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José Madera: "Who is that guy?"

John Child talks to the musical director of
The Latin Giants of Jazz

Well, that guy of the title suggested by José Madera, was born in New York City September 30th, 1950 to José "Pin" Madera (1911-2001), who was the first arranger for the Machito orchestra. The multitalented José Madera started playing timbales with Machito as a teenager and went on to become Tito Puente's conguero for 30 years. He was also Tito's musical director for 14 years and became a staff arranger with Fania Records in the 1970s. Here José speaks with John Child about his remarkable career with New York's legendary Mambo Kings; his involvement in the salsa industry and his latest project, The Latin Giants Play The Music of the Palladium (2004 on Gigante Records).

John Ian Child (JIC): Tell me about the experience of growing up in the family of an original member of the Machito band?

José Madera (JM): Well, it was quite an experience. I guess that I became aware of the fact that my dad played musical instruments (saxophone, clarinet and flute) like maybe at five or six years old. Needless to say, he always brought home the records that he had any type of association with (whether it was arranging music or playing on them) and so I was exposed to all of this music from that early age.

JIC: Tell me some of your childhood memories of the Machito band during the 1950s and '60s? For instance, were you present for any notable recording dates?

JM: The very first time that I saw the Machito band was in 1957 at the Apollo Theater. I remember that they opened the show with "A Sunny Ray." I recall seeing Patato do a little tune with the large bata drum. The first recording I attended was also around that time. I saw them do the album Kenya (1957 on Roulette). We lived close to 106th Street and Park Avenue, the Odd Fellow Temple (Metropolitan Studios), which was where the sessions were done. I remember also that it was around Christmas time. Although I did see them do quite a lot of records after that, it was that initial recording that I went to that impressed me so much that I decided that I had to be involved in music in one form or another. On a personal note, the Latin jazz record Kenya, or Afro-Cuban jazz, if you will, in my humble opinion, is still the greatest record ever done in that genre. No one has come close to it yet.

JIC: Tell me about your personal musical history before you also joined the Machito band?

JM: I played around in local bands around the New York City area. We had a band called La Orquesta Son and we had a hit on the radio in 1969 called "Tender Love" (included in the compilation Los Que Son '98 on Ghetto Records by Paul Ortiz y La Orquesta Son). The record was released on a label called Ghetto Records and the producer was Joe Bataan of Fania fame. The tune did quite well and sold quite a few records. I also did some shows with a Hispanic guitarist Catala around some of the Spanish theatres in New York City and New Jersey.

JIC: What were the circumstances of you joining the Machito organisation?

JM: Well, I remember my dad coming home one day and telling me that Mario Bauzá was going to call me. La Orquesta Son had played opposite the Machito band a few times at the old Chez José which was on 77th on the west side, if I remember correctly. I got the call and Mario did not have a timbale player for this particular weekend (Frankie Colón was the timbale player then with Machito and I guess he couldn't do the gigs) and he asked me to come in and play. My first gig with them was the Masquerade Ball dance at the Concourse Plaza Hotel in the Bronx in 1969.

JIC: Tell me about this period in the band's history, which were the latter days of Mario Bauzá's and Graciela's time with Machito?

JM: The Machito band was not really working that much, mostly because of not having anything new on the radio stations. We got the chance to do a record for Mericana Records with my good buddy, the late Ralph Lew, being the producer. I did a few charts and we resurrected some old ones and the band began to work off of the popularity of this new record. At the same time, plans were being made to do some separate records for Graciela. Those were also done (i.e. Esa Soy Yo, Yo Soy Asi '74 on Mericana) and I guess that Gracie's success ("La Botanica" from La Botanica '77 on Lamp / Coco, which I arranged) coupled with the fact of some friction between the families, created the final split in the band. I was on the west coast with Tito Puente when I heard about it.

JIC: Tell me about any albums you performed on during your stint with Machito?

JM: I played on the Mericana one which is entitled Machito (1972); on Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods (1975 on Pablo) with Dizzy Gillespie; on one with Carmita Jiménez, which was arranged by Marco Rizo; and on Graciela's one for Mericana, Esa Soy Yo, Yo Soy Asi, where I have five musical arrangements. I also got to play the trap set (drums) on that recording.

(NOTE: Machito and Esa Soy Yo, Yo Soy Asi were reissued together on the double CD set Machito y Graciela on Salsoul / Sony Discos in 2000.)

JIC: Bearing in mind that your spell with Machito coincided with the take-off of the salsa boom, what was the gigging schedule of the band like?

JM: As I said earlier, the band really wasn't working that much. Once the album came out, however, things picked up considerably and we went from about five or six gigs a month to 12 gigs a month or so. That was good to see because, in my opinion, that is the Greatest Latin Band of All Time.

JIC: Are you able to comment on the reportedly acrimonious split between Mario Bauzá and Machito?

JM: Having grown up around the band and knowing the REAL HISTORY of it (not what most people perceive it to be, including erroneous credit given for arrangements, tunes and arrangers, as well as composers) I do know the causes of the split, but in deference to those who are still alive and some my friends, I respectfully will decline to answer this question at this time. I will, however, tell you that it did go back a long time and involved family members.

JIC: When and how did you come to join Tito Puente's band?

JM: I first met Tito Puente at a recording session. Tico used to use A&R Studios on 48th Street right near Manny's Music Shop. My dad, as was his custom, was always early to recordings and Machito was slated to record this particular evening at 7:00pm. I arrived early with my dad at A&R and Tito, along with Santos Colón, Felo Brito and Willie Torres, was finishing up some coros on a record. Tito came over to say hello to my dad and he shook my hand. (Little did I know then, right?). A few years later, I began going to Tito's office, which was on 52nd and Broadway. He told me to come in one night to play some bongos and I did, and I wound up staying 30 years.

JIC: It's said that Puente's career was in the doldrums at the time you joined his band. I would be interested in hearing your observations about this period?

JM: That's a misconception. The band at the time was working seven nights a week and doubling up on Sundays. Tito felt that after the unexpected demise of Tito Rodríguez that he didn't have any competition anymore. He decided not to write as much music but that did not take away from the band working. We eventually did an album in 1976 entitled The Legend for JMTS, which is the Jerry Masucci Tico Series. Morris Levy had allowed Jerry to lease the company from him and so we did the album. I would say that Tito wasn't as creative during the first part of the early '70s, but to say that his career was in "doldrums" is stretching it a bit much.

JIC: It wasn't until the 1990s that TP started crediting personnel on his big band recordings. Presumably you were present on many, if not all, his big band dates up to that point. Please, could you pick out some albums for comment?

JM: The albums that I feel have a historical impact that I got to work on were the Beny Moré tribute volumes: Homenaje a Beny '78, Homenaje a Beny Vol. 2 '79, both on Tico, and Homenaje a Beny Moré Vol. III '85 on Vaya.

JIC: During the 1970s your name began appearing on various salsa recordings; too many to mention here. But one I would like to single out is the revered Lo Maximo (1974 on Tico) by Héctor Rivera. Please, could you share your knowledge of Héctor? For example, did you gig with his band?

JM: I lived about five blocks away from Héctor Rivera at the time. My association with Héctor was two-fold. I was aware of the fact that he had in his record collection the entire Machito discography and I wanted to get copies of tunes that I didn't have for my own personal library. That's how I got to know Héctor. During the late '60s when Orquesta Son had the hit on the radio, we would work opposite him at a few dances. I especially remember one at the Embassy Ballroom in the Bronx in 1968. (It is now a church.) Héctor had a four trumpet conjunto that was very good. He had two hits at the time; one was "At The Party" (title track of At The Party With Héctor Rivera '67 on Barry) and the other was "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You" (included in Hecto-Mania '69 on 4 Points). I would run into him quite often. In later years, I guess he saw me playing timbales with Machito and he hired me to play on that Lo Maximo recording. He is a very talented guy and was responsible for a lot of the arrangements for Orlando Marín, and of course the driving force behind a lot of those wonderful Joe Cuba Sextet records of the '60s.

JIC: In 1977 you performed on the last official Alegre All Stars album Perdido (on Alegre) and in 1979 you co-led the Gaucho Band with Al Santiago to record a single for his new Gaucho label. Please could you share your reminiscences of Al and the Alegre All Stars?

JM: Al was one of the most creative persons that I ever had the pleasure of working with. He was very innovative. The Alegre All Stars records, especially the last one, are exactly what it is. By that I mean: it's a fun, happy, kind of wild ad-libbed session that came across very naturally and was fun to play on. Just to give you an example, Al always had a half-inch tape on a machine recording all of the studio chatter during all of the sessions. After we had finished the last All Stars record, he had to listen to about 25 hours of studio chatter. He would pick out the best things that were said during the recording and then insert them before and after each track. That idea, which was solely his, was pure genius. He was also quite a comedian. I can remember him showing up at a studio in a bathing suit (in the summertime) to do a record mix. Just an incredible person. I miss him a lot.

JIC: From the 1970s your name increasingly started to appear as an arranger on salsa albums. Tell me how this aspect of your career developed?

JM: I don't really recall how that got started. I wrote a few arrangements for some bands and then I started writing for Ralph Cartagena and Tony Pabón's record labels (Rico, Neliz, etc). Then I moved on over to Fania. I was fortunate in that the bandleaders that I wrote for liked my work and that the general public did also.

JIC: In addition to Machito and Puente, two names I particularly associate you with are José Mangual Jr. and Willie Rosario. Please tell me about your work with these two giants?

JM: José Mangual Jr. and myself sort of have a special link. Both of our dads worked with the Machito band. I was fortunate enough to be hired by him in the late '70s and early '80s to do some arranging work for him. The work that I did brought him some success and furthered my name in the field. He is a heck of a musician, picks all of his material very well and knows what the public wants and what sells. Quite a person. As for Willie Rosario, he's really an old timer and, having grown up around those types of musicians, we got along very well. I did arrange some of his best hits. Two of them, "Lluvia" (from Nuevos Horizontes '84 on Bronco) and "Botaron La Pelota" (from Afincando / 25 Aniversario '85 on Bronco), brought the band a lot of notoriety and a lot of work. Gilberto Santa Rosa sang those two songs and achieved a lot of his fame from those selections. I guess you could say that I was partly responsible for allowing Gilberto's singing talents and abilities to be appreciated and discovered by the public.

JIC: From 1984, commencing with El Rey on Concord Picante until 2000's Masterpiece (on RMM), I don't think you missed a recording date with TP. Please could you select some milestone recordings from this 16 year period?

JM: I think that of the records that we did during that 16 year period, the ones that have any amount of significance were: the Salsa Meets Jazz project (1988 on Concord Picante) with Phil Woods, where we were able to record "Pannonica," where Phil just really played his ass off; the historic 100th album (The Mambo King: 100th LP '91 on RMM), although Tito didn't write very much for it, or play on it for that matter; the LIVE ones done at Birdland in New York City (Live At Birdland / Dancemania '99 '98 and Mambo Birdland '99, both on RMM); and, of course, the very last one, Masterpiece / Obra Maestra (2000 on RMM) with Eddie Palmieri. I was fortunate enough to be on about 45 of Puente's albums.

JIC: You had the honour of being Tito's musical director. I would be interested to hear your comments about performing this responsible role?

JM: I was very honoured when he asked me to take over the reins of musical director. I always did my best to make sure that the band performed up to par, that there were very few mistakes on the stage and that, above all, Tito would shine on that stage. I was glad that he trusted me to ghost write his music with his sound in mind. It was a real treat for me.

JIC: We regularly saw you with Tito's Latin Ensemble perform in the UK from the mid-'80s. Membership in his band must have been the nearest thing in Latin music to a secure civil service job. Did life with the band ever feel stale?

JM: Well, human nature being what it is, after having worked almost every night for the last 30 years of that band, once in a while it did become kind of "stale," but the feeling usually only lasted for one night. The next gig, we would be raring to go.

JIC: Did Tito's medical condition have any implications for your role as musical director? Or was he working at full throttle until the end?

JM: We were working full throttle until Tito got ill. We were scheduled to go into the southwest and then on to California. That obviously was canceled. The band continued working for about a year after his death. Eddie Palmieri even joined us as a special guest many times, but the Puente estate decided to stop the band.

JIC: Moving to the present day. How did the Latin Giants of Jazz come about?

JM: The creator of the band, Johnny Rodríguez, as well as myself and Mitch Frohman (longtime saxophonist with Puente) decided that the music was too darn good to just be tossed aside and forgotten. We decided to form this band with the intention of not allowing all that musical legacy to just pass away.

JIC: Tell me about the selection process for the musicians in the Latin Giants, which looks somewhat like an augmented version of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra?

JM: Actually, that is incorrect. The Latin Giants recorded this CD in 2002 and it was in the can for almost two years. During that period of time, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra got their act going and started to work a lot. We did use a lot of the original or most of the guys that had "done their time" with the three pioneers (Machito, Puente, Rodríguez). We then filled up the remaining spots with what we perceived to be the best musicians in this genre in NYC. Some of them went on to join Oscar Hernández and became the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. Oscar played piano on our date on the recommendation of Eddie Palmieri. Eddie felt that of all the guys on the scene, that he would do the best job. Anyone who says that the two bands are alike or play the same must be deaf. The styles are like night and day and if anyone cannot hear that, then they aren't well versed and able to differentiate the big band era of the '50s and the music of the '70s, which the Spanish Harlem Orchestra plays and plays extremely well. In fact, Oscar will often block off dates and not work the Spanish Harlem Orchestra to work with us. If I were to tell you how many guys from the same one or two bands played on the many different recordings in the '70s, one would, I guess, come up with the same conclusion; which is the premise of your original question. Musicians will work with anyone, anywhere, anytime for money. If the Latin Giants CD had come out before the Spanish Harlem Orchestra CD and you saw Latin Giants guys working and recording with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, would you ask the same question in reverse? Two different bands, two different styles, and if people can't hear that, it's a crime.

The "Bailadores" arrangement that I did for the Spanish Harlem Orchestra on their new CD Across 110th Street (2004 on Libertad Records), which Rubén Blades sings, is not anything even approaching the style of music that the Latin Giants perform. Here is another interesting tid-bit for you. George Delgado worked with Tito Puente before the Spanish Harlem Orchestra; Pete Nater worked with TP also before the Spanish Harlem Orchestra and Ray did some coro work on TP recordings. Mitch Frohman spent 25 years with TP so if anything, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra is new to the scene… We aren't. We are, after all, most of the guys who played with TP until the end. There is no substitute for experience.

JIC: I understand that the Spanish Harlem Orchestra's debut CD Un Gran Dia En El Barrio (2002 on Ryko / Ropeadope Records) was recorded in July 2001, but your point is well made. Tell me about the selection process for the tunes on the album The Latin Giants Play The Music of the Palladium?

JM: We wanted to present a cross section of the music that was performed during that era and to highlight some of the best arrangers of that music. For example, "Miedo al Cha Cha Cha" done by long time Tito Rodríguez trumpet player Harold Wegbreit (featured on Rodríguez's Live At The Palladium '60 on United Artists); "Frenzy" (included in Machito's Kenya '57 on Roulette) was done by René Hernández; "A Sunny Ray" done by Ray Santos; "Lagrimas Negras" (featured on Machito's Cha Cha Cha At The Palladium on Tico) was done by my dad José "Pin" Madera; and of course "Tenderly" done by Chico O'Farrill (included in Chico's Cha Cha Chá mid-'50s on Panart as well as in Frenesí '95 on Egrem).

JIC: Please could you explain what role you played as orchestrator of the material?

JM: Having worked in the Machito and Puente bands and also having had the opportunity to work shows with Tito Rodríguez whenever he came to New York City; I was well versed in the different style and sound of the three bands. I sat down and re-wrote all of the arrangements, keeping in mind the different voicings that each band used. I added four trombones to the arrangements (a lot of them didn't originally have trombone parts) and then we recorded them. I think that you would have to say that after listening to the Giants CD, that I am about 98% correct in accuracy as well as sound, writing and performance. It was a fun trip down memory lane.

JIC: I was delighted to see Ray Santos's "A Sunny Ray" (originally from Mi Amigo, Machito '58 on Tico) on the album. It's one of my all time favourite Machito cuts. I'd be interested in your comments?

JM: "A Sunny Ray" was the very first song that I heard the Machito band play in person when I was about seven years old. It's a long time favourite of mine. My dad took Ray under his wing when he joined the Machito band in 1957. I'm a big fan of his writing.

JIC: Ray de la Paz, as usual, does a great job on vocals. I particularly like "Blen Blen Medley." Please could you share your comments about this cut?

JM: We chose Ray to sing because we felt that he best interpreted and conveyed the emotions of the songs. He had also said many times that his dream was to sing with Tito Puente. Miguelito Valdés and Machito originally did the "Blen Blen Medley" on an album entitled Reunion (on Tico). It was recorded in 1963 and I was present at that session. I always liked that rendition and so we decided to re-create it here for this collection.

JIC: You've also included "La Orquesta" written by Ray Coen. Please could you tell me about this veteran pianist, arranger and composer?

JM: Ray Coen was just a fantastically talented pianist. My dad used to write for his dad, Augusto Coen, when he had his band many years ago. Ray wrote quite a few good charts for Puente and Machito in the '50s and '60s. This is just our little tribute to him and his dad.

JIC: Please could you highlight and comment on some of the other tracks?

JM: We didn't want to record and rehash the same old tunes that all of the other bands that are trying to play this style are doing. We chose tunes that we believed to be very representative of that era and tunes that would also feature some of the finest soloists on the scene. Thus, "Bobby and Mario" featuring Bobby Porcelli and Mario Rivera; "Tenderly" which features John Walsh; etc.

JIC: You also acted as musical director of The Big 3 Palladium Orchestra on their Live At The Blue Note (2004 on Rumba Jams). Please tell me about this project?

JM: Mario Grillo, Machito's youngest son, is like family to me. When he asked me to help him out on this project, I, of course, said yes. The band features the sons of Machito, Puente and Rodríguez. I felt honoured that they came to me and asked for my help.

JIC: Tell me about the gigging plans for the Latin Giants of Jazz, because big bands don't come cheap!?

JM: We will be in Albuquerque and San Antonio in October and November; we will also be in Denver New Year's Eve with special guest Eddie Palmieri. When he appears with us, we perform all of his big band music and people get to see him in a different light and obtain a perspective of his great talent. We also have quite a few bites going for us in Europe next summer. Eddie would also be joining us for those as a special guest.

JIC: Are there any other projects you have in the pipeline you'd like to tell me about?

JM: We have quite a few things going on. We will be releasing a DVD featuring the Latin Giants and Eddie Palmieri performing at the Heineken Jazz Festival in Spain last summer. That's coming out in about a week or so and we also have a few other surprises coming up. I won't mention them here because if I do, then they wouldn't be a surprise anymore.

JIC: Before we finish, what title would you like to give to this piece on your career and the Latin Giants of Jazz?

JM: "Who is that guy?"

JIC: Thanks very much for talking to me. Is there anything you'd like to add before we conclude?

JM: I'd just like to thank you for the opportunity to talk a tiny bit about myself.

© and John Child, producer and co-host of the the totallyradio show Aracataca , contributor to the Latin music website and MusicWeb Encyclopedia of Popular Music, and Penguin and Guinness Encyclopedias of Popular Music

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