Jazz Meets Clave!

The Original CuBoppers

Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody And Cuban Congero Chano Pozo


The JALC Orchestra

Maestro Marsalis Strikes Up the Band!

The concert at Lincoln Center last Saturday night was aptly name Jazz Meets Clave; it was like a replay of that halcyon era in the 1940’s, when Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauza – Afro-American and Afro-Cuban master musicians – put their heads together and decided to experiment with a new sound that has become world famous as “Latin Jazz,” a distinct genre in the lexicon of Jazz music.  Since this music was a mixture of the musical traditions of the two cultures, the Son Montuno and Jazz, and was concocted by Afro-Americans and Afro-Latin’s in Manhattan when the Bebop style invented by Bird and Diz was au courant, this new synthesis became known as Cubop. The music played in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s beautiful Rose Hall by the great orchestra that resides there, on last Saturday night, can be considered an extension of that experiment.


Machito and his Afro-Cubans

The Cuban Side Of Bop

One of the highlights of the evening was a composition by Carlos Enriquez, the bassist in the Lincoln Center Orchestra, who is Puerto-Rican, or more accurately Nuyorican.  The piece was inspired by the Orchestra’s recent trip to Cuba. In his introduction of the composition Carlos explained how the trip to that culturally rich Caribbean isle was a musical and cultural revelation.  He was first of all surprised to discover the high level of musicianship displayed by the young musicians of Cuba, as well as the educational system that trains them.

Frankly I was astonished by his surprise, because all one need do is look at the musicians who have migrated from that Island to New York City, or simply come here to perform – like Chucho Valdez, whom I consider the greatest pianist in the world, to know that something rare and exciting is going on musically in Cuba.  Chucho is not alone at the top of his game; the same argument can be made for the contrabassist Carlos Del Pino, the multi-reed virtuoso Paquito de Rivera, or the trumpeter Autoro Sandoval – the only trumpeter in the world who can potentially rival Wynton Marsalis in his multi-lingual virtuosity. And there are so many great Cuban percussionists they defy tabulation.

In an eloquent and erudite monologue Carlos told us how the different movements of his composition were based on various rhythms and song forms that are integral to the Afro-Cuban style, and explained how they would alternate with the swing of Jazz.  Unlike some ill fated attempts to synthesize musical genres, this composition was a rousing success.  The result was a performance of great drama, as the musicians interpreted this inspired and original score constructed on complex poly-rhythms and poignant blues voicing’s of various shades. This composition also featured an extended solo on the timbales, and instrument that offers far less to work with than the drum set preferred by jazz drummers; yet it is critical to the Afro-Cuban rhythm section. Consisting of only two tom toms on a stand, with two cowbells mounted on it, plus a ride cymbal, the Timbales are a minimalist version of the Jazz drum kit.


David Hernandez Of Zon Del Barrio!

The Art of Timbales


The Jazz drum set is the most complex percussion instrument in the world, and by far the most difficult to play when performing in the modern jazz context.  While I am not prepared to say who played this instrument first, African American drummers in the United States created the great virtuoso tradition and are its greatest artists.

To understand the complexity of the jazz drummer’s art, let’s examine the art of precision rudimental trap drumming alone.  Here I am referring of the art of the snare, or trap drum.  This kind of drumming is common to military style marching bands, including high-school and especially the great college marching bands.  The rhythmic compositions to which the band marches called “cadences’ are constructed on twenty eight “rudiments.’  These rhythmic exercises, such as five stroke rolls, seven stroke rolls, flams, ratamacues, paradiddles, flam paradiddles, etc are very precise rhythmic statements, sort of like etudes for drums. A wonderful recreation of what it was like to try and make the great Florida A&M drum section can be seen it the movie Drumline.


A Grand Master of The Drum Set

Max Roach Playing Five Drums and Four Cymbals

Most jazz drummers had the benefit of this kind of rudimental training on the snare drum, having grown up playing in marching bands, but in the set the snare is only one of four or five drums, depending on the drummer’s taste.  It is however the lead drum from which all rhythmic configurations is initiated. The standard set is snare, small tom tom, and floor tom tom, plus the bass drum.  In terms of the human voice it would be like soprano, tenor, baritone and basso; if they were viols it would be violin, viola, cello and conta-bass.  When the jazz drummer tunes these drums – and some fine tune them to the pitch of the piano – a variety of percussive voices are possible.

That’s why the great Jazz drummers with musical imaginations – like Max Roach, Art Blakey or Jack De Johnette -sound as if they are playing melodically.  Aside from the drums however there are at least three cymbals.  Two are mounted on stands – some drummers prefer three – and the sock cymbal is played with the foot.  The essence of the art of playing the drum set is to be able to play a different rhythm with each hand and foot.  Hence the Jazz drummer creates a complex polyrhythmic statement by his lonesome.

The timbales are sparse in comparison, but unlike the jazz set the timbale player is not expected to carry the percussion rhythm alone; timbaleros are  accompanied by the conga and bongo drummers, guido or clave and the big cow bell.  When each instrument is in the groove they produce a poly-rhythmic sound that compels the listener to dance. Thus the timbalero usually has help from other percussionist while the Jazz drummer is expected to supply all the percussion functions in the band.  On this occasion the timbalero was a true master of his instrument and rendered an electrifying solo!   When I first saw Afro-Cuban musicians play at Florida A&M I wasn’t at all impressed with the timbales.  But that would change once I began to understand the nature of the instrument and the skill required to play them.  And when I started to study the congas I came to admire, respect, and even love them.  Part of the genius of the art of timbale playing is that they do so much with so little equipment.

Conga, Timbales and Guido

The Heart of the Afro Cuban Rhythm Section


The Bongo Player

The bongolero also doubles on the big cow bell

The Cow Bell Anchors the Rhythm

Everybody Plays Off The Big Cow Bell


Every part of the timbales can be played.  Whereas jazz drummers play only on the skins of the drums – with the occasional rim shots – the timbalero plays all over the drums; the rims and the sides too.  The skins are used accent the rhythms that are steadily played on the sides or the cowbells, and for dynamic solos.  The Afro-Cuban rhythm section is so precisely worked out that every rhythm fits perfectly in its “pocket.” Which is another way of saying each man to his station in the rhythmic jig saw.

JALC Bassist Carlos Enrique


After a swinging interlude in which Ali – the trap drummer with the JALC – announced his presence like rolling thunder,  Marcus Printup gave a solo of great sensual beauty, playing with a wide vibrato; the influence of his Cuban sojourn could clearly be heard as he conjured up memories of the great Afro-Cuban trumpeter Chaputin. The composition, and the set, ended with an impressive solo from Carlos on the bass.




The second set began with the audience being shown how to clap the clave rhythm, and Ali soloed on the drum set as they clapped in time.  Then Carlos started walking the bass and Ali began swinging hard.  The music is a movement from Wynton’s Third American Symphony, and it is very modern.  Moving at the frantic pace of rush hour traffic on the West Side Highway, which is clearly visible from the piano where Wynton composed it, the influence of environment on the way musicians imagine music is very clear.  In any case it’s clear to me; I don’t know if Wynton thinks of it that way, which is to say that he is conscious of the influence…but it is there.

Ali Jackson

All around Musician and Virtuoso of the Drum Set


As in all of the performances the solo work was marvelous.  First there was a kind of rapid fire interplay between Wynton and the trombonist.  Wynton played magnificently, even though he had just been back in his dressing room suffering with aching eyes.  Walter Blanding Jr, my favorite tenor prayer of the younger generation, gave a spellbinding solo on the soprano sax.  Obviously by his choice of horns he is following in the footsteps of John the Prophet.

The next composition was also written by Carlos, who was obviously smitten with the great musical tradition of Afro-Cubans.  This composition is based on the Songo form created by the Cuban master musician Chungito. The tune utilized the 6/8 time signature which is the rhythm of the most sacred of Afro-Cuban religions societies like Santeria.  However being afro-Latin raised in New York he hears both traditions in a marvelous way. His orchestrations were fresh and highly inventive.


The Great Gerald Wilson Conducting His Music

The JALC Orchestra Saxophone Section

Carlos is extremely fortunate to be in a musical organization like JALC, because it allows him to fully exercise his musical imagination as a composer. Like the Ellington Orchestra, the gifted musicians around whom he is surrounded are capable of playing anything he can invent.  This gives all the members on the band an added incentive to write, thus contributing to the bands book of original compositions.  Again the solo work by the trombonist was breathtaking.  Surely when John Phillip Sousa chose trombonists for his band he never imagined anybody playing the instrument with such lyricism and imagination.

The next tune was a Cuban Standard – the Peanut Vender.  However Carlos explained the history of the tune then delighted the audience with the announcement that this particular arrangement was done by the great Duke Ellington. This further establishes the long standing  interest Afro-American musicians had in Cuban music.  To listen to the JALC perform this music with the standard Afro-Cuban Rhythm section was a wonder.  You could not tell they were not a Cuban orchestra.  Another trumpeter took an extended solo that captured the flavor of the tune. The Latin percussionists were right in the pocket all night. Dukes arrangement was intoxicating, with those unique Ellington voicing’s for the different sections.

The trombonist Vincent Gardner – a former member of the FAMU marching band – wrote the next composition titled “Afro and Cubans.”  A somewhat strange title, which made me wonder if it was a reference to the fact that race conscience black Cubans do not consider themselves “Hispanic,” which they see as the proper designation for those Cubans who descended from the Spaniards.  They are quite aware of the fact that they are neo-Africans of the west.  When I asked Vincent hom much is composition was influenced by the cultural redefinition that is occurring among black Cubans, which is rife among Cuban hip hop artists, he said it was this Afro-Cuban perspective that inspired the work.

The Conga drummer was featured in an extended solo on this tune. He was playing three congas, all tuned to different keys, and he sounded like he had six hands!!!  He was accompanied  only by other rhythm instruments. His solo was followed by an extended solo on the timbales.  It was an impressive demonstration of the art of Afro-Cuban percussion. I continue to be amazed by the level of virtuosity achieved by performers on these percussion instruments.

The final tune of this historic concert came from the song book of the late great Tito Rodriquez.  While its rhythms were typical Afro-Cuban and it was dance music, the horn arrangements display the advanced knowledge of blues harmonies and jazz ensemble arranging that is the hallmark of the New York Salsa sound in its big band Latin /Jazz expression begun by Machito and elaborated on by Nuyoricans.  Wynton soloed on this tune and he used a mute, which allowed him to scream, laugh and cry on his trumpet.  His sound was majestic!

The rhythm was an up-tempo Mambo of the sort made famous at places like the Palladium and all those fantastic nights at the Village Gate.  The bongo drummer got his moment on this tune and he thrilled the crowd with his virtuosity on those two little drums that look like toys.  I have watched bongo players for years – including the best ever, Mongo Santamaria – and it remains a mystery to me how they do what they do.  When the last note was sounded the audience rose to its feet in a prolonged and boisterous ovation!   Viva la musica!


Hangin With The Master Drummers!

Their Timbale and Conga Drumming Fired The Band




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

November 29, 2010



Double Click to cee the Jazz ay Lincoln Center in Cuba, featuring the Cuban flautist Michel Herrera soloing.  The artist of traditional Cuban percussion instrunebts are also native Cubans.


Double Click to See The JALC Orchestra  at “Jazz Meets Clave” Concert



Double Click to hear Machito and his Afro-Cubans playing Cu-bop


Double Click for Dizzy Gillespie’s Orchestra play Cubop


This performance is at Lincoln Center in 1982,

Almost four decades  after he and Mario Bauza invented Cubop

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