AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Pianist Joe Castro performed with some of the top names in jazz in the 1950s and '60s, but Castro himself wasn't considered a virtuoso. And part of that was because of his girlfriend, billionaire Doris Duke. She built him a recording studio. They started the label Clover, then they split. Now, those recordings were recently released as a box set. Betto Arcos has the story.
BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: Just before he died in 2009, Joe Castro sat down with his son, James, to listen to some old reel-to-reel tapes.
JAMES CASTRO: It was kind of a shock because, right when we put the first tape on, it sounded like it was recorded yesterday.
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ARCOS: Joseph Armand Castro was born into a Mexican-American family in 1927, in a small mining town near Phoenix, Ariz. The family moved to northern California, and Joe started playing piano. By the time he was 15, he was in the musicians union. In 1951, Castro was leading his own group, when he met Doris Duke in Hawaii. They began a relationship, and James Castro says his father enjoyed the perks of living with the millionaire heiress, but his career stalled.
CASTRO: With Doris wanting him to be with her at all the times let's go here. Let's go to Switzerland. Let's go to Morocco (laughter). He was caught in between, I love to travel and see these places and spend time with the woman I love, or play jazz, too. I mean, there was so many conflicts.
ARCOS: In 1953, Duke purchased Falcon Lair, a Beverly Hills mansion formerly owned by Rudolph Valentino. She financed a state-of-the-art recording studio, and Castro invited many of his musician friends to jam and recorded them.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: "Autumn Leaves," take 12. One, one, two, three.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Wait a minute. I want to see what's happening. The dog won't stop barking. Shut up.
ARCOS: These recordings became the stuff of legend among musicians and jazz aficionados, says Kirk Silsbee, who writes for DownBeat Magazine.
KIRK SILSBEE: People would look at the names - Zoot Sims, Lucky Thompson, Oscar Pettiford, all the great people who played at Falcon Lair when Joe presided over the music there - and they could only imagine what was recorded for history. But now we have this box set, and it's nothing less than a treasure trove.
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ARCOS: By the early '60s, the relationship between Joe Castro and Doris Duke had soured. Duke threw him out of Falcon Lair. He sued, and she countersued. Daniel Richard, a former executive at Universal Jazz France and co-producer of the box set, says, when the dust finally settled, they tried to salvage their relationship by creating a record label.
DANIEL RICHARD: Because at the end of this fight, they wanted to have something, you know, in common, just to have something, you know, to do. But it was not enough to keep the couple together.
ARCOS: After Castro and Duke separated, she kept the recordings until 1992. A year before Duke died, she called Joe Castro.
CASTRO: She said, I'm going to start giving you what you deserve. And, you know, dad was like, no, no, no. I don't need that, but the Clover stuff would be great. And the next day, all the Clover stuff was on the doorstep.
ARCOS: More than 200 reels of tape. But by then, Joe Castro's career as a jazz soloist was pretty much over. He married singer Loretta Haddad, and they moved to Las Vegas. Castro got a secure job as music director of the Tropicana Hotel so they could raise their children, including James.
CASTRO: He was a very underrated musician. And I think this first box set shows who he is, but there's so much more music still to be heard.
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ARCOS: James Castro wants his father to be remembered as a man with the highest integrity who was caught up in a world of money, but was also accomplished in the art form he loved most - Jazz. For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.
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