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.