Rockin' in Ritmo
Latin rhythms have been ingrained in the DNA of American popular music ever since New Orleans jazz founding father Jelly Roll Morton coined the phrase “the Spanish tinge” to describe the Cuban elements he and other Creole musicians were incorporating in their compositions. The 3/2 or 2/3 clave pattern of Afro-Cuban son and rumba, and Cuban dances like the habanera and contradanza, nurtured early jazz and helped shape its development. But the Spanish tinge didn’t color only jazz; in later decades, its influence came to be felt in rhythm and blues and rock n’ roll. The Bo Diddley beat, one of rock’s essential ingredients, was a clave pattern.
In New Orleans, where Cuban and African-American rhythms first came together, Dave Bartholomew, mentor to Fats Domino and one of most influential figures in Crescent City R&B, worked clave into his compositions during the late ‘40s and ‘50s. And you can’t miss the clave in the rollicking rumba of the legendary pianist Roy “Professor Longhair” Byrd.
But the influence of ritmo Cubano hardly stopped at Bartholomew and Byrd. From the immediate post World War II era to the years right before the modern rock epoch arrived with The Beatles, African American blues, R&B and jazz artists made recordings that were built on the rhythmic foundations of rumba, mambo, and cha cha cha (and occasionally samba). Jukebox Mambo, a compilation from the British label Jazzman of 22 tracks recorded from 1949 to 1960, documents the considerable influence of Afro-Cuban and other Latin rhythms on jazz and rhythm and blues.
Many of the artists are lesser known, even obscure, but some prominent names also appear—Dave Bartholomew and R&B singer and lyricist Percy Mayfield, vocalist Mabel Scott and jazz musicians such as the drummer Cozy Cole and the bassist and bandleader Red Callender. Most of the performers are African American. But several tracks feature Latin artists – the Chicano bandleader Lalo Guerrero, from Los Angeles, the New York-based, Cuban-born vocalist Elena Madera, the Puerto Rican pianist José “Joe Loco” Estevez and Alfred “Alfredito” Levy, a Jewish New Yorker who led a popular mambo orchestra – playing straight mambo and rumba or Latinized versions of jazz and blues numbers.
The performances are a mixed bag; the era covered on Jukebox Mambo, and especially the mambo craze of the mid-Fifties, produced music of wildly varying quality and fidelity to Afro-Cuban genres. An aura of camp exoticism surrounds some of the tracks, and sometimes the complexity of Afro-Cuban rhythms eludes musicians who are not native to the tradition. But even the less “authentic” and campier selections have their charms.
Jukebox Mambo kicks off with “Oja””, an instrumental reminiscent of Duke Ellington’s “jungle music” recorded in 1949 by Joe Lutcher, a Los Angeles-based saxophonist and bandleader. Next comes Mabel Scott’s rumba “Fool Burro”, wherein the singer complains that the eponymous donkey won’t take her from Mexico to Chicago, where a “hepcat” waits for her. Scott’s track is just one of the sex-soaked numbers on Jukebox Mambo: Combine the erotic frankness of the blues and R&B with propulsive Afro-Cuban polyrhythms, and watch out, libidos will be unleashed. On Larry Dale’s raunchy “Down to the Bottom”, the singer craves a lover “who likes to jelly roll.” Faye Simmons, on “Big Joe Mambo”, is a horny chubby-chaser lusting for the titular 500-pounder: “When I see that jelly shake my love comes down.”
But nothing on Jukebox Mambo is as outré as Mad Man Jones’ “Snake Charmer”, a novelty number from 1958 reminiscent of another, better known wild man from that decade, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Over a solid Latin groove, with driving conga and timbales and idiomatic Cuban-style piano, Jones hisses, growls and raves about “snakes—crawling, slithering, sliding.” “I am snake charmer!” he nuttily proclaims. It’s a total hoot, but it ends too soon, after barely two and a half minutes.
Jazz bandleader Gerald Wilson – who, at 93, is still active – contributes one of the album’s most substantial tracks, “Mambo Mexicana”, from 1954. (Its title notwithstanding, the piece is really a rumba-jazz fusion.) Joe Loco, a prominent pianist on New York City’s Latin music scene during the Fifties, transforms “Why Don’t You Do Right?”, the bluesy number associated with Lil Green and Peggy Lee, into a jazzy cha cha cha.
Dave Bartholomew’s “Shrimp and Gumbo”, from 1956, exemplifies the New Orleans—Cuba connection, with the percussionists laying down the clave while the drummer plays a characteristically ‘Nawlins second line roll. “Los Chucos Suaves”, a 1949 hit for Lalo Guerrero y sus Cinco Lobos, implores Los Angeles’s zoot-suited “pachucos” to give up the jitterbug and instead dance the rumba cubana, the guaracha and the danzon. The Latin/R&B/jazz fusions on Jukebox Mambo often delight, but Guerrero’s straight up Chicano swing is unbeatable.