Five Legends of Latin Jazz

Five legends—including Grammy winners Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, and Frank "Machito" Grillo—stand out as the most important contributors to the development of Latin jazz and have released some of the greatest Latin jazz albums. Combining the propulsive rhythms and spirited melodies of Latin music with jazz harmonies and improvisation, these pioneering Latin jazz musicians helped forge a genre that continues to thrive and expand. 

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Portrait of Machito, Jose Mangual, Carlos Vidal(?), and Graciella Grillo, Glen Island Casino, New York, N.Y., ca. July 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Frank "Machito" Grillo (1908?–1984) was a singer and maracas player from Cuba who moved to New York in 1937 after traveling there while on tour with a Cuban ensemble. Soon he began leading his own band, the Afro-Cubans, that performed Cuban songs arranged by American jazz composers. The Afro-Cubans became one of the foremost Latin jazz ensembles in history and featured some of the top jazz artists of all time, including Dexter Gordon and Cannonball Adderley. Machito's large ensemble setting of Latin jazz is upheld by the Machito Orchestra, led by his son Mario, and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. Machito won a Grammy Award in 1983. 

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Mario Bauzá

Photograph taken by Enrique Cervera in 1992 in my studio in Brooklyn, NY, USA
Enrique Cervera/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

Mario Bauzá (1911-1993) was a child prodigy from Cuba who, at the age of none, played clarinet in the Havana Philharmonic. He later switched to trumpet and learned the subtleties of jazz in New York City. His collaborations with the great Latin musicians, including his brother-in-law Machito, as well as the top bebop musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, lit the fuse for an explosion of Latin jazz in the 1940s and '50s. Bauzá composed and arranged "Tanga," one of Machito’s biggest hits.

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Tito Puente

Timbales used by Tito Puente in the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Olympics
RadioFan/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

Born in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, Tito Puente (1923–2000) aspired to be a dancer until he injured his leg as a boy. Inspired by jazz drummer Gene Krupa, he began to study percussion and soon became the most famous timbales player on the scene. Puente's talent and charisma as a performer allowed his orchestra to become the preeminent Latin jazz group. The winner of five Grammy Awards, he appeared in many films and as a guest star on television. Puente's most famous song was "Oye Como Va."

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Ray Barretto

Ray Barretto en concert à Deauville (Normandie, France) le 15 juillet 1991.
Roland Godefroy/Wikimedia Commons/GNU Free Documentation License

Ray Barretto (1929–2006) learned to play percussion on the head of a banjo while stationed in Germany as a U.S. soldier. It was then that he decided to devote his life to music, and upon returning to New York he became one of the most sought-after conga players. As a bandleader, he won the hearts of Latin music and jazz audiences. He was twice nominated for a Grammy Award.

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Eddie Palmieri

Eddie Palmieri
Image via Facebook Page

Eddie Palmieri, born in 1936 in New York City, began his music career as a drummer. When he switched to piano, he kept a percussive approach and incorporated the harmonies of Thelonious Monk. This made his band, which famously included two trombones, one of the most hard-hitting and experimental Latin jazz small groups around. Palmieri has won nine Grammy Awards, including one for the 2006 album "Simpático" and two for the 2000 release "Masterpiece" with Tito Puente. Although he announced his retirement in 2000, he continued to work on select projects.