year was 1949, and the American landscape was
awash with possibilities. Samba was all the
rage on the dance floor. Rogers and Hammerstein's
"South Pacific" opened on Broadway. Be-bop was
at its apogee. Jersey Joe Walcott won the heavyweight
title. "Ghost Riders In The Sky", "Diamonds
Are A Girl's Best Friend" and "Rudolph The Red-Nosed
Reindeer" topped the pop charts. And a young
Cuban drummer named Armando
Peraza first came to this country. Within
months he landed a house gig at Bop City--the
San Francisco club where everybody who was anybody
played when they hit the coast. Before the year
was out he took the stage with the greatest
names in jazz, from Billie Holiday to Charles
Mingus, Dexter Gordon to Dizzy Gillespie. He
also managed to find time for his first recording
session-with Charlie Parker. How did someone
who didn't even take music seriously till he
was in his thirties hit the heights so quickly?
May 30, 1924, Armando Peraza grew up on an island
that might as well have been on the other side
of the world, rather than just "a Sammy Sosa
homer" off the coast of Florida. Despite its
close proximity to the USA, Cuba was a country
still largely defined by its colonial past.
Once you got away from Havana, only the big
sugar plantations broke the sleepy rhythms of
a rural nation surrounded by the sea. In the
1940's, when Armando was a young man, baseball
and music were the island's passions. In fact,
they were so intertwined that you often saw
the same faces running scales as running bases.
Things have changed in the years since then,
but ballfields and bandstands are still emblematic
was his first love. Music was good, it was fun
and it came easy to him. But it also came late.
He dreamed of Yankee Stadium not Carnegie Hall,
and didn't envision himself as a serious musician.
Then a friend with a good breaking pitch and
a band needed a drummer.
was waiting for the bus one day with another
ballplayer named Alberto Ruiz. He said his band
was losing its conga player and he asks me to
keep my eyes open for a replacement. And I said,
I am the replacement".
got Ruiz to buy him a drum for $6 and soon began
making a name for himself as a percussionist.
Things were wide open in Cuba back then and
he played as much as he could. But he was still
working odd jobs-construction worker, field
hand-to survive. He developed his style in a
succession of bands. Among them was the influential
Kubavana featuring Carlos
"Patato" Valdez, who would go on to fame
Puente. Armando also became friends with
Mongo Santa Maria. They worked in several of
the same bands but not at the same time. It
wasn't until Mongo offered him a spot in the
band Cuban Diamond that they worked together.
In a classic case of good timing he joined the
group just before they left Mexico for the USA
Pagani, the "godfather of Latin music", arranged
for the band to work in New York. The owner
of the club that booked them also managed Kid
Gavilan, one of the era's most colorful fighters.
Armando and Mongo were a potent combination-"the
cheetah and the lion", as one critic would later
describe them-and they caught the attention
of Slim Gaillard, a fixture on the jazz scene
at the time. He offered to take them out to
the West Coast. But owing to the vicissitudes
of the Immigration Service, Mongo had to return
to Cuba for some paperwork and it was just Armando
who made the trip west. He had only been in
the United States for a short while but already
his career was moving at light speed. From then
on his prints would be all over the early Latin
He stayed with Gaillard just a few months, leaving
after a salary dispute to take the gig at Bop
City. Then he accepted an offer to join George
Shearing's group. Looking back it's easy to
see this as a defining moment in his life. He
would spend the next 11 years with Shearing's
ensemble, whose influence at moving Latin jazz
into the mainstream is hard to overestimate.
remembers those days vividly:
George Shearing played Cuban music, you'd close
your eyes and think it's a Cuban guy playing
keyboards. He gave me the greatest opportunity
of my life, and together we composed a number
of songs like "This Is Africa" and "Mambo In
to their first album, Latin Escapades, you hear
the foundation of Latin jazz in a small group.
This album and others featuring Armando with
Shearing are now on CD and still selling in
the marketplace "because it was a unique sound
with beautiful melodies, beautiful harmonies,
and beautiful interpretation."
the Sixties, he began moving away from jazz
and into rock and pop music. It was a creative
and fertile period for Armando and he was drawn
by the kaleidoscope nature of the San Francisco
scene. He toured and recorded with Sly & The
Family Stone, The Grateful Dead, and the pioneering
jazz/rock guitarist Harvey Mandel. Then he joined
the Carlos Santana Band. It would prove to be
the best fit of his career.
and the people in the Mission District created
something completely different. They took all
the resources that were available and adapted
them to their own mentality. It was a very creative
This seemingly effortless movement between styles
of music comes from his unique perspective:
have to find a way to adapt who you are, your
culture, to the music. Then your individuality
can make something new and the music evolves,
what's made it possible to sustain a career
that astonishingly, after more than fifty years,
is still going strong.
Armando is almost as well known for his humanitarian
instincts as he is for his playing.. He was
an early and fierce proponent of human rights,
believing that dignity and respect should not
be tied to race or economics.
have a strong attitude. If don't like something,
I'll tell you to your face. If I think you're
mistreating me, I'll tell you to your face.
Because I'm from the street, I know where the
is the first to admit that being outspoken and
unwillingly to look away from injustice has
caused trouble throughout his life.
a story that illustrates Armando's passion for
doing the right thing. At a show at the Great
American Music Hall, the bassist's camera disappeared
from backstage. Armando was sure he knew who
had done it so he went where he knew the suspect
hung out. When the man showed up Armando confronted
him, got him to confess and then return the
camera, proving that some people just "talk
the talk," Armando "walks the walk."
Rekow and Armando Peraza
has also taken the time to be a mentor to younger
players coming up. Someone asked him how he
felt seeing all these players he encouraged
grow up and find their place in the scheme of
feel good you know. I feel like I fulfilled
my role as a human being. I feel very happy."
are many luminaries in the history of Latin
percussion, but few people would argue if they
found Armando Peraza's name at the top. But
then, he has always been an innovator, never
afraid to change, to learn.
style of playing was against the grain and outside
the lines of traditional interpretation. The
criticism he drew for his playing in Cuba and
at hardcore Latin venues nudged him into the
jazz world. Here he had more room, more freedom.
He could get loose with the rhythm, deconstruct
it, find and apply his own vocabulary. He could
parse how Funk came from the Samba, he could
play it for you, how you change the accent a
little and you can travel all the way from Jobim
to Marvin Gaye.
work with Santana introduced him to a whole
generation of new players who marveled at his
technique. Raul Rekow, after working with him
for 22 years, is still impressed by Armando's
"secret hand" style of playing.
a way of playing called the mano secreto style.
It's playing doubles with the left hand, getting
double tones, two open tones with the left hand.
And I think Armando was the innovator of this.
I think Armando was the first person on the
face of this earth to be able to do it. That
was the key that opened the door for all these
new styles. I really believe that's the proper
lineage--it all started with Armando."
As Armando himself observed:
is a lot more freedom now in the way people
play. It wasn't like that earlier in my lifetime.
Today there are more styles and more instruments
More styles, more instruments, used in ways
and combinations that wouldn't have been acceptable
before. And much of the credit for the evolution
of instruments and applications owes to Armando.
house itself is a veritable museum of percussion-word
is he still has every instrument he ever acquired-but
his main drums are LP
Valje Bongos and Congas. He has had a long
association with LP instruments and prefers
them to all others. His hands are not large
but his drum sound, the hugeness and variety
of his tone, his "slap", is legendary. This
may have something to do with using the best
quality instruments he can find, but it is his
ferocious skill and exuberance that elevated
his playing to a level few others attain.
you play with someone you're having a conversation.
And in a conversation you don't talk at the
same time. You hear what somebody plays and
you create something else. That way you never
clash. One song is being played: but what you
hear is two different foundations rhythmically,
two different ideas. You have to learn to listen
to have a conversation".<
Adapt and evolve.
smoky little nightclubs with George Shearing,
to a Santana concert before 100,000 fans in
Santiago, Chile, Armando Peraza's career has
been quite a conversation.
by: Jim McSweeney
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