A Brief History of Latin Jazz

A Look at The Roots, Development, and Pioneers of Afro-Cuban Jazz

Mongo Santamaria Performs in New York
Mongo Santamaria performs during a concert at Central Park circa 1970 in Manhattan, New York. Walter Iooss Jr / Contributor / Getty Images

In general terms, Latin Jazz is a musical label defined by the combination of Jazz with Latin music rhythms. Brazilian Jazz, a style that emerged from the sounds of Bossa Nova thanks to artists like Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto, fits this general concept. However, this introduction to Latin Jazz history deals with the origins and development of the style that has come to define Latin Jazz as a whole: Afro-Cuban Jazz.

Habanera and Early Jazz

Although the foundations of Latin Jazz were consolidated during the 1940s and 1950s, there is evidence about the inclusion of Afro-Cuban sounds into early Jazz. To this regard, Jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton used the term Latin tinge to make a reference to the rhythm that characterized some of the Jazz that was played in New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century.

This Latin tinge was a direct reference to the influence that the Cuban Habanera, a genre that was popular in the dance halls of Cuba at the end of the 19th century, had in the making of some of the local Jazz expressions that were produced in New Orleans. Along those lines, the proximity between New Orleans and Havana also allowed Cuban musicians to borrow elements from the early American Jazz.

Mario Bauza and Dizzy Gillespie

Mario Bauza was a talented trumpeter from Cuba who moved to New York in 1930. He brought with him a solid knowledge of Cuban music and a big interest for American Jazz. When he arrived in the Big Apple, he joined the big band movement playing with the bands of Chick Webb and Cab Calloway.

In 1941, Mario Bauza left Cab Calloway's orchestra to join the band of Machito and the Afro-Cubans. Acting as the music director of Machito's band, in 1943 Mario Bauza wrote the song "Tanga," a single considered by many the first Latin Jazz track in history.

When he was playing for the bands of Chick Webb and Cab Calloway, Mario Bauza had the opportunity to meet a young trumpeter named Dizzy Gillespie. They not only forged a lifelong friendship but also influenced each other's music. Thanks to Mario Bauza, Dizzy Gillespie developed a taste for Afro-Cuban music, which he successfully incorporated into jazz. In fact, it was Mario Bauza who introduced the Cuban percussionist Luciano Chano Pozo to Dizzy Gillespie. Together, Dizzy and Chano Pozo wrote some of the most iconic Latin Jazz tracks in history including the legendary song "Manteca".

The Mambo Years and Beyond

By the beginning of the 1950s, Mambo had taken the world by storm and Latin Jazz was enjoying new levels of popularity. This new popularity was the result of the music produced by artists like Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria, and Israel 'Cachao' Lopez.

During the 1960s, when Mambo was being abandoned in favor of a new musical mix named Salsa, the Latin Jazz movement was influenced by different artists who moved between the emerging genre and Jazz. Some of the biggest names include different artists from New York such as pianist Eddie Palmieri and percussionist Ray Barreto, who later played a major role with the legendary Salsa band Fania All Stars.

Up to the 1970s, Latin Jazz was mainly shaped in the US. However, back in 1972 in Cuba a talented pianist named Chucho Valdes founded a band named Irakere, which added a Funky beat to traditional Latin Jazz changing forever the sounds of this genre.

For the past decades, Latin Jazz has continued to thrive as a more global phenomenon that has incorporated all kinds of elements from the Latin music world. Some of today's most famous Latin Jazz artists include well-established artists such as Chucho Valdes, Paquito D'Rivera, Eddie Palmieri, Poncho Sanchez and Arturo Sandoval, and a whole new generation of stars like Danilo Perez and David Sanchez. Latin Jazz is a never ending business.