Cuban conguero and composer Chano Pozo met trumpeter, composer and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie in September 1947. By December 1948 Pozo was dead, murdered in a dispute over a drug deal. He was 33.
Their brief collaboration produced not only enduring compositions such as Manteca and Tin Tin Deo and performances (“Cubana Be, Cubana Bop”), but made an impression well beyond jazz. Pozo’s appearance with Gillespie’s big band at Carnegie Hall on Sept. 29, 1947 marked a before and after. It announced the birth of Cubop, an explosive fusion of Afro-Cuban music and bebop, and until then, no jazz big band had included a conga drummer. Since then, conga drums and Afro-Cuban rhythms have become part of not only the vocabulary of jazz, but also pop, rock and R&B.
“Chano was very well known in Havana in part because he was the director of the comparsa [parading street band] Los Dandys,” Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, a charter member of Gillespie’s 1980s all-star great big band, the United Nation Orchestra (UNO), said from Mexico. “He was very already special, but what he and Dizzy did was extraordinary.”
D’Rivera headlines Cubop: Celebrating Diz and Chano with former fellow UNO members trumpeter Jon Faddis and percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo; vibraphonist Dave Samuels and the FIU Jazz Big Band, Friday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
“Dizzy’s first love was rhythm,” Faddis said by phone from Munich. “When he improvised he would think of rhythm first. It wasn’t about the chord changes or the melody, but the rhythm, then he would figure out the rest.”
An impressive technician with a sound and style that often evoked Gillespie’s, Faddis naturally became his protégé and went on to be musical director of various Gillespie-related projects.
“And Dizzy loved to dance,” Faddis says. “What people were complaining about bebop was that there was not enough of a melody, that the guys would play all this gibberish they couldn’t understand and, more importantly, that they couldn’t dance. With Chano, Dizzy was back into the groove, the idea of dancing to jazz.”
In his memoir To Be or Not To Bop, (Doubleday, 1979) Gillespie reminisces about asking Cuban saxophonist Mario Bauzá, music director of Machito and his Afro-Cubans, about getting a conga player for his big band. He writes that Bauzá told him “I have the man for you” — but that he cautioned him the candidate didn’t speak English. Gillespie shrugged it off — especially after apparently witnessing Pozo’s one-man-show playing, dancing and singing at a neighborhood haunt. “This guy was so exciting with the instrument,” writes Gillespie. “I say ‘Well, you don’t have to speak English.’ ”
In an interview many years later Gillespie, who died in 1993, would retell the story of how Pozo would respond to those who asked how they communicated.
“Deehee no peek Pani,” Gillespie would mimic Pozo. “Me no peek Angli. Bo peek African.”
Endearing as the story might sound, there was seemingly little cute about Luciano (Chano) Pozo González. By all counts he had a well-earned reputation as a tough man with a short temper — which might have cost him his life.
Pozo spent time in reform school and lived with a bullet lodged near his spine, a souvenir from a shooting in a dispute over royalties for his songs. He grew up motherless in Cayo Hueso, then a poor, tough neighborhood of Havana, and was a member of a secret Afro-Cuban religious society whose ritual music informed his singing and drumming. Pozo made his way into the music business quickly, from playing street parades and religious events to appearing in hotel shows and a musical and making a name for himself as a songwriter. His hit Blen Blen Blen was recorded by the band Casino de la Playa featuring his reform school friend, singer Miguelito Valdés. And it was Valdés who encouraged Pozo to move to New York in early 1947. By then, Machito and His Afro-Cubans, one of the great Latin big bands in history, had recorded several songs by Pozo and also worked and recorded with Valdés. Bauzá, as the band’s music director, was obviously well aware of Pozo’s talents as a player and songwriter.
“Mario [Bauzá] was the master builder of Latin Jazz, and he initiated Dizzy in Afro Cuban music back in their days with Cab Calloway,” says author and multiple Grammy and Latin Grammy winning producer Nat Chediak. “Dizzy was a sponge, always very interested in different rhythmic possibilities, and when he met Chano he seized the moment. Dizzy didn’t invent Latin jazz but he became its most visible spokesperson.”
Faddis recalls that even many years later, when reminiscing about their time together, “Dizzy would always speak of Chano with a lot of love. You could see it in his eyes, in his body language. He wouldn’t talk so much about the music but about the man.”