Randy Weston's African Rhythms Trio pays tribute to the play-fast, die-young Chano Pozo
In May 1946, a muscular Cuban landed in New York with one drum and a bullet lodged in the base of his spine.
Luciano "Chano" Pozo Gonzalez, known as Chano Pozo, could sing one rhythm, beat another on his drum and dance another. The descendant of West African slaves brought to Cuba in the 18th century, he spent part of his teens in reform school, worked as a bodyguard, drank heavily, would fight at the drop of a cigar, and earned fame in Cuba as a choreographer and drummer, and as the composer of award-winning carnival tunes.
He was 31 years old when he stepped off the boat in New York.
Soon after his arrival he collaborated with Dizzy Gillespie on the legendary Latin-jazz tune Manteca. That song, along with Cubana Be and Cubana Bop, helped bring Latin and African rhythms into jazz, where they have remained ever since. (Just try to imagine today’s Jazz Festival without any Latin or African acts or songs.)
Randy Weston, whose band will be joined by conga master Candido for a tribute to Pozo at this year’s Jazz Festival, remembers seeing Pozo play in New York.
"It just blew my mind," he says. "When I heard his drum it was like Africa coming to the New World and going back again. It was so powerful, that one drum."
Pozo was a force to be reckoned with on stage and at the bar. He could beat you with his conga or knock you senseless with his fists. Three years before coming to New York he was shot twice during an argument over unpaid royalties, leaving one bullet in his spine. Those who played with him or saw him perform, however, focus more on his music. Pozo spent just two years in New York, yet that was enough to earn him a place in North American music history.
Gillespie’s addition of Pozo to his orchestra is recognized as a pivotal moment in jazz history. Pozo’s single conga and chants blended with Gillespie’s group to add new, complex Afro-Cuban rhythms to the jazz lexicon. It also linked jazz directly to its African roots.
"Dizzy’s band was revolutionary," says Weston. "When I heard that music I didn’t know what he was playing, and it made me want to find out more about the influence of Africa through music."
Pozo played with other musicians of the time, including Charlie Parker, but his most important work was with Gillespie. Pozo didn’t speak English and Gillespie didn’t understand Spanish; it didn’t seem to matter.
"On the bus, he’d give me a drum, [bassist] Al McKibbon a drum, and he’d take a drum," recalled Gillespie. "Another guy would have a cowbell, and he’d give everybody a rhythm… we’d sing and play all down the highway."
On December 2, 1948, Pozo walked into Harlem’s El Rio Bar and Grill. He ran into Eusebio "El Cabito" Muniz, a decorated World War II veteran turned drug dealer who had sold Pozo some bad weed nights before. Pozo attacked him and Muniz shot him dead.
Muniz went to jail for five years and Pozo’s body took the boat back to Cuba.
Tribute to Chano Pozo
With Randy Weston’s African Rhythms Trio and Candido
At the Spectrum, July 2, 9 p.m.