Strolling Down Memory Lane
The 60’s Jazz Scene in Puerto Rico
by Carli Muñoz
The previous issue of the Business Puerto Rico Magazine touched a nerve when I read about the jazz heritage of Puerto Rico. I was personally caught up in the middle of that culture quantum leap of the shifting sixties, and I could most certainly say that the events that occurred in that era were some of the major elements that shaped my career to date. Reading the article by Medina in the October 2004 issue, “Vintage Jazz”, did give me a sense of nostalgia, but most importantly it issued a noble call to the jazz musicians who contributed in the decade of the 60’s, to come forward. Unfortunately, some of these fine musicians are no longer with us, but their memory and their influences prevail. I was fortunate enough to have performed with many of these talented jazz pioneers, and the honor roll call is certainly an idea whose time has come.
Regarding this article, I’ll make reference to the early to mid 60’ from my personal experience and point of view. To do that, I had to dig into the old drawer, pull out old articles and pictures (there thanks to my loving late mother) and try to recreate a timeline as accurately as possible. Unfortunately, jazz in that era in San Juan wasn’t documented as well as rock music was. How much I wish that someone came forward with a picture of the Monchito Muñoz band with jazz singer, Myrna Pagan, at the Holiday Inn in Isla Verde!
To begin at the beginning, it was the typical afternoon of a 15 year old living in breezy Park Boulevard, daydreaming of “pregnant little birds”, when I stumbled into an article somewhere, maybe my dad’s newspaper, that there was a jazz band (Monchito Muñoz) playing at the (old) Holiday Inn in Isla Verde, featuring the legendary percussionist, Sabu Martinez. With little knowledge that endorphins existed, but nevertheless experiencing a torrential shot of them, I planned for a night to remember. On that evening, just like any 15 years old, I shaved my 3 little stumps, threw on my best garb - tie and all - and begged my dad to borrow his car and a little cash because I had a mission of top urgency – I just had to go see Sabu, hear him play and meet him in person!
Not only did I meet the legendary Sabu in person, but we became good friends. I was totally thrilled by the level of jazz music going on and even at 15, my point of reference wasn’t too shabby. (We’ll talk about that later). Fortunately, at that time, I had the advantage of a little extra height over most kids my age and the club let me pass for over 18. From that evening on, I was in the audience every single evening, quietly savoring every single note played. My attendance was so frequent that I knew the show by heart (or ear) and was only patiently waiting for the chance to be there when one of the musicians would be missing just before commencing the show.
Well, it finally happened. One lucky night their double bassist Freddy Thomas didn’t show up! “My big chance,” I thought! So with one of my most interloping moments, I can ever remember I saw the crisis going on just before the show. I leaped to the stage and offered my humble services on the stand-up bass. I think that it was precisely THAT moment that shaped my career.
The show went on with adolescent me on the double bass. At the time the main show consisted of the band with Monchito on drums, Freddy Thomas on bass, a fine pianist who doubled on trumpet and whose name I can’t remember (he played from a wheelchair), often Juancito Torres would be on trumpet, and of course Sabu Martinez front stage with his impressive triple Congas setup. After the band would play a couple of hot tunes, the glamorous and elegant singer, Myrna Pagan, would come on stage wearing her evening gown in full splendor and do her jazz repertoire, which consisted of mid-tempo, ballads and verrrry up-tempo jazz tunes, like “In the Heat of the Night”, “Caravan”, etc. Then the “Paper Dolls”, which consisted of about half a dozen dancing girls imported from the Peppermint Lounge in New York, came up on stage adding to the excitement.
Through all this, although I had practically memorized the show from my frequent attendance, and since I wasn’t really a bass player …even less a jazz double bassist, I faked my way throughout most of the show hitting probably every other note when lucky. To my surprise, the guys in the band, including Muñoz, asked me to play more often with them and eventually sitting at the piano for the show.
I can remember times when after the show other players, like Joe Morello and other fine visiting jazz musicians, would come up to play, and the level of those jam sessions can only be described as awesome and top-notch in my memory!
After playing on and off for a while with the big guys, Sabu invited me to put together a band. He wanted to experiment with some of the new sounds that were happening in the mid 60’s. He named the band “Sabu Martinez and the Afro Cuban Twisters”, but it didn’t do very well (I guess with a name like that!), and after that stint, Sabu migrated to Sweden (he liked blond girls), and I went back to playing with Monchito’s band at the Holiday Inn.
Sometime in 1965 while still performing with Monchito’s band, a fellow musician who I hardly knew by the name of Jorge (Pipe) Calderon came to me, introduced himself, and asked me if I would be interested in forming a rock band with him. I agreed, and the band we formed was the legendary band “The Living End” AKA: “Space”. That was another event that shifted and shaped my music career.
To go back even further in time, one of the earliest memories I have of jazz was probably around 1957 (I was 9), when my father brought me back some records from a trip to NYC. Among those records, I remember a honky-tonk small vinyl called “The Roaring 20’s”, a polka record quickly forgotten, and the LP “Art Blakely and the Jazz Messengers plus Sabu” Cu-Bop!; Jubilee JLP-1049; 1957 (Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers Plus Sabu; reissued as Springboard/Trip TLP-5019). Once ragtime piano and the music of the Jazz Messengers were in my veins there was no turning back! At the time there were also influences from the radio waves. For some reason, I always tuned to the American Broadcast station playing the “standards” although not always in the jazz form. Somehow I must have developed an affinity to the piano because the first time that I saw an ad in a magazine for Columbia records offering countless LP’s for joining the club (I must have been still around 9), I went ahead and ordered every record that had a piano on its cover! They (Columbia) should have been more careful marketing to kids - I never knew there was a bill to pay! Those first piano records ranged between the semi-classical genre of Peter Nero and Andre Previn to the experimental music of the French composer Edgar Varèse.
In retrospect, the first music I ever learned to play was “boogy woogy”, which my sister Brunny taught me early on (I was probably around 4 and my sister 13), along with “Muñequita Linda” which my mother used to tenderly hum and play using only the black keys of the piano. Also in-between “boogy woogy” and jazz, 50’s rock’n roll was also a major influence. I think that 30’s to 50’s musicals and movie music, as well as late 50’s and early 60’s TV themes, also contributed substantially to the exposure of jazz in Puerto Rico during the 60’s.
Now, back in the old drawer, the most curious item I found was a magazine dated January 6, 1967, called Art’s Guide. Did you do this Arturo? Anyway, unfortunately, my copy lacks a cover – it only has page 3 through 22. Of course, the reason my mother had saved the magazine was for the photograph and the mention of (misspelled) “The Living N’s” which was the rock group that I was a part of after my initial jazz sojourn. If I was seriously involved in rock music since 1966, it is no wonder that most of the people that followed my trajectory see me primarily as a rock musician – not to mention my previous involvement in 1965 with the pioneer TV show “La Nueva Ola” or my later involvement with The Beach Boys for 11 years.
What really threw me back in time going through Art’s Guide was how rich San Juan was in entertainment still in 1967! I say still because by 1970 the entertainment industry as we knew it was nearly in extinction. Gazing Art’s Guide you could still see an ad for Judy’s Whisper Room, featuring Corky Stroman at the Hammond Organ and Reggie Ashby on the piano, remember…atop the Red Rooster? How about Armando’s Hideaway…with guests such as Jackie Danois and Maureen Rene? The Mc Guire Sisters at the Salon Carnaval of the Sheraton, Miss Peggy Lee and Victor Borge at the Tropicoro (El San Juan Hotel), Dionne Warwick at The Caribe Hilton, Lola Falana at the Flamboyan or Steve Gibson also at the El San Juan…Imagine, all of these great artists plus more in less than 20 pages of a casual night guide of what’s going on in San Juan! Some others but just as important clubs of the times are also mentioned like: Corky’s, Rudy’s and Rose’s, Granada piano bar, Fritzie’s, not to mention icons (although no jazz) like Ocho Puertas, El Cotorrito, The Scene Au Go Go, Gatsby’s, The Latin Q, The Sand and the Seas and some of the cozy piano bars and restaurants that provided live entertainment. If that wasn’t enough entertainment for a day, there were all the great full orchestras like, Luisito Benjamin, Cesar Concepción, Noro Morales, Miguelito Miranda, and Pepito Torres Siboney, playing steadily at the major hotels…what a night out!
So yes…jazz and entertainment were abundant back then, and it was also shifting times - like the teeter totter of death and rebirth, some things are lost and some things are gained and not necessarily for better or for worse. One thing can be said for sure – it was an intense and eventful decade, the kind that we may never experience again in our lifetime!