We have previously taken a look at Dizzy Gillespie as he burst onto the scene as a leading figure in the bebop movement immediately after WWII. The loose arrangements and frenetic solos of Diz’s early small groups (often in tandem with saxophonist Charlie Parker) are the stuff of jazz legend.
Dizzy, however, was schooled by playing in big bands and believed that the emerging bebop style was a good fit for that kind of group. He tried to start one in 1945 but it failed to catch on and his attention moved to the small group performances for which he is so justly famous. He tried again in 1947 and this is the group heard here.
I like subtle and relaxed jazz quite a lot. But every so often a guy simply has to listen to a record with the kind of power that gave the equipment in the recording studio a run for its money. This is one of them.
Big bands, which had been the mainstay of popular and jazz music from the late ’20s onward, were in serious decline after the war. Professional musicians were all union members and payroll expenses continued to rise. Also all of the servicemen were home from the war and young people were starting families instead of going out dancing.
Even the most established big bands were having financial trouble so Dizzy Gillespie faced some strong headwinds. Regardless, such was Dizzy’s reputation that top musicians of the bebop movement signed on. Actually from 1945-46 he fronted a, well, dizzying array of groups of constantly shifting composition, members and record labels. By late summer of 1947 he had attracted the attention of RCA Victor records and his big band finally began to record in a first class studio.
Dizzy did not play jazz like everyone else played jazz, and his big band was no exception. One of these differences was his interest in Afro-Cuban rhythms, something that led to the hiring of Chano Pozo to play the conga and bongo drums.
Pozo was a fascinating figure. Born in Cuba in 1915, he was proof that folks of African descent had no easier time of things in Cuba than they did in most of the U.S. in that era. Pozo was a street kid in every sense of that word. In addition to playing music he learned auto body repair in a Cuban reformatory. Desi Arnaz may have been the most famous Cuban musician in late 1940’s America, before he was immortalized as Ricky Ricardo on the I Love Lucy television show. Chano Pozo was perhaps the complete opposite of the rhumba-playing Arnaz in pretty much every way.
Pozo’s thing was conga music and he wrote a lot of it in Cuba. Though talented, the color barrier proved insurmountable in his native country. He emigrated to the US in 1947 and found a spot in the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra late that year.
Pozo co-wrote a handful of pieces for Gillespie’s groups, and Manteca is one of them. Mambo would be a big thing in the early 1950s and a whole raft of latin-influenced jazz music would follow. This record, however, is often considered the earliest example of what happened when American jazz and Cuban rhythm was put into a blender.
Manteca, recorded by RCA Victor on December 30, 1947, is a fascinating blend of Afro-Cuban rhythm and New York bebop. The piece starts off with Pozo’s bongos and the bass of Al McKibbon. Pozo makes sure we know that we are listening to Manteca before we are joined by Cecil Payne’s honking baritone sax. In what may be one of the most complete introductions ever put on a jazz record, the trumpets and trombones join in before a brief trumpet solo by Dizzy.
That intro concludes with the whole band playing a rapid fire staccato with the precision of a machine gun. Try getting a dozen musicians to play together on something like this – proof (if we need it) that this group contained serious musicians and not just loose, freewheeling hopheads. All this and we have not even started the main theme of the piece yet!
But it is finally time and off we go. I am no expert on the intricacies of conga, mambo or the scads of other variants of Latin music of the period. But whatever it is, that Cuban influence is strong in the beat that undergirds the phrases tossed back and forth by the robust saxophones and the bright, sharp brass section in what musicians would call the “A section” of the piece.
Although Pozo wrote the A section, Gillespie wrote the “bridge” which separated the repeating A section theme. (A – Bridge – A – A – Bridge – A is the form of this composition). The first rendition of this bridge includes a fairly mellow solo (as Gillespie’s solos go) then we go right back into the main theme for a second lap.
After the second A section theme we transition into a third treatment of that A theme which is some pure, hard American bop (that starts of with a powerful blast from the whole outfit). This is the part of the record where the boppers and the Cuban on the drums battle for the soul of the piece. Spoiler alert – the Cuban eventually regains control and the record goes through the A theme one last time before things slowly quiet down in a finish that is sort of the opposite of the way the thing built itself at the beginning.
And don’t say that I never bring you vocal performances. Although I will admit that the lyrics here are pretty sparse, consisting of the word “Manteca” shouted half a dozen times.
About that title. The first time I heard this I had no idea what Manteca meant. Manteca, it turns out, is the spanish word for lard. It was also said to be the slang of Cuban musicians for marijuana. I will leave to your imagination which might have been the usage that inspired the name of this composition.
It might help you to know that Pozo was shot to death by a bookie in New York on December 2, 1948 – less than a year after making this record. He is said to have confronted Eusebio “Cabito” Munoz about some inferior marijuana Munoz had sold him, with unpleasant result. In what could be the final irony of his life, the word most associated with his life in America and with his death is the same – Manteca.
This record sits smack in the middle of one of the most fascinatingly diverse periods in jazz styles. The music was heading off in multiple directions and this loud, powerful example of New York-based bebop was just one of them. Dizzy Gillespie’s big band and Chano Pozo’s Cuban rhythms were both like fireworks – they lasted for such a short time, but oh my the excitement when they were in mid explosion.
Postscript: In doing my research for this piece, I was crushed to discover that my go-to for old jazz records (musicprof78) has had his YouTube channel put down. As in euthanized. It appears that there was a coordinated attack involving copyrights on some 1960s records and the result is that not only did those go away but the rest of his channel did as well. This has messed with links in several of my jazz posts and I will be searching for alternate sources for those links as time allows.
Music source: Manteca (1947) from the spanish language YouTube page of cesarchalon
A source with marginally better sound quality can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s2Tt6W-TxXs . However that page is disabled from playing through other websites and must be heard via YouTube.
Dizzy Gillespie May, 1947 William Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress, Public Domain
Manteca, original RCA Victor Record label – found at the Internet Archive (archive.org)
Chano Pozo on cover art of a 2001 CD set issued by Tumbao Cuban Classics
Dizzy Gillespie and his big band, circa 1946 William Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress, Public Domain
Band personnel (from the Dizzy Gillespie Discography at jazzdisco.org):
Benny Bailey, Dave Burns, Elmon Wright, Lamar Wright, trumpet; Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet #1-3,5, trumpet; Ted Kelly, William Shepherd, trombone; John Brown, Howard Johnson, alto sax; Joe Gayles, Big Nick Nicholas, tenor sax; Cecil Payne, baritone sax; John Lewis, piano; Al McKibbon, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums; Chano Pozo, congas, bongos.