Listening, Party For Two: 'Cubano Be' + 'Cubano Bop'

Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo, James Moody.

hide captionL-R: James Moody, Chano Pozo, Dizzy Gillespie.

Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images

My boss readily admits that she doesn't know a whole lot about jazz. But she lets me write all this nonsense on the Internet, so I'm not complaining. And at least she's willing to learn. So every week — or at least as often as possible — she and I get together to listen to and Instant Message about a different great jazz song.

"Cubano Be" and "Cubano Bop" are undoubtedly landmarks of Latin jazz history. The symphonic collaboration between Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie helped to validate Afro-Cuban rhythms in the arena of serious music. And it's especially appropriate to have a listen to it today, because lurking behind the scenes was the late George Russell.

"Cubano Be / Cubano Bop," recorded by the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band. Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet; with Dave Burns, Elmon Wright, Lamar Wright Jr., Benny Bailey, trumpets; William Shepherd, Ted Kelly, trombones; John Brown, Howard Johnson, alto saxophones; Joe Gayles, Big Nick Nicholas, tenor saxophones, Cecil Payne, baritone saxophone; John Lewis, piano; Al McKibbon, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums; Luciano "Chano" Pozo, congas/bongos. Arr. George Russell. New York, N.Y.: Dec. 22, 1947.

Purchase: Amazon.com / Amazon MP3 / iTunes ('Be'/'Bop')

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Boss Lady: I'm picturing rapscallions in a getaway scene, pushing through the busy, dirty, exotic streets of Cuba. It's a movie from the 1950s.

me: You got the Cuba right
Although I suppose you could have figured that out from the title

Boss Lady: Yes, you are correct!

me: Anything that specifically makes you think Cuba? (In the music, I mean.)

Boss Lady: The drumming? The rhythm?

me: Uhh, yea
Chano Pozo: name to remember

Boss Lady: Why?

me: This fellow, the hand drummer (congas/bongos)

Boss Lady: By the way, it kinda also reminded me of West Side Story. It's not tuneful like Bernstein, but it's got that grit and brashness

me: You wouldn't be totally off on that point either — more on that in a minute
This Chano Pozo character, though

Boss Lady: Yes? He's obviously capable of creating the fabric for the whole piece with those drums

me: He's a noted Cuban entertainer: dancer, percussionist, eccentric
And in 1947, Dizzy Gillespie was getting into Afro-Cuban music
It was already this exotic, cool sort of thing among music/dancing audiences, right? And especially in New York, where there's this big Caribbean Latino population

Boss Lady: That's right around the time of West Side Story, so I guess it was in the air.

me: Ding Ding Ding
(To be precise, I think WSS was in the mid-'50s, but the idea holds)
So Gillespie asks his friend, the Cuban emigre and trumpeter Mario Bauza, to find him a conguero

Boss Lady: Do you roll the 'R' in conguero?

me: Only if you're an NPR host — nobody hears a tree fall on the Internet
(Even then I don't think you're supposed to, to get technical about it)
Besides the point ...
By 1947, there's this virtuoso who has come to New York, and not as a jazz guy, mind you

Boss Lady: Is Chano Pozo the one singing?

me: Yes'm
This was truly a cross-cultural thing, not the Nuyorican sort of melange we're accustomed to thinking about today (not that there's anything wrong with that either)

Boss Lady: OK, so instead of approximating Afro-Latin culture, Dizzy Gillespie went right to the source?

me: You could say that. Although ...
I have no idea what he's chanting.
Neither did the band of Americans either, apparently — but they shouted it back!

Boss Lady: Ha! Hopefully, they didn't regret it later.

me: Wouldn't imagine so
Apparently it's a sort of Santeria chant, say the historians — but I highly doubt that the vast majority of the audience picked up on that
It's like watching "World" music today, right? You may not understand specifically what's going on, but you get the flavor

Boss Lady: I like the raucous feel of this, but it does feel kind of dated, too. I wonder why?

me: The Dizzy Gillespie Big Band performed this piece at Carnegie Hall in Sept. 1947
Recorded it in the studio Dec. 1947
And that was like 61+ years ago, so of course it's somewhat dated.

Boss Lady: I guess I'm asking why it sounds so much like it was from that period, or like it's from an old movie.

me: Good question. Recording quality is one thing, of course ... but it does have that cinematic bombast to it, right?
And that's deliberate

Boss Lady: What makes you say that?

me: Well, the bebop revolution, which Gillespie was a big part of, broke around 1945. Not long afterward, he started pursuing this Afro-Cuban thing heavily, AND put together a big band
So here's Gillespie wanting to put together some really next-level, groundbreaking, artful bebop meets Latin meets large ensemble stuff
He hires this young, talented composer to write an extended work for him
(Cubano Be, Cubano Bop is in two parts, I surmise, largely because standard 78 rpm singles came only in 3 minute lengths)
Listen closely: it's not just a fun melody based on a song form, right?

Boss Lady: It's interesting how he's using the horns. They're providing a lot of the punch and energy of the music, but they're not necessarily melodic. While a melodic line is sometimes at the forefront, they're often like a wild chorus

me: Yup. It is, as a music professor might say, through-composed. The form doesn't repeat — it's scripted all the way through. There's that melodic theme, but that only surfaces occasionally.
There isn't even a whole lot of improvising (other than from Chano Pozo) — just that little tag from Gillespie at the end of "Cubano Be"

Boss Lady: Maybe that's one of the reasons it sounds like a soundtrack, because it keeps moving forward into different "scenes" rather than circling back all of the time?

me: A very plausible explanation
But also, this has aspirations to Art with a capital A, with the polyphonic, overlapping complexity that the term might entail
It's more than just your typical jazz gig fare
And you know who wrote this piece? (Gillespie is credited as a co-composer, but that was standard practice for the leader of a recording date — royalty purposes)

Boss Lady: How would I know that, Patrick?
If I knew that, maybe I'd be guiding you through great moments in jazz, instead of the other way around

me: A fellow named George Russell

Boss Lady: Wow, I can't believe you saved that 'til the end!
That must've been painful

me: He was 24 years old when that premiered
Before George Russell was George Russell

Boss Lady: I'm proud to be participating (unknowingly) in a tribute to George Russell

me: Isn't that crazy?

Boss Lady: That's truly humbling. I think you'd better get back to work and try to match his ingenuity and productivity

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