Victor Pantoja: A Lifetime Of Latin Jazz And Smiles

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Victor Pantoja was known for his role in the band Azteca. Gary Eisenberg hide caption

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Victor Pantoja

Victor Pantoja was known for his role in the band Azteca.

Gary Eisenberg

The Latin jazz community was hit with another loss after the death of Victor Pantoja. The percussionist died late last week after battling lung cancer for three years.

He was known as "El Negrito" among his musical colleagues. And he collected many colleagues after 50 years in the music business.

A product of Spanish Harlem, Victor Pantoja was a career sideman. And like all great sidemen and women, Pantoja made his living by making the people who hired him sound good. Not only did his phone ring regularly, but his recorded work became influential to a legion of percussionists who came in his wake.

I first heard Victor Pantoja on the first two Azteca albums (Azteca, 1972; Pyramid Of The Moon, 1973). Brothers Coke and Pete Escovedo assembled a visionary multicultural Latin funk-rock big band that owed as much to Tito Puente as to James Brown. Victor Pantoja's rock-solid time and sense of Latin swing gave the band both Afro-Cuban cred and Spanish Harlem funk.

I learned a lot from playing along with those records. The secret of the maintaining a steady groove was locked inside those tracks, and I soaked up every lesson.

The Yahoo! Latin jazz listserv was flooded with appreciations over the weekend. Most were from former bandmates who expressed appreciation for his overall musicality, and younger musicians sharing stories of a favorite mentor.

Original Santana drummer Michael Shrieve was a contemporary of Pantoja. Both Azteca and Santana were creators of a style that incorporated 1970s pop influences and Afro-Cuban traditions. Shrieve posted this note on the Latin rock listserv, Moonflower Cafe:

Victor's Bright Sized Life will always be with us. His joy, and laughter, and big heartedness were a true inspiration. Not to mention his playing, of course! His huge influence on (original Santana conguero) Michael Carabello had much to do with the sound of the percussion section in the original Santana band, as did Chico Hamilton's on my playing via the Gabor Szabo records they played on together, not to mention Gabor's playing on Carlos Santana, and you can see what an influence these people had on us. Viva Victor Pantoja!

Here is Pantoja on congas along with Coke Escovedo on timbales making an Afro-Cuban guaguanco out of a Mexican mariachi classic on Pyramid of the Sun:

His later years included many recording sessions, gigs, workshops and teaching around his new home of Southern California. He eventually switched from the congas to bongos, and became a first-call percussionist for many bandleaders.

Southern California trumpeter Gary Eisenberg played often with Pantoja in various salsa and Latin jazz bands based in Southern California. He shared with me this live recording of Pantoja's blistering solo on the tune "Historia De Amor," with the band Orquesta Caliente:



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According to many who came into contact with him, gigging included a healthy dose of laughter. Pantoja was known among his peers not just for a steady beat, but also a healthy dose of hilarity.

Victor Pantoja is one of those musicians whose passing would have gone unnoticed outside of those who knew him or were familiar with his playing. But I think it's important to take note, when we can, of all the musicians who give us a lifetime of listening — stars and sidemen alike.



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