NPR logo Armando Peraza: Witness To Jazz History

Armando Peraza: Witness To Jazz History

Armando Peraza (right) and his former employer, Carlos Santana. Martin Cohen / hide caption

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Martin Cohen /

Armando Peraza (right) and his former employer, Carlos Santana.

Martin Cohen /

There's a master class in Afro-Cuban music history happening on the Yahoo! Latin Jazz listserv. Legendary percussionist Armando Peraza has recently joined, and is being showered with accolades, praise and questions from participants of the 10-year-old community.

Peraza is a contemporary of Mongo Santamaria who arrived in the U.S. in 1949; he found himself playing with folks like Charlie Parker, George Shearing, Slim Gaillard and Cal Tjader. There are many more Cuban bands back in Cuba and in that the U.S. he contributed to. And for over 20 years starting in 1972, he toured the world with Carlos Santana during one of the guitarist's most innovative eras.

Peraza's wife Josefina is doing the typing for the 85-year-old maestro, and the stories are pouring out like so many of his masterful riffs. Here's a recent example:

I just remembered another Al McKibbon memory [the bassist McKibbon played with Peraza in George Shearing's small group during the early 1950s]. We were playing with Shearing in Las Vegas and of course, we couldn't stay at the casino hotel. In Vegas, the black performers had to stay in a trailer, so it was me, Al, Sammy Davis Jr., his dad and uncle and Cab Calloway, staying in this lousy trailer, outside of the hotel. Anyway, I ran into the great Puerto Rican electric guitarist, Payo Alicea, and his wife Maria, who were performing there with the band La Playa Sextet. They took pity on us and smuggled me and McKibbon into the casino hotel they were staying at and got us a couple of nice, air-conditioned rooms. I'll never forget that.

Does this kind of thing appeal primarily to Latin jazz nerds who obsess over historical minutia? (I never knew Dizzy Gillespie offered Peraza a job with his big band in 1949 while searching for a replacement for legendary conguero Chano Pozo, which Peraza turned down because the pay was likely to be small with such a big band.)


But when posts like the one above are considered in the broader scope of popular cultural history here in the U.S., Peraza's stories offer firsthand insight into an era when jazz musicians were not heralded as they are now, but sometimes hassled as second-class citizens. I know from studying his history that Peraza has in-the-room accounts of the creative process for many of the music's influential innovators.

Log on and sign up for the Yahoo! Latin Jazz posts. Ask a question, or lurk and read. It's a fascinating lesson.