Martinez, who of anyone knew his way around a spooky melody (see “Ican,” again). The movie itself was spearheaded by Bel-Air, an early independent production house known for low-budget ‘50s genre movies, which meant that most of its production values wound up in this selection. Exotica hero Les Baxter wrote this selection, by the way, and provided the rest of the soundtrack. (Note: if anyone’s seen Pharaoh’s Curse, I would love a description.)
This would not be the last of Martinez’s involvement with film industry. He’d been landing small parts in the movies since the late 1940s, and, when offered the role of Pepino Garcia on The Real McCoys in 1957, he accepted. It was a breakthrough role for a Latino on network television, though a highly problematic one – a Puerto Rican playing a Mexican farm hand, and a role scripted with every cliché in the book.

For a time, Martinez’s work was divided between television and music. There would be a good 1960 live album with Eddie Cano and bongo player Jack Constanzo. There would also be The Many Sides of Pepino LP – a sort of novelty-personality album that exploited his stereotyped image – best forgotten except for the storming instrumental “Mandarin Mambo.”

Tony Martinez’s music days wound down, and so did The Real McCoys, finally ending in 1963. Stage and screen occupied the remaining decades of Martinez’s life. He played Sancho Panza in 2,245 performances of Man of La Mancha, according to his obituary, and devoted much of his subsequent energies to creative and executive roles in the Mexican and Puerto Rican film industries.

Tony Martinez passed on in 2002.

2. Pepe Fernandez and His Afro-Cubans, G.I. Rhapsody (Key)
One distinguishing feature of “G.I. Rhapsody” is that it absolutely represents California Latin jazz: flutes, vibraphones, a combination of jazz musicians and Latin percussionists, an exotic port-of-call sensibility.

The other distinguishing feature is a total lack of forthcoming information – great, if you like unresolvable mystery. I identified Pepe Fernandez as a New York bandleader in an early post. This record changes that, of course, but adds little else, despite the musician’s roster on the label. Flautist Bob Messenger was a studio musician who later played winds on Carpenters albums. Wally Snow is a percussionist and vibraphonist who still turns up on Los Angeles sessions. Pianist Amos Trice played on some West and East Coast jazz recordings, mostly in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. These are the best known players here, which says something, and, either way, nowhere else are they credited for their work in the Afro-Cubans.

Key Records was a tiny Hollywood record label, with probably no more than a dozen or two 45 releases from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, mostly country and rock ‘n’ roll. There were also several long players on Key, notable only in that they were almost entirely anti-Communist screeds, albums with titles like Our Nation’s Pact With the Devil and The Two Fists of Communism. Not to mention 1960’s Rendezvous With Destiny, an album of speeches by then-political-upstart Ronald Reagan. The album’s back cover praises Reagan for his logic, which reminds us just how nutty the Cold War mentality got, though there’d be far worse to come.

“G.I. Rhapsody” was recorded in the early part of 1958. One wonders if its goofy patriotic introduction was a stipulation of the same brainiac who commissioned all of those albums.

3. Manny Duran and Orchestra, Tabu (Fantasy)
Mexican-American jazz pianist Manny Duran grew up in San Francisco playing music with his two brothers – also excellent jazz musicians – guitarist Eddie and bassist Carlos. The three, inspired by the urbane jazz of the wildly popular Nat King Cole Trio, first performed professionally as the Duran Brothers in the l
ate ‘40s, and would continue to play on each others’ records over the coming decades.

Fixtures in San Francisco, the Durans would also play, individually and collectively, with the major names of post-War Bay Area jazz. Foremost among these was vibraphonist Cal Tjader, whose string of ‘50s and ‘60s Latin jazz recordings convened many of the West Coast’s finest Latin jazz and bop musicians, and set the mold for the sound of California Latin jazz. All three Duran brothers would enjoy residencies early on in Tjader’s working combos, with Eddie playing on a Tjader bop session in late ’54, and Manny and Carlos appearing on Tjader Plays Mambo – one of two watershed Latin jazz releases by Tjader, also that same year.

That incarnation of Tjader’s Latin combo dissolved after only a year or two together. But Manny and Carlos, along with Benny Velarde – also from Tjader’s group – would continue as a working unit through 1960, including a long residency at the Copacabana Club. Only two records – this 1960 reading of the exotica warhorse “Taboo” (on the premier Bay Area jazz label Fantasy) and the equally stunning “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Mambo” – came of it. Both were incredibly hip records with everything going for them except sales, which is not the last time you’ll see that around here.

A gifted professional, Manny Duran was like all but only the most fortunate of musicians. He continued to divide his time between Latin jazz and bop, enjoying an active recording and gigging career without becoming any sort of recognizable star, insofar as such is possible in the world of jazz and Latin jazz.

Manny Duran passed away in December 2005.

Incidentally, according to Benny Velarde, Duran assembled the Mambo Devils, one of San Francisco’s first Latin music groups, in the early 1950s.

This entry was posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Jazz Obscura, Latin. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Vibraphones, flutes and California Latin jazz

  1. paul says:

    Thank you. Your blog is always very intresting and you have tunes I’d never have heard of otherwise.
    Keepup the good work.
    Cheers Paul.

  2. oh yeah — thanks for this stuff — can’t wait to check it out!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Danny – I had really hoped that you and only you could have unravelled the seemingly ineffable mystery of the two Pepe Fernandez records – both of which I treasure, but cannot resolve as being the same artist. The disparate but connected styles, East or West… As a gesture please lighten my burden by confirming that THE Benny Velarde (whether cool or not) and the character of the same name who fronted the La Clave LP on Verve are one in the same. As a final note may I suggest that you add the After Hours Cha Cha from the aforementioned PF record, which, for me, conjures up the West Coast scene that your writing so convincingly evokes.
    Thanks for all, Julian

  4. Mr. Attention says:


    Another terrific post. Finally, a reason to look forward to Mondays again.

  5. Anonymous says:

    thank you for these great 7”

    visit my blog for more obscure
    spy-jazz exotics and weird grooves

  6. drogue says:

    Lovely and Super good stuff! Man – I am always looking for off beat sounds from the past! This is great – I would love to find more children’s music – so much produced in the 60’s and 70’s was so amazing and strange!

    thanks! Mark

  7. Simon666 says:

    Wonderful post, thankyou.

  8. Really a great post thanks for sharing this post……..

  9. joe meo says:

    I love this – do you have any other info on Bob Messenger ? I am transcribing some of his flute solos with the Carpenters – what a great player.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I'm surprized there isn't more information about Bob Messenger on the web. He's an amazing flautist and sax player. Oddly, there's prescious little on the web about his post-Carpenters career. I assure he's pretty old now; he was probably late 30s or eraly 40s when he played with Carpenters — and that was four decades ago. Is Bob still performing?

    • John Berg says:

      I was at a birthday party for a friend tonight in the Seattle area, and among the attendees was the son of Bob Messenger, Forrest. The conversation got around to Forrest growing up in southern California, where I too was raised, and in due course he mentioned that his dad Bob had played sax, flute, some keyboards and bass (his first love) with the Carpenters. I asked what Bob did after Karen’s passing, i.e. did he continue with session work, any solo recordings as leader, etc.? Forrest said, ‘Oh no, my dad was way too introverted to be a leader, and after the Carpenters he was content to play local gigs in the southern California scene, Orange County/south coast. At 76 he is mostly retired now but played pretty frequently until a couple years ago, still living in Orange County.’

      So there you have it — a very talented man who simply was not attracted to the "star machine" of the music industry, content to play at inns and clubs and the like without "acclaim".

      John Berg, 21 Jan. 2012

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