NPR logo Before Celia Cruz Or J.Lo, There Was Graciela

Before Celia Cruz Or J.Lo, There Was Graciela

Graciela was a featured member of her brother's Afro-Cuban orchestra. Her brother happened to be Machito. Fania Records hide caption

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Fania Records

As Latin jazz icon Graciela Perez-Gutierez drew her last breath yesterday morning in a New York hospital, her good friend Mappy Torres placed a pair of wooden claves in her hands.

Claves, of course, are two small dowels of wood. They're struck together to provide the two-bar phrase that is the heartbeat of Afro-Cuban music.

Mappy told me she did it as a symbolic reference to one of the singer's favorite songs, called "Vive Como Yo Vivo." It includes the lines:

Yo quiero cuando me muera

(I would like, when I die)

Tener las claves en la mano pa' gozar!

(To have the clave in my hands so I can celebrate!)

Graciela, who was known primarily by only her first name, had many friends awaiting her: she counted among her peers Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, not to mention many other musicians from the generation that seamlessly fused Afro-Cuban music and bebop.

When she joined her foster brother Machito (real name Frank Grillo) in his orchestra in 1943, arranger Mario Bauza was writing groundbreaking arrangements for the first truly multi-racial big band: European whites, African Americans and Caribbeans of every skin tone. To hear this glorious band, the first stop is Mucho Macho Machito, by Machito and his Orquestra. Graciela is in exquisite form, taking on Cuban son and bebop with a casual flair that reflects the multi-cultural phenomenon that is Latin jazz.

This music still gives me shivers.

Graciela performed alongside her brother for over 30 years at clubs and jazz festivals all over the world. Here's a clip from a hometown gig in New York in the early '70s.

She sang with Mario Bauza (who was a brother-in-law to Machito and Graciela) until Bauza's death in 1993, when she went into semi retirement after over seven decades. However, the folks at Chesky Records recorded her in their church-turned-recording-studio in 2006 to work with fellow Afro-Cuban pioneer Candido Camero. The album was called Inolvidable (Unforgettable); here's a behind-the-scenes clip of that session:

Graciela was a pioneer not just for records she made over 50 years ago. Bandleader and educator Bobby Sanabria dropped me a line reminding me that: "... if it wasn't for Gracie you wouldn't have Celia, La Lupe, Gloria Estefan, and J. Lo, Shakira, even Beyonce, etc, etc.... Gracie opened the door for ALL of them. It's about time she received the recognition that she so richly deserved. Not only from the public, but from the industry as a whole."

Here is one of her last public performances, from two years ago:

I can't help but think that by now Graciela is using those claves in what must be a glorious jam session in the afterlife.