I don’t suppose Aldous Huxley has ever been quoted in a jazz programme before but he once had a very interesting idea about brainwashing. He said that if he had to crack the will of the most intellectual philosopher in the world, he would lock him up for the night in a room full of Cuban drummers. I don’t think this experiment has ever been tried but what Huxley was getting at was the power of Latin American rhythms to get under the skin and control the mind and body. Until recent years Western music has been fairly poor on the rhythmic side, so it’s not surprising that Latin rhythms have made triumphant inroads from time to time. The tango craze at the start of this century right down to the current salsa fad, passing, en route, milestones marked samba, cha cha cha and mambo.
Jelly Roll Morton, who thought he had invented jazz, said jazz should have a Spanish tinge and it’s ironic that one of the earliest examples of this should be found in a tune copyrighted by his deadly rival, WC Handy. St Louis Blues has one section, which is always played in a sort of tango rhythm – it’s even written that way in the original sheet music – and jazz musicians have always delighted in sticking to that bit of Latin rhythm. There’s an almost melodramatic contrast between the jazz and the Latin approach, and a great feeling of release when it slides back into a straight jazz 4/4 again, as you can hear at the start of a version by Erroll Garner.
St Louis Blues - Erroll Garner
The reason there’s such a contrast between Garner playing Jazz and Garner playing Latin is that the two types of music have a totally different approach to the beat. Jazz tends to be more or less dotted; Latin rhythms are very even, and evenly sub-divided. As a teenager in the 1950s I played in the local dance band, where we had inflicted on us such forgotten numbers as Tea For Two Cha Cha Cha and In The Mood Cha Cha Cha. In The Mood, as you know goes (HUMS) whereas In The Mood Cha Cha Cha went (HUMS) and that, very simply, is the difference between jazz and Latin, one uneven and one vey uneven.
Now, you can look as hard as you like through the 1920s and 1930s for examples of Latin-influenced jazz, but you’d be very lucky to find any. Morton’s Spanish tinge is conspicuous by its absence, even in Morton’s music. From the 40s and 50s on it’s a different story. Stan Kenton had an enormous hit with the Peanut Vendor, Dizzy Gillespie used Latin percussionist with his big band; even the exotic bit of his Night In Tunisia is Latin, not Tunisian. Otherwise quite conventional groups like the Nat King Cole Trio and Erroll Garner Trio took on permanent bongo and conga players. I think there were two reasons for this. One was that with the arrival of bepop and the start of modern jazz, players phrased their notes much more evenly and therefore found it much easier to fit in with Latin rhythms. The other was quite simply that the Hispanic invasion of New York had started; jazz musicians could hear much more Latin music around them and could meet musicians from Puerto Rico and Cuba, learn from them and play with them. And what the Cubans played was much more earthy and fiery than something like the tango, which is a fairly white sort of a dance. The result was genuinely exciting mixtures of Cuban rhythms and jazz big band music, as on Dizzy Gillespies’s Manteca.
Manteca - Dizzy Gillespie
Manteca, if anyone’s interested, means lard. To this day I have not found out why anyone should want to name a tune after lard, nor indeed why salsa is called salsa, which only means sauce.
From the 1940s onwards jazz musicians have remained entranced with Latin rhythms of one kind or another, though more as an exotic added flavour than as anything integral. The influences have tended to vary a lot. The guitarist Laurindo Almeida made some interesting LPs in the 1950s with Bud Shank, based on the more classical approach of Brazilian composers like Villa Lobos. Miles Davis soon after made his famous LP Sketches of Spain with Gil Evans, though I feel that most of the Spanish influence here was cerebral rather than visceral, being based on the airy visions of Spanish composers, and I don’t find that the LP has lasted particularly well.
The sound that really took over for a while in the early 60s was based on samba rhythms heard by guitarist Charlie Byrd on a visit to Brazil. He persuaded Stan Getz to make an LP with him using these tunes, and one of them, Desafinado, shot up to the Top Twenty, ushering in the bossa nova craze. Here is a reminder of Stan Getz’s role on the hideously titled Samba Dee Days.
Samba Dees Days - Stan Getz
It is quite clear that although Stan Getz works up a bit of heat in his solo, the rhythm backing doesn’t really respond to him – it just goes gently washing onwards without either rising or falling. Bossa Nova of course, was a fairly gentle kind of Latin rhythm, but I’ve always found it slightly odd that the two drummers on that LP had such unLatin names as Buddy Deppenschmidt and Bill Reichenbach.
Jazz musicians on the whole tend not to play a whole number in Latin rhythm, but to have a Latin section, which recurs from time to time, as in St Louis Blues. One modern equivalent is On Green Dolphin Street. A less well-known example is a tune called Jumping Bean written specially by Gerry Mulligan for a tour of South America he made with Dave Brubeck in 1967. If you listen carefully to Mulligan’s solo, recorded as a live concert in Mexico City, you’ll see that his style doesn’t apparently alter during the little Latin patterns set up by drummer Alan Dawson; it’s more like adding garlic than finding a new way of cooking.
Jumping Bean - Mulligan and Brubeck
The commitment to Latin rhythms by Mulligan and Brubeck there is not what you would call total. To find that, you really have to go back to the 1940s, when they were still flushed with the new discovery of Latin rhythms. Here is a small group, which I’ve always rather liked the sound of but which never made the history books, led by the trumpet playing brother of Illinois Jacquet, Russell Jacquet. It’s a simple tune, simply called Bongo Blues.
Bongo Blues - Russell Jacquet
It’s nice to know that they all learnt Spanish specially for the session. The English subtitles are as follows: ‘What’s happening, little girl? Nothing’s happening. ‘ It probably sounds better in Spanish.
Of course the process I’ve been describing works the other way round and there are plenty of Latin musicians who have been influenced by jazz – Tito Puente, Machito, and so on. A year ago I was lucky enoughto see Dizzy Gillespies in New york sitting with an entire Latin band, the Ray Barretto group, and the effect on me was not unlike the effect on Aldous Huxley’s intellectual of the Cuban drummers. But I’d like to play as an example of this, something much more small-scale, a duet between the Brazilian pianist, Tania Maria, and the Danish bass player Niels Pedersen. Pedersen sounds like a whole rhythm section by himself, quite stunning.
Baiaio Improvisado - Tania Maria
Part of a lovely performance between Tania Maria and Niels Pedersen from a LP made in Sweden, which I don’t think was ever released in this country.
This of course has been a fairly swift tour along the Latin American border and there are other things I would like to have played – Kenny Graham’s Afro-Cuban experiments, for example, and some wonderful compositions by George Russell. But it’s enough to show that Morton’s Spanish tinge has crept into the jazz language until it has a permanent place even if only in the suburbs. It would be unfair to end without hearing something from Morton himself, so we are going to delve into the Library of Congress recordings that he made at the end of his life, sitting alone at the piano in the middle of Washington, alas playing into (Lomax’s) fairly low-fi recording machine. Some of the tunes he dug up are Spanish-tinged numbers which I don’t think he ever recorded elsewhere, and they have a melancholy, evocative flavour all of their own. One of them, called Crave, goes on for nearly five minutes: let’s listen to as much as there is time for….
Crave -Jelly Roll Morton
Off The Beaten Track, produced by Derek Drescher for Radio 3 1986.