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Mambo! Afro-Cuban Takes On Jazz Classics

<em>Conguero</em> Poncho Sanchez gave Frank Foster's swing classic, "Shiny Stockings," a new identity as a mambo.
Charley Gallay
Getty Images Entertainment
Conguero Poncho Sanchez gave Frank Foster's swing classic, "Shiny Stockings," a new identity as a mambo.

Jazz musicians have long mined Broadway, the Great American Songbook, and even pop music for material. Here are five Latin interpretations of songs written by jazz musicians, a process that isn't as easy as playing the chords of a jazz composition over a mambo rhythm. The real gold in the Latin jazz library comes from clever interpretations of songs that lend themselves to the intricate meter of Afro-Cuban music.

This article originally ran Sept. 30, 2008.

For more entries in NPR Music's weekly Take Five: A Weekly Jazz Sampler series, click here.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit

Mambo! Afro-Cuban Takes On Jazz Classics

Cal Tjader

By the time the Cal Tjader Quintet recorded Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia" in 1959, the song was already becoming a jazz standard. But if you listen to the famous 1953 Massey Hall version with Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus and Max Roach, you can already hear it leaning away from bebop swing and toward Afro-Cuban clave. Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo left Tito Puente's orchestra in New York to relocate to San Francisco with Cal Tjader, and brought with them an amazing amount of musical telepathy. The band on this cut reflects the definitive sound of small-group Latin jazz — Santamaria's tone on congas is the way congas are supposed to sound: clear, crisp and strong. Bobo's timbale playing represents a perfect combination of clave and swing.

Dizzy Gillespie

"Caravan" was written by Duke Ellington's trombonist, Juan Tizol, and was already part of the Ellington canon when Latin musicians started peeling back the veneer of swing to expose Tizol's Caribbean roots. In 1954, Dizzy Gillespie recorded a session with the Latin bandleader Machito and his A-list rhythm section: Candido Camero (congas), Jose Mangual (bongo), Ubaldo Nieto (timbales) and Bobby Rodriguez (bass). The musicians play bebop with a Cuban accent and offer a strong contribution to the transformation of "Caravan" into a Latin jazz standard. Here, Gillespie sounds right at home with the Cubans, as he did with his fellow beboppers.

Mongo Santamaria

There are so many reasons to admire Mongo Santamaria, not the least of which is his million-watt smile. But very rarely is he credited with closing the circle on two strains of the African Diaspora with just one song. The story about "Watermelon Man" is that Santamaria heard substitute pianist Herbie Hancock play his tune at a rehearsal. After an impromptu arrangement, Santamaria turned it into a soul-jazz/cha-cha-cha hybrid that reflected the black music of both the U.S. and the Caribbean. After this 1963 recording, Santamaria became a household name in African-American dance clubs, and he continued to funkify the clave for quite a few years thereafter.

Poncho Sanchez

Many think that Ella Fitzgerald's version of this tune with Count Basie's band would be the only statement needed on saxophonist Frank Foster's tribute to legs and leggings. But when conguero Poncho Sanchez turned this swing classic into a mambo, he gave it a new identity. Listen to timbalero Ramon Banda propel the band as powerfully as drummer Papa Jo Jones did for Count Basie. While some might argue that you can put the clave to any jazz piece and make it Latin jazz, this cut argues that the secret ingredient is starting with the right song.

Bebo Valdes/Javier Colina

The legendary acoustics of the fabled jazz shrine the Village Vanguard have resulted in hundreds of albums with the words "Live at the Village Vanguard" in the title. As part of his later-in-life string of musical successes, octogenarian pianist Bebo Valdes played three nights there in November 2005, accompanied only by Spanish bassist Javier Colina. The sets were jazz-inflected lessons on Cuban piano, from turn-of-the-century drawing rooms to Tropicana floor shows. But to close his sets, don Bebo paid homage to one of the Vanguard's famous live albums from Bill Evans by playing perhaps the most famous waltz in jazz. I was there for one of those November nights, and I'll never forget the feeling that the ghosts of that famous basement were as rapt as the rest of us in the presence of a true maestro de los maestros.

Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.
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