Tonight, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will wrap up its 2014-2015 season with a tribute concert in recognition of the music of Machito, Tito Puente, and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s own, Carlos Henriquez.
Credited with fusing Afro-Cuban music and jazz, Francisco Raul “Machito” Gutierrez Grillo (February 16, 1912?- April 15, 1984) was the model many Latin jazz musicians emulated. Ernesto “Tito” Puente (April 20, 1923 – June 1, 2000), one of the most celebrated Latin jazz musicians in the history of the music, regularly worked with jazz musicians to deliver his signature sound. Henriquez, bassist for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra since 1998, was a member of the top-prize winning Essentially Ellington Jazz Band Competition high school band back in 1996.
It was Henriquez who took on the task of honoring these men as part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s season finale while sharing some original music of his own in the process. I spoke with Henriquez by phone this past Sunday about the influence of Machito and Puente, what it was like working with musicians who’d performed with Machito and Puente, and what’s required to put on a proper tribute.
Bridget Arnwine: Talk a little about the influence of Machito and Tito Puente. For the uninitiated, why are these men so important to Latin music? Particularly, why is Machito so important to jazz?
Carlos Henriquez: There was a gentleman named Mario Bauza who played in Machito’s band. Mario was one of the influences of combining Afro-Cuban music with jazz. Those big band recordings influenced their music. Same thing with Tito Puente. Most of the musicians in Tito Puente’s band were jazz musicians.
There’s a continuum of the two cultures that are blended together. That’s why it’s so influential to have this type of music out there so that people can understand where it comes from and what it means.
BA: Pete Nater, Jose Madera, Johnny “Dandy” Rodriguez, George Delgado, and Cita Rodriguez all had some kind of musical association with Machito or Tito Puente or both and they’re all performing as part of this weekend’s shows. How were they involved in this project?
CH: Originally I called Jose Madera . Jose and Johnny are alumni of both bands and both of their fathers played in both bands, so they were around and saw both eras pretty much at their peak. I called Jose, who’d served as the musical director for Tito Puente. I knew that he had all of the right music and all of the right information, so I knew that it would be a treat to have him on stage.
Pete Nater he’s a Latin/salsa trumpeter who’s always working in town and he worked with Tito Puente. I gave him a call. Cita is the daughter of a very famous singer named Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez. Cita just did an album tribute to Graciela. And on this show there’s a ballad that she performs that was sung by Graciela. In Machito’s time, Graciela performed all of the ballads, so we’re trying to keep it as authentic as possible.
There’s another gentleman named Marco Bermudez who’s going to be singing the parts of Santitos Colon. It’s going to be very interesting.
BA: Were Jose Madera and Johnny “Dandy” Rodriguez instrumental in putting the show together? Did they give you tips? Extra background? How were they involved in the process?
CH: Jose, definitely. Jose and Johnny. When the idea first came up, those were the first two guys that I called. I called them immediately and said, “look, I’m doing a show on Puente and Machito. What can we do to not have to play the hits?” The problem with these shows and these names is that people do tributes to these gentlemen, but they end up playing the same old hits. People don’t actually get to experience the depth of what their music is capable of being, so I told Jose and Johnny that I want to play music that represent what these guys were actually capable of doing. I don’t want to play the songs that made them money or popular. I want people to hear the real stuff. The stuff that people danced to and that was remembered as the iconic material.
BA: That was my next question to you. I see in your bio that you’ve had the experience of performing with Tito Puente in your career, but how do you put on a proper tribute. How do you make this tribute an authentic experience vs just another tribute show?
CH: I was lucky that my mom and dad had records from that era; I know what the bands sounded like. That’s the first thing: identifying what the band sounds like. Second, it’s just finding the tune selections. The recordings are one thing, but hearing them live is a different thing. That’s what I wanted with Jose. I asked Jose if he remembered how the music was played live, because I wanted to play it for the people so that I could give them a taste of what it was like live. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to play these arrangements, but we’re going to try to play them like they were played live. Jose remembered them and had some old music that was still intact along with some old maps of how they were played live.
BA: You contributed original music to the celebration. Is that accurate?
CH: Yes, that’s correct. When I was originally asked about doing the show, I asked Wynton if it was ok to include my name in the tribute to these legends and he said, why not. I was so happy, because that ‘s a hard job to fulfill; we’ve got this tribute to these two legends and my name was added to it.
I took the time and I did four arrangements. These new compositions were based solely on my hearing experience of these two gentlemen. I got to play with Tito, so I knew him personally, but I never met Machito. I only know his son so I can only hear stories. What I did was I tried to add my taste and my experience to whole new compositions. So we’re going to play two each set just to divvy up the music. Just to say, this is my contribution, this is my tribute to these gentlemen. This is what I learned from them and this is what I want to add.
BA: This will be the last concert of the 2014-2015 season. What can audiences expect?
CH: The audience can expect a hot and fiery band that’s going to play music from an era where people danced at the Palladium and the audience is gonna feel the impact of this music and understand what made people come together. They’re going to get an understanding of an era in America where people actually were one instead of divided. This music showed people no matter if you were black, white, whatever, people were all on one dance floor dancing. It’s a great band. You’ve got Cita singing, Marcos singing, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra speaks for itself, so it’s going to be fun.
The concert will be webcast live tonight and tomorrow night (Friday and Saturday, June 12-13, 2015) via Livestream and jazz.org. For more information about the show and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 2015-2016 schedule, go to http://www.jazz.org.