Manny Oquendo, 1931-2009
In memory of Manny Oquendo, master timbalero and leader of the much respected Conjunto Libre, who passed away on March 26, 2009. From our archives we offer the following 1979 interview with Andy González, co-leader of Conjunto Libre, which was originally posted in 2004 to mark Conjunto Libre's 30th anniversary.
Unearthing a gem: Roberta Singer's in-depth 1979 interviews with Libre's co-leader and bassist, Andy González
Hangin' with Andy
Interviews by Roberta Singer
edited by David Barton exclusively for Descarga.com
October 2004 will be the 30th anniversary of the debut of Manny Oquendo's Libre. To
mark this occasion we travel back to their fifth year (1979) when co-leader and bassist
Andy González met several times and in many different locations with Roberta Singer, then preparing a PhD thesis which has led her into a career of documenting New York's
rich cultural history through its music. Descarga.com is thrilled to share this in-depth
snapshot of one of our most creative music groups, never-before revealed details of Andy's musical coming-of-age with his brother Jerry, his creation of a group with
Manny, and the role of other local icons crucial to Libre's legacy as the acknowledged
"University of Latin Music."
Mentioned in the interviews is the New Rican Village (N.R.V.), located on Avenue A
between 6th and 7th Streets, founded by Eddie Figueroa in 1977 as a non-commercial
alternative space for the creation and exploration of arts that expressed an evolving
self-interpretation of New York Latino identity. A hard-core gathering of musicians, dancers,
poets, visual artists, photographers and political activists-turned-cultural warriors
were dedicated to the notion that cultural self-definition was as important as political self-determination. The most widely known and enduring result of these gatherings
is Jerry's Fort Apache Band, created subsequent to his solo debut, Ya Yo Me Curé,
and shortly after the demise of the N.R.V. in 1979 (which was largely caused by the organizer failing to pay the rent on time). Fort Apache remains the most faithful
to the N.R.V.'s musical spirit of fusing Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz improvisation,
With thanks to Andy, Wilson Valentín, and Ramón "Ray" Rosado for their generosity.
Special thanks to Izzy Sanabria for his kind permission to use photos from the archives of Latin New York magazine.
RS There's some general stuff that I'd like to get in terms of background about Libre.
What is your notion of what Libre is about, the concept you had when you and Manny
got it together?
AG What we play is ... what we like. It can't fall into any real category, but it's
just music that we like and enjoy. We enjoy playing típico conjunto style, charanga
style, Latin jazz. We like things that are deep-rooted, we like to experiment, we
like all those things. So, it evolved. We always knew what we liked to play but getting
people together and trying to get them to play the way you envision it is not an
easy task. A lot of sidemen have gone through the band, especially trombone players;
I've been through just about every trombone player in the city. Papo Vázquez has always been
there and José Rodríguez was there for a long time. Papo left for a while to go with
Harlow or Héctor Lavoe or one of those bands when we weren't working a whole lot.
Those bands were HOT and making all kinds of bucks and guys would leave to make some money.
So I'd have other trombone players come in and do the gig whenever I could. Barry
Rogers played with us lots of times, Reinaldo Jorge, everybody played with us. I've
used just about every trombone player in the city who is into Latin music. The rhythm
section, me, Jerry, and Manny -- that's like the heart of it. Piano players were
also kind of transient. Oscar Hernández has mainly been our piano player, but there's
been times when we've used different cats: Mark Dimond, Alfredo Rodríguez, Hilton Ruíz,
RS Is the concept of that "gathering" that's at the N.R.V. different from the concept
on the nights when Manny is there?
AG When Manny's there, there's a tremendous amount of discipline, 'cause he won't
stand for 'no discipline.' But within that discipline there's a heavy understanding
of what's to be played, how it's to be played, and where you are free to play, and
where you're not free to play. That's something that was felt, it wasn't told; it was a feeling-out
RS Are there ways that you have of communicating that sense to the band?
AG You mean, if I have ways of telling people that they're pulling the tempo down
or something? Is that what you mean? I either scream at them or else I do it with
the bass. I push ahead until they get the message.
And if they're not paying attention it takes them a long time to get the message?
Right. That's when I scream. The internal thing of making music and then trying to
organize it in a cohesive fashion is a bitch. Just telling people, 'you do this here,
you do this there,' it ain't easy.
Does Manny do that on gigs too?
Yeah, but he doesn't tell you while you're playing or before you're playing. He'll
tell you what you did wrong after you've played. That way you learn. In other words,
so you don't get paranoid and try to do it right while you're playing that gig. Just
play the way you feel comfortable and things will happen because I give more-or-less
direct cues. Things are supposed to happen a certain way and they happen. If there's
anything wrong he'll tell you after the gig, probably a day later he'll say, "Hey,
listen, you played this here and you did this against the clave and it was wrong." He's
the one, if there's anybody you can call a catalyst who takes the whole thing and
goes, "MOVE, YOU GUYS," it's him! He eggs everybody on by his playing, and he's always
inventing things to sing. All the coros and the stuff that the singers sing: that all
comes from him. He's the one that puts all that together for them to sing. He's taught
them how to sing it, how to phrase it, it all comes out of him. Everything that those
guys know today rhythmically or anything else is because of him.
So, you and Manny are equal as far as directors of Libre?
I was like the musical director in terms of writing down arrangements, with his help.
His help comes in terms of how to set up a tune psychologically, how to build a
tune so that it starts at one level and builds in excitement to reach a certain climax
and then comes down naturally. He won't explain it to you that way, but that's exactly
what he means. He really knows how to put a tune together, to get the most out of
it and really thrill an audience. He KNOWS that shit. He's a veteran of a good 30
years of playing this stuff; he's 47 years old. My role is overall musical director, in
terms of counting off numbers, giving cues, booking gigs, getting paid for gigs and
paying off everybody. Financial manager-type stuff. He chooses the repertoire.
How does Manny feel in terms of repertoire? How does he feel about the stuff like
He loved "Donna Lee," yeah, the whole thing. That was his rhythmic arrangement. It
was my chart, but I was missing sections to the danzón, which he pulled my coat to.
I had left out a couple of sections in the form of the danzón, and he told me what
I left out. He also made up the break for the mambo. Really, it's all his, it's like his
concept of playing a danzón. He's a heavy student of danzón playing. He was into
that kind of playing when it was contemporary. When Arcaño was the band that was
happening, he saw them playing live in Cuba. He went to Cuba for a week and spent three months,
in 1955. This was the Golden Age of Cuban Music; he saw everybody play. He was just
hanging out. He's godfather to Vicentico Valdés' daughter, he and Vicentico played
together in Tito Puente's conjunto for two or three years. Then Vicentico formed his
own band and took the rhythm section to Cuba. They all went back home, but Manny
stayed, and he stayed with Vicentico 's family there. Manny's old lady was freaking
out; she kept on calling Vicentico, "Where IS he??!!"
Manny's house was like ours was...a jamming session, when he lived on Kelly Street.
Kelly Street was the most famous street in the world, musically. Every famous Latin
musician lived on that block: Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, Noro Morales. Arsenio
lived on Kelly Street when he came to New York in 1952. Manny moved to Kelly Street in 1946;
that's when he met Tito Rodríguez who was singing in Noro Morales' band. They were
And now the neighborhood is all burned out.
I took him over there recently; he freaked, but his building was still standing.
He used to have jam sessions on the roof, heavy rumbas on the roof! If he's anything,
he's a rumbero. All those beats that he plays in his solos, those are rumbero beats.
Anybody in Cuba could dance rumba to the beats that Manny plays on a solo, because every
beat that he plays has a meaning in the dance. It's like a heavy electricity, and
when people dance it's like Manny is talking to the dancers when he plays. And that
is very typical of what the quinto does with the dancers in rumba.
Do the dancers know what he's doing?
Very few. They're not aware and don't know. The older dancers from the '50s, from
the Palladium era, they know. The "hot corner," the "esquina caliente" in the Palladium
was where all the heavy dancers used to hang and all of them were rumba dancers.
Does he understand what is happening between the drummers and dancers in rumba?
That's something he really hasn't studied, and you've really got to study that. I
saw a lot of it in Cuba, really good playing and dancing together. Manny's probably
the only Puerto Rican here that really has a grasp of that concept. He really has
it, more than anybody. And he does it on whatever instrument he plays: conga, timbales, whatever;
it's his concept. Nobody else here in the city has the grasp he has of that. He even
plays more típico than the Cubans that are here, I mean cats that are playing timbales. Julito Collazo took Manny's place in Eddie Palmieri's band and he did a good
job. Manny got pissed with Eddie and left the band and they had to hire Julito. One
thing he said he did that a lot of people didn't understand was incorporate batá
rhythms into the timbales, for breaks and solos. I'm sure that was kind of spacey. The two
albums were "Lo Que Triago Es Sabroso" and "Echando Pa'lante." They're good albums
but they would have been monstrous if Manny had played on them. Julito does a competent
job, but Manny says he can't listen to the albums because he knows what they had achieved
with the music before they went into the studio, and it's like Eddie had to settle
for something that wasn't as tight. Those albums are still classics to me. But like I said, Manny is a stickler not only for discipline, but for things being correct.
And when things are not correct he either says something or he gets mad and splits.
What was the relationship, if any, between Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Nuevayorquino
AG Folklórico went more toward guaguancó-style playing, which was a different concept
to Libre. Libre's a dance band based on the same principles: spontaneity, improvisation
and rhythm that were the foundations of Folklórico but that could also earn us some money on the circuit. Our first Folklórico gig was at Wesleyan University in
1974 and Manny wasn't there yet. We were still playing with Eddie Palmieri; Jerry,
me and Manny. We did six months together in Eddie's band, and then Barry Rogers came
back. Man, we had a fucking GOOD band: Barry, José, Mario Rivera, Chocolate, Vitín Paz,
Alfredo de la Fe; it was a tremendous band, Manny, Jerry, Chuckie López. We stayed
together six months, went to Puerto Rico, Miami, California.
[Editor's note: In an interview with Blanca Vázquez for Hunter College's 1991 CENTRO
Bulletin, Jerry describes this time with Eddie: " (quitting) was a drag because
Eddie's was one of the most important of the Latin dance bands that improvised. Constant
piano solos, drum solos, trombones were burning out, all night, inventando mambos,
not playing written mambos the same way every night. That was what the deal was,
they were playing jazz, but in the Caribbean tradition; respecting all the elder
stuff but taking it another step. Playing modal stuff like Coltrane was playing. Eddie was playing
closer to Thelonius Monk and McCoy Tyner than any other Latin pianist that I know,
incorporating the traditional way of playing. That was what was happening, there
was some musicians playing, thinking, and feeling, and moving, swinging." Andy describes
that band as "collective improvisation under the guise of dance music."]
When we were with Eddie, we decided to form a band, 'cause Eddie was messing around
with us financially, emotionally, and we were getting spaced out by it. Manny was
the first one to cut out, he was hip to Eddie's shit for a long time. So he warned
him, "Eddie, you fuck with me one time and I'm gone." Eddie fucked up with the money, Manny
packed up and was gone on the first train back to New York. The rest of us stayed
around; why should we go back to New York? It's cozy here in P.R. But then things
started getting more spacey and finally we did leave Eddie's band in August '74. We started
Libre in October '74 and played our first gig at the end of October, the 24th, at
John Jay College in Manhattan. Folklórico was already in the rehearsal and playing
stage, and we did a few gigs here and there.
We did a gig at WKCR, which was our first attempt at putting something together. The
group was Mario Rivera, Jerry on trumpet, Eddie Martínez on piano, Manny, Frankie
Rodríguez, Milton Cardona, Cachete, Gene Golden and me in the rhythm section. We
played "Donna Lee" and "Tune-Up," and Manny was driving all the way.
The whole first year we were also doing Folklórico, mostly as a rehearsal thing and
an occasional concert. We said, "We're gonna need something a little more steady
to work with." So we put together a dance band with that in mind: to play dances.
At first we were playing too much Latin Jazz and the club owners didn't dig it, so we had to
change our repertoire to more danceable music. And eventually the singers came in
and the band settled, and that's where we were, a dance band.
Who was the original Libre?
That's hard to say. Oscar (Hernández) was the original piano player on the first
gig. Barry Rogers, Mario Rivera, Milton sang coro and played a little bit of something.
Was Mario part of the original idea for Libre and was he part of the original group
or did he just play that first gig?
He played that first gig. No, I'm making a mistake, he didn't play that first gig, who did play? I don't even remember. I got it on tape somewhere. Anyway, I had
Carlos Santos singing. He could sing good boleros, but he couldn't sing up-tempo
things so I had to get rid of him. Then Tempo Alomar came in the band. Jerry heard him get up
and sing with Willie Colón one night. Héctor Lavoe hadn't shown up for the gig. Tempo
was the timbalero with another band, La Conspiración, and since nobody was singing
(with Colón) he got up and sang, and Jerry happened to be there. Jerry told me that he
heard Tempo and said, "You should check him out for the band, he really sings his
ass off." So I checked him out, brought him to a rehearsal and he sang good, so we
used him. Then he brought Pupi Torres into the band. So we had our two singers. Oscar was
out; he went to play with Pete El Conde and then Ray Barretto. This whole scene is
musical chairs, it's incredible. In the past, a band used to be more stable. You
could see the same band with the same personnel for at least two or three years, maybe four.
Now, every four or five months there's a change in personnel.
Why is that?
Economic reasons. Everybody's just trying to make more money and there ain't no more
money. Scale hasn't gone up much more from what it was ten years ago. There used
to be a loyalty thing, where because the bread was steady and there was enough work.... Now there's not enough work and the bread is not steady and the players are not stable
like they used to be. We had the same personnel in the band at one point for a whole
year, with José Rodríguez and Papo Vázquez. Then we started using a flute player:
David Valentín. I ran into him on the street, asked what he was doing and if he wanted
a gig, he said, "Yeah." Then I saw Néstor Torres playing with Típica Ideal. David
was splitting, so I asked if he wanted to come in. He said, "Let me finish this gig
and I'll come." So he stayed with us until he got a better offer from Típica Novel, which
was a money thing although we weren't doing too badly. In fact, we were doing better
than Novel about a week after he left. So I told him, "You made a big mistake."
What's the standard way of recording Latin music here in New York?
AG The normal Fania record date, and I've done a lot of them, is the musicians come
in, they may have had a rehearsal or maybe not. Usually it comes out better without
a rehearsal. Musicians don't like doing rehearsals because Fania doesn't pay for
them. This all has to do with the musician's union. They have certain guidelines as to how
to pay musicians. They have to be paid a set amount for a three-hour date, for time
over that and for rehearsals; set rules and regulations. But Fania has the musician's
union paid off or something. Fania reports no record dates to the union as they're supposed
to and they use non-union personnel.
The union doesn't respond to the needs of the Latin musicians, although it used to.
Latin music in the '40s, '50s and early '60s was very legitimate, and the American
music guidelines also pertained to Latin musicians. But, it has become so corrupt
in the last ten years that now Latin music has its own rules, ripping-off the musicians left
and right. Union scale for a three-hour recording date is $125, Fania will not pay
over $100. Plus, union overtime is $40 per hour, Fania pays no overtime. So, musicians
have that in mind when they go into the studio. And now there's an influx of new musicians
coming in from the islands, especially Santo Domingo, and they're willing to work
cheap. So we have a problem where if we don't do it someone else will. It's really
disgusting. Now, Fania is becoming filthy rich off of what we do, and they're keeping
everyone on a string. They'll tell you, "OK, you don't want to do it we'll get someone
else and you'll be out the job."
It seems like that kind of thing also creates separation and a lot of hostilities.
There is! I've never seen such back-stabbing and egomaniac-type behavior going on.
Since I've become involved in the business end of this industry I've really found
out what a cut-throat business it is. The Latin record companies are all American-owned,
not owned by Latinos. It's really just a large system of oppression. Maybe it's a microcosm
of what the United States or capitalist business is: dog-eat-dog, cut-throat, back-stabbing,
just to move up the ladder of success. 99% of this whole business is oppressive toward human beings. They're forcing you, by manipulative means, through technology
and mind control, to force you to buy things that you don't want. But it works better
with Latinos and it works great with poor people because they don't have anything and they can be coerced. Most poor kids spend more time watching TV and are influenced
by TV and by radio. They know all the words to the latest hits, yet they don't know
what 2+2 is.
Anyway, back to the point, the whole politics of the business has a direct effect
on the musicians and how they play their music. When we go into the studio, there's
already a negative thing 'cause you know that you're getting ripped-off and there's
nothing we can do about it except NOT play.
You can choose between exploitation and starvation.
Exactly. So that's the general feeling off the bat when you go into the studio for
a normal date--rip-off. And you have that in the back of your mind when you're playing.
How can you play with any kind of feeling when you know that's going on? What it's
turning out to be is what we call now "The Fania Factory." You go in there, do the
job, get your bread and split. That's all it is: a factory. It doesn't matter if
you even get credited on the album. It's not a question of credit, you do the job
detached from it, you have no involvement except playing your small part and that's it.
When you play your small part, what's the process that's going on?
It depends on the arrangement. Say somebody wrote an arrangement and you have to
play the bass part. For Fania records, I don't go out of my way; I don't become particularly
inspired, on purpose. I could make suggestions that would make the music a lot more palatable, or more artistic, or like that. But I'm not going to lift a finger to
help people that are ripping me off. It's bad enough that I'm doing a record that
I shouldn't be doing.
In other words, you're going in there with a conscious constraint upon yourself in
terms of what you will put out as an artist.
Exactly. It's mind-blowing, and I'm just chipping the slightest little piece off the
iceberg. It's really deep. To discuss it thoroughly would take quite a while.
Do a lot of other musicians feel the same?
Yeah, but they're resigned that there's nothing else and a lot of them have been
brainwashed already, and they think that what's best in music is what they're doing.
They can't see beyond that. I taught myself to appreciate just about any music in
this world, just as long as it's human expression, no matter where it comes from. But a majority
of the people in this business cannot. I call it "this business" because I have to.
That's all it is: it's a business. If we're talking about culture, that's a different thing, if we're talking about music, about people, that's a different thing. I'm
talking about something that isn't human. There are human beings that are involved
in it, but it's not a basic human thing. To me it's mechanical. It doesn't have the
When you go into a Fania studio, do you feel that you are communicating with the
other musicians in any way?
No. If any communication happens, it's superficial. Like I said, it's a factory,
they knock them out: boom boom boom. The company doesn't encourage communication
because they want you to do the arrangement on the job that's supposed to be done
so we can make our shining-star singer shine brighter; make him look good.
Does technology affect individual playing styles? For instance, you play both the
baby bass and the acoustic. Why do you use one instead of the other?
It has to do with economics. I played a wooden bass in elementary school but I never
owned my own, it was much too expensive, beyond my means or my folk's means. I started
bugging my parents for an electric instrument rather than an acoustic, not because
I didn't want an acoustic, but I had it in the back of my mind that if I had an electric
instrument I could play with bands and make some money to buy a decent instrument.
My Ampeg Baby Bass was my first instrument, the first instrument that I owned. About a year after I had that bass I earned enough money to buy a wooden bass. So I had
that in mind all along.
I was lucky in that the Baby Bass I got was a good model, had a good sound, better
than a lot of other instruments that came out around the same time. Each instrument
is different as far as sound is concerned, but I was lucky to get one that had a
good pickup. Some people are not that fortunate. There is a lot of difference between the
two instruments (Baby and acoustic), and that's why I use the acoustic on my records.
I use the Baby Bass on Fania dates all the time; I will not use the acoustic for
Fania dates. I don't think that it's deserved. To me an acoustic has a sound that's so natural
and so beautiful that it can't be on a Fania record, because that's like you're putting
something that's natural on something that's unnatural. Do you see where I'm coming from? I wouldn't bring my acoustic to a Fania recording because I don't think
the music, or the people involved, or the company, deserve that.
Upon what is your decision based when you're playing at the New Rican Village?
One decision is that I'll be drowned-out if I used the acoustic bass on some of the
regular tunes with the drums, like the dance tunes. The Baby Bass was built to cut
through that, to cut through a percussion section. It's perfect for Latin music.
It still has the qualities of an acoustic bass, but it's not like a Fender, which is too
electric. You have no real control, well, you have some control over it, but as far
as approaching the instrument as a drummer would approach the instrument in Latin
music, you can't do it on a Fender. You can control the note just so much on that instrument,
but then the pick-ups take over, and they're much too powerful. A Fender bass in
Brazilian music, OK, but for Latin music it stinks. That's the one thing I got to
tell all the Cubans when I got to Cuba, 'cause I can't stand an electric bass.
Do you play differently on the different instruments?
Yes. I use a lighter touch on an acoustic instrument, especially fingering-wise.
I have my acoustic bass set up really nice, so that it's not difficult to get around.
In other words, when you have the right kind of strings and you have the strings
set apart from the fingerboard just the right kind of height the strings will ring out, the
notes will ring out. You have more control over your sound; you control it totally
on the acoustic, 'cause there's no electricity involved, so you have complete control
over the sound, the quality of the sound, and either the intensity of it or the most
sensitive minute thing that you can think of, you can achieve on that instrument.
On a Baby Bass it's harder. You have a certain amount of control but it's a limited
control. After a certain point, electronics take over.
Do you think that your ideas and the way you construct your ideas or the way ideas
come when you're playing is any different? In other words, do you get more stimulated
to do certain things with the acoustic beyond the fact that you have more tone control or....
Well, the factor of tone control has a lot to do with my decisions, or my inspiration
to play. It's like a confidence, you know, if you have a certain realm within which
to work, yet you can't go beyond a certain limit, or know that you can't achieve
certain things on the instrument, then you deal with it the best way you can. You know
your limitations so you work within that framework, on either instrument.
So that knowledge of what the instrument can do feeds into your construction of ideas?
Yeah. See, on the Baby Bass, although my conception for what I'd like to play is
the same, I just alter it slightly to deal with the technicalities of the instrument
itself. I know that on the Baby Bass, if I go up too high, the notes will not be
clear or if I go down too low the notes will be slightly muddy, so I take that into account
when I'm playing. Whereas on the acoustic, I know that every note will be clear,
even if I go to the top of the finger-board, or the lowest note, it will be clear
as a bell. It's like second-nature already, because both these instruments are a part of me,
I know what they can do, I know them well.
Why don't you put a pick-up on the acoustic?
I have a pick-up, it still won't cut through. There hasn't been a pick-up made for
an acoustic that can come across with a natural sound and I've tried them all but
they don't give me what I'm looking for. The Baby Bass has more bass and treble by
itself than an acoustic using an electronic pick-up, which has a very trebly sound and not
too much bottom to it, unless you buy an equalizer and re-equalize the whole thing.
A bass doesn't give you the same kind of sound every day. It changes with climate,
weather conditions; the sound changes, the string tension changes.
What about piano?
I cannot stand electric piano of any sort. The art, the technique of piano playing
is in the touch. I'm a bug for touch and I love to hear piano players that have distinctive
touches. They can hit a certain note with a certain kind of strength that is either delicate or is hard, or it can be all those things. You cannot achieve those things
on an electric instrument. Same thing with the bass. You cannot achieve good touch
with those instruments although I get a pretty good sound with my Baby Bass, but
it's not the same thing.
Do you think that, because there is such a difference between electric and acoustic
pianos that the choice of instrument has an effect on the style?
Yeah. Piano players have to adapt. They know that they're going to sacrifice tone
and touch, so they have to deal with electronics and it's a question of how you can
get around the instrument to make it sound as well as you can according to your own
What about the use of a professional sound-mixer in a live concert?
Unless the person is involved in the band, knows the band well, I think that's a
mistake. It's gotten to the point where musicians are no longer in control. They
might still be in control of their own sound in small places, but in large places
they can't. We're totally dependent on whatever the sound technician gives us, which is really
a drag. That's why I'm not too keen on playing concerts unless I have somebody working
the sound that I can trust, and I don't trust too many people out there. I would
trust Freddy Weinburg, he knows us, he knows what we like, and he knows how to achieve
the right balances, but I wouldn't let anybody else do it.
When Los Papines were here I noticed that they did something that a lot of groups
don't do. That is, when the lead singer came out to sing everybody else came down
When they played on 125th Street they had no microphones, they simply adjusted to
that and everybody heard everything. I learned a lot from that. I was becoming de-sensitized
to the situation myself. Playing with Eddie Palmieri was becoming like one big loud affair, you get de-sensitized to the fact that dynamics is a part of music, it's
a part that has to be utilized a lot more. I think it's partly because musicians
have been conditioned to expect everything to be very loud and that's it, and if
you're not heard, well tough shit. Everybody is playing louder so as to be heard.
We're going to have a musician's conference at the New Rican in September and we're
going to talk about all this in depth. We're going to ask the musicians to come up
and give their testimony about everything we can think of that pertains to us. I
really think it's time for musicians to come out and wake up to reality and wake up to what's
happening. Either they're just going to continue to accept all the crap, and what's
really happening is that it's destroying tradition, it's destroying all that we feel
is part of our heritage. It's slowly disintegrating into another mish-mash of pop music
and it's no longer people's music. It's turning into something else. I'm trying to
fight that trend 'cause if we can't control our own music, then it is no longer our
music. We have to define what is ours and what is not ours.
What do you see ahead for Libre?
Libre's gonna continue, because whatever we put together will be Libre. I'll just
have to say, "The current manifestation of Libre is such and such." Right now it's
not solidified at all. Soon we're playing a quintet gig and calling it Libre, playing
more in the Latin-jazz vein in a jazz supper club. That should be interesting. But whatever
we are, it's Libre. Manny's gotta be there 'cause he, and me, we staffed it together
and I wouldn't dare say that I'm Libre if he's not there. I didn't like calling Libre what we were doing in the N.R.V. every Thursday, because Manny wasn't there, but
they were calling it Libre because we had started that a long time ago and all the
publicity said "LIBRE," but if I'd had my way I'd've changed it to "Andy & Jerry
& Friends" or "Los Newyorquinos" or something like that.
I notice you keep referring back to the past so why not tell me how things started
for you, and where you came from. Where were you born?
I was born January 1st 1951 at New York Hospital and lived the first two years on
58th St and First Avenue. It wasn't classy at that time. The Third Avenue el (subway)
rode right past my house. I don't remember any of that time. But there's the famous
fable of that house: the ceiling fell on Jerry.
So that's what happened! It explains a thing or two!
Yup! And we were quick to move out of there! The building was dilapidated and falling
down. We moved to the Edenwald Projects in the Bronx, at that time, 1953, the largest
housing projects ever built maybe in the world. It was like a really showcase kind
of place. First we lived in a 14-story building; we called it "a big building." We
lived on the 13th floor of 1141 East 229th Street. We lived there 'til I was about
seven or eight. At that time I vaguely recall owning my very first record player,
a tin record player my parents got me that played kiddie records, but it was a real one that
had a motor and it played. I broke that one fast. The following year they got me
a better one with 3 speeds and a needle to change for 45s or 78s and it came in a little
What kind of records did you play?
Any kind. Some of my father's old 78s. My father was into hi-fi, even before hi-fi,
he was into having a record player. In 1949 he bought a combination Admiral TV and
78 record player in a console unit that sounded pretty good. I remember watching
Liberace on the TV and stuff like that. Then he started getting into hi-fi and the Admiral
went out the window. He got into 33 speed LP records. By that time I already had
my own record player and either used the 78s for target practice, or I managed to
salvage whatever was left and I used to play them. My father had some Latino records and we
grew up listening to them. They were around at parties, and family parties consisted
of heavy doses of Tito Rodríguez, Tito Puente, Machito, lots of tríos with guitars,
La Playa Sextet and the groups around at that time. Cuban and Puerto Rican, but with the
emphasis on P.R.
The jíbaro stuff?
Yeah, for a while. My dad was singing with this guy who's still around: Augie Meléndez,
guitarist, and his brother, Moncho. Both of them played guitar and they had like
a conjunto sound similar to La Playa Sextet's guitar and trumpet format, that kind
of thing. They used to copy a lot of Sonora Matancera tunes, Tito Rodríguez tunes, La
Playa Sextet tunes, things like that. And my father was a vocalist with them for
a long time.
Did he also play an instrument?
No. He was just a singer. He played some of the percussion instruments like maracas
and güiro. But he was always the vocalist.
Was your father working only as a musician, or did he have another gig?
The musician thing was only a sideline, moonlighting, a weekend thing for extra bread.
My mother worked intermittently, but when we were really young she didn't work. My
father was a general contractor. He's a jack-of-all-trades who does all kinds of
things. He was a house painter, all kinds of shit. Now he's head-custodian in this office
building on Lexington Avenue. He's had that job forever.
Anyway, they used to work in the second circuit around town rather than, let's say,
the Latin dance circuit like the Palladium, the classier clubs or the "hipper" dances.
They would play the "hickier" crowds, play for social clubs and like that. At that
time social clubs used to throw a lot of dances.
What time are you talking about now?
Early '50s. There were many social clubs and their thing was throwing dances all
year 'round. So there was a lot of work for the second-string Latin bands. They couldn't
play the hip places, but there was a whole lot of other work that they could get.
My father used to play at a place called the Casino Puerto Rico at 138th Street and Willis
Avenue on the corner. The building is still there but it's just not used for anything.
They used to work up at Las Villas, upstate NY, when Villas first became popular. You talk to any Puerto Rican from here about Las Villas and they will know what and
where it is. Las Villas consists of Villa Victoria, Villa Toto, and others. Augie
Meléndez with my father singing, in 1956 I believe, opened Villa Toto. For a few
years every summer my father was like the emcee up there. My mother would go up there during
the week and they'd drag us along. We spent a lot of time up there.
So this is like a whole circuit of Puerto Rican resorts. Is that what they call the
No, not really. I've never considered that the cuchifrito circuit, although you could
there WAS a lot of pork eaten up there! To me, it's always Las Villas. You can
say "Las Villas" to any Puerto Rican and right away they get images of pernil with
arroz con gondules, and music and places where people would rent bungalows for the summer.
A lot of the good bands from here would go up there for the summertime because the
dance season here was dead so the bands would go up to the resorts to play. Machito
would go to Grossinger's, Eddie Palmieri would go to Kutsher's Country Club, lots of
those places. They are all on the way to Las Villas. But in the funkier places like
Villa Toto, Villa Victoria, Villa Nilo, a million places, they all had music. They
would hire a steady band to play the summer, or a month, and then have visiting bands come
up to do special gigs. So that was steady work for musicians during the '50s in the
summers. It was normal for everybody to be going up there. Now, it's still happening
and a lot of the old places are still up there, but it's not as popular as it was in
the '50s. They have these bus outings from here. They hired Libre to do one of those
gigs. They had big busloads of people, eight buses. This was about three or four
It sounds like a nice outing.
Oh yeah. It's a little funky, but it's nice and fun. We always have a ball on those
gigs. OK, back to Edenwald. At the time we lived at 1141, I had my record player,
and also I had friends that were into Fats Domino, the old R&B stuff. My next-door
neighbors were two teenage girls and their grandmother, Doña Adela. The girls used to baby-sit
for us when we were little. And they had 78s of all the R&B stuff and I'd hear their
records all the time.
So was that your first exposure to the non-Latin stuff?
Oh, yeah. The projects that we lived in were so integrated. We all knew everybody
and made friends in the building. There's lots of apartments in a 14-story building
and we knew a lot of people. We went to a school nearby that was built as part of the
projects and we all hung together. After the first grade we moved to the other side of the
projects to 1181 East 225th Street, to a smaller building that had one more room,
'cause my sister came around then. She's two years younger than me. I was around
In the second grade they transferred me to another school because of the zoning. So
then I had to go by bus to P.S.78. That school turned out to be probably the thing
that moved me into music more than anything else because it was an old-time elementary
school with classes up to the eighth grade. They had a really excellent music program
with orchestras and everything. They taught you an instrument from the third grade
Is that when you became interested in playing an instrument?
Actually in the second grade, we were playing tonettes and reading music for the
tonettes. Everybody did that in the second grade. The grades were divided into 2-1,
2-2, etc. The 2-1 kids were smarter than the others. I was in the 2-1 classes and
then in the 2 classes for the rest of the time cause that was the music class. The 2 classes
were always the music classes. When I was in the third grade we took music aptitude
tests. Before that, though, in their auditorium, I saw a string quartet playing classical music. It was the first time I saw and heard classical music and I thought it was
great. I closed my eyes and drifted off into space. They were a very well-known quartet
I later found out, and was surprised that they were doing school gigs. The Guarnieri Quartet. They played their asses off. That was some heavy entertainment for the
So when we took our music aptitude tests, the entire third grade took part, it was
held in the auditorium. They had a teacher play some things on the piano and you
had to guess if a note was higher or lower, those kinds of things, and rhythm kind
of things. So the people that scored the highest marks were put in the music class. On the
test you had to put your preference of instrument; I put the violin. I was intrigued
by the sound of strings, always was, and the Quartet helped that. Then they got in
touch with the parents and said they could help them get me an instrument at a decent price.
The school had instruments for training and you could borrow an instrument for practice,
but they encouraged you to buy your own after a while. At the time you could buy a student violin for about 30-40 bucks; it wasn't really a hardship. At that time,
the charanga thing was happening. It was such a big craze you couldn't help but hear
it. Everybody had the records. But that didn't affect my choice of instrument 'cause
I was already playing violin for about a year before charanga hit. I took a year of
instruction on the violin in the fourth grade, then in the fifth they put people
in orchestras. We'd have at least an hour of orchestra everyday from 2-3:00. I was
in the second violin section and then I started moving up chairs into the back of the first
violin section. There were a lot of people better than me up ahead.
You were playing classical music?
Yeah, whatever classical music is to the fifth-grade bands. They have certain levels
and books that they use. Around the end of the fifth grade the bass player was moving
away and there was nobody left in the orchestra to play the bass. So they asked me
'cause I was the tallest violin player! So I would watch the other bass player and
watch him move his hand. And I would move my hand the way that he did, in the beginning,
until I would hear how the music was going and then I'd memorize it. I'd know how
to play it just by figuring out where the tones are. I'd picked up a lot of things on
the violin. I had gotten to the point where I could tune the violin without using
the piano; I didn't need the 'A.' I don't have perfect pitch, but after a while you
just get used to the vibration of the string and you know when it's right. It had nothing
to do with perfect pitch.
So in the sixth grade I played bass in the orchestra, and at the same time, you know,
you go to school and you learn how to play the game in school real good. I was a
good game player. We were considered the smarter kids, so we used to get away with
murder. Like the school politics: how to be friendly with certain teachers in order to get
things, manipulating like mad. And since we were the, so-called, "smarter kids,"
the "good" kids in comparison to some of the "hoodlums" in the school, they used
to send us to be monitors and school crossing guards, that stuff. Even when I stopped being
a crossing guard I used to leave with all the other crossing guards just to get out
of school early! We used to forge passes and walk around the school, and that stayed
with me. When I got out of the sixth grade it carried over.
The sixth grade was the first time I attempted to get together with some cats that
played other instruments to play some music. I had been playing bass for about a
year when I finally learned how to read bass clef. I could read for the violin pretty
well, but the bass clef had me puzzled for a little while. But finally I got the hang of
it and was reading pretty good by the sixth grade. There was a music program during
the summer at Junior High School 135. Jerry, me and my sister took the train to Allerton
Avenue every day in the summer to go to this program for two hours in the morning.
Jerry played trumpet, my sister played clarinet, and I played bass. Artie didn't
come along 'til I was nine. We had gone to P.R. before Artie came along. In the summer
of '59, I was eight, we went to P.R. with the family for a month. We visited the whole
family's relatives for the first time.
When did your parents come here?
My mother came in '45 and my father around the same time. They met here in New York.
My mother was going to school with my father's sisters. My mother came on the "Marine
That notorious ship?
Oh yeah. Anyway, summer of '59. That was a mind-blowing experience, to go to P.R.
and actually see, "Oh shit, we come from here."
Had you been brought up with a sense of "puertorican-ness"?
Yes and no. Yes, because it was a part of our culture whenever our families would
get together. Aunts, uncles, annual parties that the family would throw, Christmas
and New Year's parties, that would be the music, and the culture would be very strong
at that time. But the other parts of the year, you're inundated with Americana and playing
with kids and talking English and not talking Spanish. Whatever Spanish I knew well
when I was small, before I went to school, started disappearing while I was in school. My parents always spoke both languages to us. We always understood it perfectly
but we started getting into not speaking any Spanish; too much English happening.
So, I could always understand Spanish, but I was always uptight about speaking it.
I broke out of that when I was in high school. I started more into my Spanish. I studied Spanish
as a language in high school just for laziness. I never studied but I'd pass those
tests with 99s.
You really learned how to skate, didn't you?
Oh yeah, I skated my ass off! Looking back, I see that it wasn't only that game,
but the game of learning how to get by while doing just enough of what's required
of you. I could write an essay with the biggest bunch of bullshit that you ever saw,
but it would look so impressive and have just enough big words. I was real good at composing
essays out of garbage!
Well, at least you recognize it now.
I ALWAYS recognized it. I knew what I was doing then. I could turn the bullshit on
like a faucet!
Back to P.R. and your trip. If the main emphasis the year 'round was being exposed
to Americana, as you called it, being in New York, in school and in the projects
with all sorts of other, not necessarily Latino people, then where did you get that
sense of "this is where I come from"?
It's weird. We sort of felt, not out of place, because the family is so tight and
right away you're familiar with family and when you see your family, even though
you never met them before, you still know they're your family because of certain
things like family resemblances and characteristics, ways of talking, of acting. So when you
meet them, it's not like it's a new world, it's something that you've always known.
When you speak of "we," who are you referring to?
"We" the little kids: me, Jerry and my sister. We are all close in age. Jerry is
a year and half older than me, June 6th 1949, and my sister was born Dec 31st 1953.
OK. Why did Puerto Rico make such an impression on you?
It's not that it made such an impression on me. I'm not saying that I woke up after
going there, I was just glad to be there. It was nice to do it, to meet the whole
family and to live with them. We went out to my father's uncle's farm and lived there
for a while. My father's family is from Lares, real deep into the island.
This is a real déjà vu story: when we were in Lares, my father took us to a cave,
a giant natural cavern that had a nightclub built into it with a dance floor. He
took us there and we went inside; it was a trip. I never forgot it. In 1974 I was
working with Eddie Palmieri and we had a gig to play in Lares and we played in that place! Me
and Jerry walked in there and we freaked.
What I found weird is that some of my family lives deep, deep in the country, parts
of P.R. that looked like you couldn't get a car through there. I go into the house,
and one of the little girls got an Elvis Presley record. That was shocking to me;
I thought that was only happening up where I lived. I have no idea how she got hold of it.
I said, "What are you doing with Elvis Presley records"?
We spent a month there and came home and right away I was telling the boys on the
block, "Hey man, I was in Puerto Rico," the whole bit about showing off.
Who did you hang with then?
A mixed crowd of people. There's four buildings in the little square we lived in
and we knew all the families of everybody in all those four buildings. And there
were tons of kids and we all used to hang out together. When we moved to 1181 this
family moved in downstairs, a real real típico jíbaro family. Their thing was, they were too
poor to go out partying so they would throw parties in their house every Saturday
night without fail. They had two sons in their 'teens or early '20s and they would
throw all these parties. And it was Sonora Matancera records all night long! All the burning
records. I'd go to sleep Saturday nights listening to Sonora Matancera with Celia
Cruz singing up a storm. And they also played the jíbaro stuff too: lots of aguinaldos,
Ramito, they mixed it up. Lots of Cortijo y su Combo, who was a big thing with them
and he was popular too.
So they didn't play the jíbaro stuff, aguinaldos, at Christmas time only?
Oh, no, they played that all the time, with the other stuff. But Cortijo was so big
at that time. I knew all his records, even at that time. They were part of my growing
up. I had my favorites: One was Mon Rivera's original version of the tune he did
later with Willie Colón. It's an old tune about a strike in a company. It's a good song,
one of my favorites. It starts with a telephone ring and "Alo! Quíen ñama?" (A Night
at the Palladium with Moncho Leña Y Los Ases Del Ritmo,ANSCD1219).
So, in the sixth grade I tried to hook up with some of the other guys in my class
to try to play something, but they weren't Latin so we weren't playing Latin. We'd
play from a lead sheet of some stupid Broadway show tune, just to play something,
but we'd never played anything in public, just in the school orchestra.
Then seventh grade in junior high school my brother was a senior and I was just coming
in. They put me in an SP class, but not where you skip a grade. I did the three years,
but in the smartest class. And you could really get away with murder in that class! The rest of the class was nuts. The smarter you are the more you try to get away
with more shit. We had the teachers' confidence; we even forged copies of keys to
rooms. We'd steal the storage rooms blind: reams of paper, construction paper, oak
tag, paper clips, all that stuff.
Did they have band and orchestra there?
Yes, but less than what I had come from, but I supplemented that myself. That year
Jerry and I started to play Latin.
When did you get your first bass?
I didn't get that 'til eighth grade. My father bought me a Baby Bass.
But you were using the school bass?
Yeah. I started gigging in the seventh grade with a school bass. I'd attach a microphone
to it and a little amplifier. Our first gig was October 1964. It was a dance with
the Jamal Leaguers, a Black organization. Blacks were heavy into Latin at that time.
The band that I played with was a copy of the Cal Tjader Quintet, "Andy Langston and
his Latin Jazztet." That was my first gig and made 10 dollars playing from 9:00 'til
3 a.m. Jerry was the conga player in that group.
When did Jerry start playing congas?
The year before. He broke his leg. He knew something about playing conga just from
watching the brothers on the block. There was always somebody that was playing.
Were these Black guys that were playing or Latinos?
A couple of them were Black, but most of them were Latinos. Some were even professional.
Jerry was going out with this chick whose father was a professional timbalero: Manny
González. He was the one who turned Jerry on to some of the Cuban records; the Cachao and Tata Güines kind of stuff. That had just come out, 1961 or around there.
1963 was the year that I went to the seventh grade and it was a heavy year. That
was the year that a lot of political bullshit happened Kennedy assassination, like
that. Jerry played his first gig before I did with the Latin Jazz Quintet before I joined
it. They played at the World's Fair when it opened, at the N.Y. State Pavilion where
they had amateur bands all day long every day.
And you were calling it "Latin Jazz" then?
Hell, yeah. It's always been "Latin Jazz" and we were always into it. The same year
I started playing bass with the group, and we played the World's Fair again.
Was this the first time that you played bass with a Latin group, playing Latin music?
Yes. My father has a tape of that. In fact, he has a tape of the first time we tried
to play anything Latin. We had two tunes, that was our repertoire. A friend of ours,
Llewelyn Matthews, who played great piano wrote out the tunes for us. He's the cat
that really put us in the direction of playing. We could read music and he showed us
how to play an arrangement. He was going to Music and Art High School at the time
and was older than us. He wrote out two charts for us: "Green Dolphin Street" and
"El Molestoso," the Eddie Palmieri tune. We were into Eddie at the time. Reggie Williams was
the sax player with us. We had a little jam at my house and he played those tunes
with us. My father had a tape recorder and he taped us. Reggie's father, Ojaldo Williams,
had a Calypso band in the '50s, very popular calypso big band.
You mentioned Jerry's girlfriend's father turning him on to the Cuban albums. Was
that the first time that you guys came into contact with the heavy Cuban stuff?
It's hard to say, because people on the block had records and that Cuban stuff wasn't
that far away from what we were hearing already, like Machito, Tito Puente, Tito
Rodríguez, and all that. The descarga stuff was different, but it didn't strike me
as anything special. It was something that was there and we dug it and we dug Tata Güines
and thought that he was the greatest conga player that we'd ever heard. But we were
into Mongo too. We were into all the drummers and were already knowing who was who
as far as the instruments were concerned. I knew about Bobby Rodríguez, about Cachao,
and I was starting to listen to what they did and to copy it. So we formed the band,
Latin Jazz Quintet, and we worked a lot with that band. So, from the age of 13 we
practically supported ourselves with money enough to buy clothes and anything else we needed.
That's when we started buying records.
What kind of records?
We started off with buying a couple of Tito Rodríguez records, Mongo, Cal Tjader,
things that we knew about Latin stuff. Little-by-little, jazz albums. My father
brought home the first Charlie Parker record we ever owned. Somebody had left it
somewhere and he found it. That was the Charlie Parker memorial album on Savoy. And also a good
Dinah Washington album, Dinah Jams, a jam session that she did with Max Roach's
group with Clifford Brown, Clark Terry and Maynard Ferguson in the trumpet section
battling it out. Recorded in 1954. A good record; I still have it.
So that was the first "real jazz" that you heard? When was that?
1961-'62, even before we went to junior high. That was the first jazz that I heard.
Around the seventh grade, we were making rehearsals with the group, and Llewelyn
started a band. He was writing charts for a big band and bringing players in from
all over to play. Jerry was playing and I was playing with him. We won a talent show at Dewitt
Clinton High School with his big band. Joe Santiago was playing with Willie Colón
in the same talent show. He remembers how we sounded so professional. This guy was
writing really professional music and arrangements and really hip stuff. He really opened
our ears up and we got into playing professionally.
Did you give up the violin completely when you started playing bass?
Yeah. It sort of faded away. I still could play a couple of things on it but I'm
rusty, sound like Jack Benny! It's really a delicate instrument and I've become real
clumsy on it. At the same time that we were gigging with the Latin Jazz group, we
were rehearsing every Sunday afternoon with the big band over at Llewelyn's house. I'd borrow
the bass on weekends to gig anyway, so I'd have it for the rehearsals, too. That was
also the year of our first "big-time" gig. We played our first big dance on a Sunday
afternoon at the Embassy Ballroom on 161st Street near Third Avenue. It was one of
these Federico Pagani promotions, an all-day marathon of dancing. The bands were
Tito Rodríguez, Joe Cuba Sextet, Eddie Palmieri y la Perfecta; all these really big-name
people. There were other bands and, finally, the Latin Jazz Quintet. They paid us $50, ten dollars each. And we played a couple of sets. That was the first time I got
to see the "pros" up front. I had heard the records but I'd never seen them.
But what about the summers at Las Villas when the biggies would come up on weekends?
That was different. I never got to see Tito Rodríguez at a dance; we were busy hearing
my father's band, or groups like that. We never saw the first-string bands. And finally
to see Rodríguez and his band, in all its glory! Cachao was on bass at that time with Tito R. That was mind-blowing.
And you had already begun to copy some of his lines?
Yeah, little things. But to see him play in person was tremendous. I remember when
we played, Barry Rogers would stand in front of us and listen, and at the end of
the set told us that we sounded pretty good. Barry was playing with Eddie, also Manny,
but Manny doesn't remember us from that gig. The only one who remembers us from those
times is Armando Peraza, the guy who's with Santana now. Barry doesn't remember either.
We told him about it and he remembers those kinds of gigs, but he's done so many
of them that he doesn't remember them specifically. But we all hooked up later. Very strange.
So we played with that Latin Jazz group in its various manifestations for a while.
We did all kinds of things, like trying to copy the Palmieri band with trombones,
then we had a trombone and trumpet band with three of each, with some really hip
charts which Llewelyn did. Then we had a Latin Jazz Octet: trumpet, alto, tenor, and trombone.
That sounded pretty. This guy used to write so professional, Oliver Nelson kind-of
writing, or Quincy Jones kind-of writing, really slick. Then Jerry got into Music
and Art High School and I got in too.
Was there ever any question about your going elsewhere or did you always want to
It's just that it was the hippest school that we thought we could go to. Jerry got
in there and after he was there I found out how hip it was, so that's where I wanted
to go. My sister went there too but she went for art, not for music. We had an uncle
who went there in the '40s, but he was there for art too, so that didn't really affect
our decision to go there for music. When Jerry got out of high school he went to
N.Y. College of Music and he met René MacLean. René is Jackie MacLean's son. They
had a good jazz program there. He introduced us to Monguito Santamaría who was looking for
a bass player and a conga player. This was Mongo's son, and we were Mongo freaks
anyway so it was a natural hook-up. So we started playing with that band.
What kind of stuff did he play?
Mongo kind of stuff. The boogaloo was getting popular at that time too. I was still
at Music and Art.
You got the Baby Bass that you play today in the eighth grade, right?
Yeah, and I started working immediately with it. Not only with Latin jazz groups,
but with whatever we had going. I even worked with the band my father sang with sometimes,
and different groups. I got called to play 'cause I was a bass player that could
read and I had a Baby Bass, which was in demand.
Does that mean that it had relatively little to do with your talent?
No, it had to do with that also, but to have a Baby Bass, to have an amplified instrument,
was a tremendous asset. It was very professional. It paid for itself about two months
after I got the bass.
And you were going to school all the time you were gigging? Is this where all your
"skating" techniques came in handy?
Partly, but most of the work would be on Friday and Saturday nights. I didn't start
working weekdays 'til I joined Ray Barretto's group in '69. I worked with Dizzy when
I was in college at Bronx Community for most of the first year, but I dropped out
'cause I couldn't stand it, it really sucked! I had just finished high school and a whole
lot of bullshit, then to go to more bullshit...it was like the ultimate bullshit.
I was learning a lot at the time anyway, cause I met René López that year.
How did you meet René?
Through Nicky Marrero. Nicky was working with Eddie, and René used to dig Eddie and
hang out. This was '69. Nicky said, "Hey, man. There's this guy that has all these
old Cuban records. You gotta go to his house and check out his collection."
Had you started collecting seriously by then?
We had a record collection, but it was mostly jazz and some of the more popular Latin
and Latin jazz things.
When did you start to get into the Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler-type stuff?
From junior high school.
How did you get into that? How did you hear them?
We just heard them. There wasn't any particular thing about them, they were just
records that we enjoyed. The Charlie Parker record that my father brought was a thing
where they put two or three takes of the same tune on; a false start, a solo here,
so we got a chance to check it out from that perspective. But we didn't know shit about
it. It was just interesting to hear. And we knew Bird and it was nice that our first
record was Bird. It was a record that I memorized a long time ago and I still have
it in my mind, in my memory. Same thing with a lot of records. Today I can sing a lot of
solos that I had memorized from records years and years ago.
You memorized them to sing?
Oh yeah! Sax solos from Mongo's group, all the vibe solos from Tjader, the drum solos,
we used to know them inside and out. Even Puente solos, Mongo solos, Perazas solos,
all off records. We used to do that all the time. Another thing in junior high was getting into playing rumba on the lunch tables.
The "real" stuff?
We didn't exactly know that it was "real" or "fake," we just did it. And it turned
out that it was correct, or fairly correct. There was one person that would sing;
he wasn't really a singer, but he used to invent shit and we would get a coro happening
and we used to do it on the lunchroom tables. Somebody would do the bass, somebody would
do the segundo and Jerry would play quinto most of the time. That's all part of it.
When did you first hear Mingus?
When I was in junior high Miles was already with the My Funny Valentíne Four and
More album. Tony Williams was playing already, and we were following it. We grew
up with that music. When Miles' ESP came out, that was the one record that I used
to sit in the reclining chair every day with the headphones playing it over and over until
I had it memorized.
From way back, you talked a lot about "study," and in many ways the bottom line to
really knowing what's going on, was "study." So then, way back, years ago, you were
doing that. You weren't just listening, you were "LISTENING, taking stuff apart,
hearing all the lines. Is that something that you consciously did, or just really enjoyed
doing for the fun of it, or what?
I just enjoyed doing it. Anything that was like "work" I didn't want to do. I was
a very lazy person. One of my hobbies when I was growing up was I was into monster
movies and magazines. I had a collection of comic books, monster comics. To this
day I know trivia about monster movies that I can't get out of my brain. Any monster movie
that was ever made I probably saw. I'd go the movies and think that if it wasn't
bloody it wasn't any good; I was a sicko!
Anyway, where was I? Playing with Monguito, we worked a lot. I finally got into the
so-called "salsa scene," playing salsa in salsa clubs. Boogaloo era, that was the
late '60s. Monguito had a good band. He was a piano player, and his clave wasn't
any good at the time. But we didn't have to play too much real strict Latin, we were playing
a lot of boogaloo kind of shit, and our boogaloo was a little more rhythm-and-blues
kind of influenced. We had a singer that was influenced by Otis Redding and James
Brown. He was a pretty good showman, Ronnie Marks. I went on my first tour with that band,
and we went to P.R.
Was Jerry also with that band?
No. Jerry got fired, first year, for his...
Showing up late?
Yeah, that goes back a long time! That and not liking certain policies and certain
music. Jerry just didn't want to deal with it. But I stayed on 'cause we were making
good bucks and I wanted to keep on making good bucks. It wasn't great bucks, but
at that time $25 for a gig was all right. I forgot to mention this, but in junior high I
started studying jazz with an outside teacher, a jazz teacher, Steve Swallow, a bass
player who played with Stan Getz when I was studying with him. Before that he played
with Art Farmer, worked with George Russell and a whole lot of spacey people. For a long
time he was Gary Burton's bass player, for years and years until recently. Now he's
with Carla Bley, still doing spacey stuff. But he was my first bass teacher, he taught me a lot of things, lots of nice things about the bass.
And while you were studying jazz bass formally, you...
I was playing Latin gigs.
Did you ever find a conflict?
No, because I was comfortable with both things. Even before I started studying, I
was listening to jazz, and Latin music was something that we always did. And our
combination of Latin jazz, like Cal Tjader-style was always comfortable. There was
never any conflict at all. We even had Latin jazz tunes in Monguito's band. We went to P.R.
with that band twice and I was still in high school. We'd play gigs opposite some
of the big bands at the time. I remember the night that we cut Eddie Palmieri! Something
happened, his band wasn't really happening, and people dug us more than him. This was
at a concert in Brentwood, Long Island.
My senior year of high school was when Ray Barretto offered me the job. I refused
at first. I didn't like his band. I didn't like his playing and I never was impressed.
But he offered it to me again and this time I was a little more receptive. I gave
it a lot of thought, "Man, do I want to keep playing this shit forever?" So I joined Ray
Barretto's band and right away, a month later, we went to Venezuela. Then we started
traveling a lot and working intensively.
It was a lucky thing that I knew how to glide through, or I wouldn't have made it
through my senior year. I was absent more days than you're supposed to be absent.
I was out almost more than I was in! I had arranged my schedule so that my first
class didn't start 'til around 10:00. I arranged for practice periods the first two periods;
they were like free periods. But I didn't do that 'til second semester. First semester,
I had to be in class at 8. I had to get up at 6:00 to be there on time. I'd finish
working in some club at maybe 4 a.m. get home at 5, sleep an hour, or not sleep at all
and go right to class I'd be out-of-it. But I got through with an 80-something
I had left Barretto's band before I went with Diz; I left 'cause I was bored to tears.
Latin jazz hunger was striking at me and the music was a little too predictable.
It was good, though, from what people tell me, the Barretto band of the years that
I was there with Vilató on timbales, Adalberto Santiago and the others, was like his best
band ever. It was the tightest, best personnel, it lasted the longest, and it showed.
We could play anything, but after a while it got stagnant, it was too predictable.
I wasn't surprised by what anybody did; I could go to sleep and play the gig.
I told Barretto that I was bored with it and wanted to split; he didn't want me to,
but I split. Then I got an offer to play with Dizzy so I did that for six months.
That was quite different. It wasn't straight-ahead jazz as I thought it would be.
Dizzy at this time was sort of in a boogaloo bag. But he did do some things that are really
good musically and it was a great school.
You once said that Dizzy was looking for a bass player with a feel for Latin and
jazz, and that's how you hooked up with him.
Yeah, but the jazz was minimal. There were a lot of Latin-tinged things. We used
to play "Manteca" and things like that, it WAS good. Jerry was playing, too. Probably
the finest gig we ever did with Dizzy was at a concert at the Smithsonian Institute.
It was just like magic, somehow everything just hooked up beautifully.
I'm interested in hearing more about meeting René López.
It was during my first year with Barretto. We had already moved to Gildersleeve Avenue;
we moved out of the projects when I was working with Monguito. The projects were
starting to get real hairy, the Vietnam war had started to escalate, and at the same
time the junk scene started to get heavy. Drugs was rampant. I started smoking pot
when I was living in the projects, but it was only occasionally and it was taboo.
We moved 'cause the junkie thing started getting too way-out. It was getting to the
point where we'd see a lot of friends nod out on the corner. My parents said, "Wait a second,
it's time to start looking for a house." So they found the place on Gildersleeve
and we moved there around '68.
Nicky lived about five or six blocks from me at the Gildersleeve place so we started
hanging out. We knew each other for a long time already, even from the days in the
North Bronx. I knew of Nicky from the South Bronx; we met through mutual friends.
So Nicky used to hang with us. Even though he was with Eddie's band and I was with Barretto,
we'd see each other a lot, or hang out and we'd always jam together in the house.
As soon as we got the house and got settled in we started jamming a lot. We got this
piano and started freaking out. So Nicky was the first one to tell us about René. He
said he knew this guy that had a heavy 78rpm collection of Cuban records and I said
I'd like to hear some of them. So one day we made an appointment to go up to his
house. We went there and he starts whipping out his Arsenios, and I went gaga! That was '69.
Was this the first time you'd heard --
Yeah, I had heard Arsenio (Rodríguez), but only the Arsenios that were recorded here in New York.
I was just starting to get into Chappotín, and all that stuff that you could buy
for a dollar, the budget records: "Estrellas de Chocolate," "Chappottín," "Guaguancó
Matancero," "Los Papines." I was just starting to get into all that stuff. So, when we
started hearing the real thing we started going bananas. Going to René's house was
almost as frequent as the jams in my house. And out of that whole thing, eventually
came Grupo Folklórico.
Prior to meeting René, did you have the same interest in a strong rhythm section,
and in playing rhythms "correctly," that you now have?
Yes, we always had a thing about a strong rhythm section. It's just a sense that
we used to get from hearing other things. How other things sounded strong to us,
and we wanted to sound that strong and that tight. It wasn't the most típico kind
of playing, but it was strong and tight.
Did other groups at the time have strong rhythm sections or was this something that
you decided that you wanted to do, out of the mainstream?
Remember, Patato and Totíco had put that album out that year, '69, with Arsenio and
Cachao playing (Patato Y Totico,, Mediterraneo MDC 10065). That was a big influence
on what we were doing.
Was that a popular...?
Oh yeah! With US it was a very popular record. There were a lot of records that were
popular, but that was one of the ones that had us really paying a whole lot of attention.
So little by little we started getting more into guaguancó and those forms, 'cause that was one of the things that we were deficient in.
Well, when you had a strong rhythm section before that, what were you playing?
More like Latin jazz kind of stuff. Like Willie Bobo and Mongo would play together.
Or Puente and Mongo. That kind of thing. Not like, say, the Cuban guys would play
it. They had their own flavor that we didn't pick up 'til later. It took us a while
to get used to that kind of flavor and play it. I remember Jerry, when he tried out for
Eddie Palmieri for the first time Eddie hated him 'cause Jerry wouldn't play Cuban
style. Jerry started playing Latin jazzy kind of stuff.
Did Jerry know how to play Cuban style?
No. But he felt he could play with Eddie Palmieri.
I guess I don't know what is the difference between Latin jazz and Cuban style on
OK, I know what you mean. Cuban style is like accompanying and basically playing
a steady rhythm and keeping time.
And playing those interlocking patterns?
Yeah. Latin jazz playing is reacting to the soloist. You're an accompanist, but you're
reacting to the soloist and you're freer to make statements while other things are
happening. In other words, you can mix things.
So then, with Latin jazz you don't necessarily need the three drums?
You can do it on one drum. It's not so much the drum, or the amount of drums, it's
the concept that you have of how you want to accompany a certain piece of music.
Can you, when playing Cuban típico, do it with just one drum and how do you get the
interlocking melodic-rhythmic patterns?
There's lots of ways to get different sounds out of different instruments. Cuban
music, as a matter of fact, used to be played with just one drum. I've heard a rumba
played on one drum. It's possible, anything's possible!
So then, Latin jazz is not so much laying down a steady rhythmic pattern as support
to what else is happening, but interacting with other things?
Yeah, it's like, say, the way a jazz drummer plays, like the way he uses his cymbals
and snare and throws accents and bombs with the bass pedal. It's like he's very free
and he has all that vocabulary to work with and he does a whole lot of things. Well,
there's the conga for OUR concept of Latin jazz. There's another Latin jazz where
you keep the rhythm straight and the jazz part is the solos, but that's not what
we're after. We want the whole thing to be like one organic whole, where everybody's
contributing things at the same time, like in a conversation.
Some time ago you talked about Latin jazz and what it was. You said that it was a
modernization, but the rhythms are intact.
Oh, yeah, well maybe that's the definition we're coming up with now.
"We" is who?
Me and my brother. That may be more-or-less a definition of the sounds that you hear
us play now. We're a little less wild than we were in those days when we'd play way out
and Jerry would play his drums to death. We just liked to try to inspire each other, throw a riff in here and see who could pick up on it.
What you're saying, then, is that THAT is what your concept of Latin jazz was at
Yeah, and wilder than what it is now.
And now the concept is what, exactly?
It's just that we know more rhythms now, and we have more background, more experience
in what kinds of things blend well together, or how to edit yourself so that you
don't step on somebody else when the person is taking a solo. Things like that, that
you only get to learn through experience. It takes years. It's not something that you
just come off the street and start playing that way.
Our music is a rhythmic language and there's a certain way to speak that language
and you have to learn it, it's like a free conversation. There are combinations I
can react to on stage depending on what is happening. I can play with the rhythm
section as a bass player, I can play with the horns, and, specifically, I can play with the pianist.
The piano is a very rhythmic instrument but what we're trying to do is expand that
role to include new innovations and styles of playing.
Out of all his contemporaries Oscar Hernández probably has the best of both worlds
in combining montunos with the more advanced harmonies of today. You go back to the
Cuban pianists and then the New York players, you see an evolution of piano playing.
I can play you cats that sound like Art Tatum playing Latin piano or cats that sound like
Fats Waller. Now it's time for cats to sound like McCoy Tyner or Cecil Taylor playing
Latin. Pérez Prado was the strangest Latin pianist I've ever heard. He sounded like
Monk, Cecil, and all these people put together with a Latin rhythm underneath. He's
insane, his thing is more rhythm than anything else but he uses tone clusters and
all kinds of chords, and he did this twenty-five years ago!
Did you start to really become a "collector" after you met René?
No, my family has a history of collecting. My father collects lots of junk and only
recently has become convinced that all the junk he's collected hasn't got much value!
I picked up the habit from him. We started buying records and building a pretty large jazz collection long before we met René.
Did he influence you in the direction that your record collecting went, and did he
influence you in any way in your style of playing?
It's not that HE influenced me; the MUSIC influenced me. What he did was open a door
for me, like lift a veil for me, saying, "Hey man, listen to this, here's something
new for you to hear."
Prior to that time, had you been studying the "old masters" on bass, and in jazz
and in the Cuban stuff?
Yeah, but "studying" is too hard a word. It wasn't a conscious "study." It's just
that I had my favorite bass players and I would listen to them. Also, I got into
jazz history pretty heavy, just by reading record liner notes and reading books.
I started off when somebody gave me a large collection of old Downbeat magazines when I was in
junior high and I devoured all of them and learned more-or-less what the background
of jazz was all about, what the leading critics of the day were saying, what was
the music that was highly thought of, and what was coming out that people thought was crazy
avant garde stuff. So, I got a good idea real fast about what was happening. It was
a collection of Downbeats that went back to about '56, and up to '64 or '65. So I
had a lot, and I caught up real fast. And I would use the Downbeats as my guide to buy
old jazz records. I didn't have no kind of guide for Cuban music except René. So
I'd learn about Arsenio and about all the bands and we'd go hunting together. He
used to lend me things for my collection, or give me records that he had extras of, and then I
made a heavy score in a record shop that was slowly going out of business. I went
down to their basement and I found a lot of records that comprise the bulk of my
collection right now. But that's the same thing that happened to René; that's how he got his
collection under way. But mine has built up slowly over the years, mostly from scavenging;
looking around and finding stuff.
You're obviously into the history of Latin and jazz music, and in some of the talks
I've had with some of the other guys in the group, you've turned them on to getting
into what went before, listening to the earlier stuff. Why is that?
Because it's part of "background." The more experience that you have, not just in
playing, but the background, you gotta know where things come from. If you're not
born into Cuban music and you don't know it, you gotta learn it the way the Cubans
learned it, first hand on the streets. But if you're gonna get it second hand, the best source
is the records. You pick it up slowly from there.
There were things it took me a while to get accustomed to. I used to think the trumpets
were out of tune, sounded kind of raggedy to me, but I would just go beyond that
and try to figure it out. What makes this thing so interesting? What qualities does
it have? The same thing about Black music that has always intrigued me, especially the
way the Cubans play, is how they use rhythm to make statements, statements that are
just as heavy as any jazz improvisation that I've ever heard. They talk to each other.
Manny always says the drums talk, they leave a message, and if you're knowledgeable
enough, you'll hear the message that they're giving. It took me a while for that
to sink in. You play an Arsenio record and it takes about a dozen good listens on
the same tune and things start becoming a little clearer each time you hear it. You start hearing
the way the drummers play and how they move and how they do little subtle things
and they're all talking. That's what they call "talk."
They make a bravura statement that's not just between each other any more, it's like
it's a communication to the audience, and either you can catch that or you can't.
That's how I perceive it and that's how others I know that have taught me things
about how to listen to music perceive it, and it's something that the general public is not
aware of. It takes breaking through a lot of conditioning to hear things without
any kind of bias. It's hard to do that. If you just grow up listening to a certain
kind of music you're not gonna be receptive to hearing some kind of foreign music thrown at
you. You have to break through barriers. That's what I had to do to really get close
to the music, break through my conditioning.
Why were you willing to do that? That took a certain amount of effort and you claim
to be lazy!
It's just the nature of the music itself. It draws you into it. I was playing the
music anyway, but I was playing a third or fourth rate copy of this kind of music,
without really knowing the subtleties or the rules of the music. I think that's what
Cuban music provided me with: an insight into the subtleties of the difference between
good playing and great playing, of rhythmic playing, of OUR music.
One of the responsibilities of an artist is to try to wake people up, to bring forth
the sense that might be dormant in people.
Do you feel that you are trying to do that? "You" collectively?
We don't play music with the intention of finding something that will turn them on
or wake them up. We're playing what turns US on and hopefully they will appreciate
what we appreciate and what we are doing, and that will come across to an audience.
Anything that has to do with freeing yourself and striving for better things for the
way you see yourself as a person, that should always be expressed in a positive
way. We are trying to maintain our own standards in what we like to hear, and we
just hope that others will like it. If some don't, fine, there's other music they can choose from.
After all, if WE like what we're doing, we're no different from anybody else, there
must be other people out there who like it, too.
There's a phrase you said some time last year which had a considerable ripple effect
on me, and which has led to developing my dissertation. You said, "Our music is who
and what we are."
No shit? Well, then some of us must be pretty shallow people! (laughter)
I'm not talking about the universe in general; we were talking about Libre.
Oh, that's different! What did I say again?
"Our music is who and what we are."
Right! Some of us are Latin jazz nuts, and some of us are típico nuts, and some of
us are just nuts with no musical affiliations whatsoever!!