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BAY AREA LATIN JAZZ MASTER
Benny Velarde, renowned Bay Area timbalero, composer and band leader, has been coming on strong with his new, long overdue CD, "Viva Velarde". His band Benny Velarde Y Su Super Combo has been inspiring dancers and Latin music fanatics for over 40 years. During an interview at a festive cafe in the Mission, Benny gives us his perspective on the history of the Latin music scene in the Bay Area.
CAN YOU TELL ME A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND?
I was born in Panama City, Panama. When I was a kid about 9 or 10 years old around 1942 or 1943 I used to sneak into the clubs to hear the bands from Cuba. In 1945 I emigrated with my mother to the U.S.
Who were the bands you used to hear IN PANAMA?
Cuban bands like Sonora Mantacera, Casino de la Playa with the lead singer, Miguelito Valdes. I remember a great Cuban piano player named Bola de Nieve—A black guy from Havana with the nickname Bola de Nieve (Snow ball). There were also quite a few Panamanian dance bands playing “tamborito”, a style of Panamanian music which was somewhat similar to Afro-Cuban music.
How did you first start playing music?
When I was in Panama, I started playing the saxophone. But when I came to the U.S. we could not afford music lessons. So I knew a little about rhythm and I taught myself to play percussion by listening to records. I became a fanatic about listening to Tito Puente and I started playing bongos and congas. In 1950, Alonzo Palio, a great piano player from San Salvador, had a band that used to play up in North Beach. About that time he asked me to play with them. I told him I was not a professional but he insisted. After I joined the Musician's Union, I started playing with his group, the Alonzo Palio Quartet. We used to play at the Jai Lai Club in North Beach. It was an Spanish n restaurant that after 9PM it became a Latin nightclub.
WHAT BANDS DID YOU PLAY WITH AFTER ALONZO PALIO?
I played with a fellow Panamanian, the late Carlos Frederico, at the California Hotel in Oakland on Sundays. Later Coke and Pete Escovedo played with him too. We also played at the “Frisco Club” located at Sixth and Market in San Francisco. I played with some the big Mexican bands lead by people like Salvador Guerrero and later Professor Cano. I also played with Manny Duran at Piro’s a club that used to be on Geary St. near Jones. Finally I decided to move to New York where I stayed for almost a year. When I got back to the Bay Area, Cal Tjader gave me a call.
Benny Velarde at Copacabana in S.F. 1960
WHAT YEAR DID CAL TJADER CALL YOU AND HOW DID HE HEAR ABOUT YOU?
I heard from Cal around 1952. First he called Manny Duran to be part of his group. At that time there were not many good Latin percussionists in the area. Since Manny knew that I had just gotten back from New York, he mentioned my name to Cal. He told Cal to give me a call. So I went to the audition, played for Cal and I got the gig.
So CAL already had HIS LATIN JAZZ COMBO established or he was just putting it together?
At that time Cal was playing with George Shearing. Then he got into the “Latin” thing because when he was in New York, he went to the Palladium. That's when he saw Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and Machito. So he got bitten by the Latin music bug. When he came back here, he wanted to form a Latin jazz quintet.
I never understood how Cal Tjader TRANSFORMED FROM PLAYING the George Shearing style of “cool Jazz” to Latin Jazz. HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?
George Shearing always liked Latin Music. Armando Perazza played with him for 11 or 12 years. Armando and I are very good friends. We go back as far as 1939. When Armando first came to town, he was playing with Slim Gaylor at a club called the Black Hawk. Slim knew that Armando didn’t couldn’t understand English. So Armando did the gig but Slim left town without even paying him. So since he was having such a hard time and couldn’t speak English, my mother said bring him over to the house. So he lived at my house for almost 6 or 7 months. He never forgot what we did for him. So that is how we got know each other. I was just talking to him a few days ago about Mongo (Santamaria) who recently died. Mongo was another friend of mine. I used to visit him whenever I was in N.Y.
SO WHEN CAL TJADER CALLED YOU TO AUDITION, WHAT DID YOU PLAY?
I started playing congas for him. I was just starting professionally so I wasn’t very good. But he liked it. Later on he hired Edgar Rosales to sing and Luis Miranda who had been playing congas with Machito. That’s how the Cal Tjader Quintet was formed.
LATIN JAZZ WAS VERY NEW, INNOVATIVE TYPE OF MUSIC AT THAT TIME. HOW DID PEOPLE RESPOND TO IT?
We had great success from the very beginning. We opened at the Macumba Club which was on Grant Ave between Bush and Post. Cal's Quintet opened that club and we were immediately a great hit. Pretty soon we were touring—going to Chicago, Cleveland and finally to Birdland in New York. The gig at Birdland was really great. Since there were very few Latin players in New York at that time, everybody came out to hear Cal. People like Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez came out—it was a great night.
WHAT WAS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WEST COAST LATIN JAZZ AND THE STYLE OF LATIN JAZZ THAT WAS DEVELOPING ON THE EAST COAST AT THAT TIME?
On the East Coast they were playing music that was called “AfroCuban Jazz”. It was heavily influenced by Chano Pozo who played with Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauza. On the West Coast we were playing what was called “Latin Jazz”—which meant Jazz standards with Latin percussion. In addition our piano player Manny Duran, of Mexican heritage, had a feeling for Latin syncopation. I think that was the biggest difference with the two styles. Another difference was that on the East Coast the music was played by Big Bands like those lead by Dizzy Gillespie and Machito. But on the West Coast we did not have Big Bands but the music was played by smaller combos.
HOW DID CAL KNOW ABOUT ARRANGING MUSIC WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF CLAVE?
Cal knew about clave from listening to music in New York and he picked up the concept right away. Before he played piano he was a drummer. Right from the beginning he understood clave and had no problem arranging music in this style. Cal was a very smart guy and he had been exposed to clave since George Shearing had many Latin players in his band.
WHEN DID YOU START COMPOSING?
I started writing in 1960 when I left Cal and started my own band. I played with Cal for 5 years from 1952-1957. I recorded with him under my real name Bayardo. You see Cal couldn’t pronounce Bayardo so he started calling me Benny. Now everybody calls me Bayardo “Benny” Velarde.
After I left Cal's Combo, I formed band in San Francisco and we were the opening act for the Copacabana Club in San Francisco. The band was made up of Manny Duran on piano, his brother Charlie on Bass, myself on timbales and Luis Miranda on congas. We also had a wonderful girl singer from Cuba with a beautiful voice. We played at the Copa for 2 years—until 1959. During that time, I went to Cuba, got married and stayed in Miami for about 6 months. Then I came back to San Francisco. When I got back, I wanted to go back to the Copacabana but Manny wanted to work on another job, so he left. That is when I formed my own band in 1960. That is also when I first started writing music. My first band was called Benny Velarde Y Su Pachangeras because of the dance “The Panchanga” which was very popular at that time.
I noticed that on your latest CD, "VIVA VELARDE" there is a song called “Yolanda's’ Pachanga”. What is the “Panchanga”?
Panchanga originated in New York around 1961 among Cuban musicians. The music was made up of violins, flutes and singers. The dance involved a lot of hopping and jumping from side to side. The Panchanga became a big dance hit. When my band played the pachanga, we substituted the vibraphone for the flutes and everybody loved the new sound. The music has a very lively, up-tempo feeling. Also there was a specific style for the piano sections (i.e.muños) was played in panchanga.—Some people call it the “El Caballo” or horseman's rhythm.
WHO WAS YOLANDA?
Yolanda was actually my ex-wife and I wrote the song for her when we got married. I first recorded the song in 1962 for my first album “Aye, Que Rico”. That album also one of my other tunes “Baile Mi Guaguanco”. Of course that arrangement of Baile Mi Guaguanco and Yolanda’s Pachanga is completely different from the way we play it now.
WHAT IS THAT LITTLE TOUCH OF RAP/HIP HOP MUSIC THAT I HEAR AT THE END OF YOLANDA PACHANGA?
That came from Ray Martinez (leader of the Bay Area Band Azabache ) and you know how crazy he is. He wanted to add that little piece to the tune to play around with my mind.
Ray Martinez He knows that I really don’t like Rap music. Not to put anybody down but Rap is just not for me. They just added that part to the tune to play with my mind because they thought I was going to get mad. I did not even know that they had recorded that segment. You can hear my me in that section, they just added my voice to the mix. I didn’t know that they had done that. So when we were listening to the mix before the album was released, I heard the rap and I started laughing. Then they knew that everything was alright with me.
Can you tell me more about Baile Mi Guaguanco, ONE OF YOUR WELL KNOWN SONGS ?
That song was also written for Yolanda when I went to Cuba to marry her. When I met her, Yolanda was a dancer. She and her sister were called “The Cuban Lollypops”. They were originally from Havana. They used to dance with my band when my band was playing at an after hours club called Streets of Paris. There they were—these two pretty Cuban girls. Yolanda and I fell in love, we went back to Cuba and got married. Later we came back to the U.S. and stayed in the Miami for about 6 months. But in those days, there was nothing happening in Miami. So since I still had my gig here, we moved back to the Bay area and I started working again at the Copa.
I wrote Baile Mi Guaguanco because I fell in love with Cuba. When I went there in 1957, Havana was a great city. There was music everywhere, beautiful girls all over town. So I really fell in love with Cuba and the Cuban people.
I SEE THAT JOHN CALLOWAY, A POPULAR BAY AREA PERFORMER AND ARRANGER COMPOSED THE TITLE SONG FOR THE CD, "VIVA VELARDE". HOW DID YOU AND JOHN MEET?
We’ve played together for almost 18 years. I have known him since he was a kid. How we first got together was that I had another piano player named Ben. One time Ben could not make it to the gig and so he sent John. At that time John was just a young kid starting out. John Calloway I liked the way John played and I was mad that Ben had sent a substitute. So I told Ben, you missed the gig and now you out of the band. I have got John now. After that John has been playing with me ever since. He plays with other bands too but he still comes back to play with me. A lot of the guys in the band like to play with me because I really feel that I am a part of the band. I am no better than anybody else. I belong to the group. We all get along very well, they respect me and I respect them. I always try to pay them good money. I’ve had bands performing for the past 40 years.
I REMEMBER THAT YOU BECAME VERY ILL A FEW YEARS AGO.
I got cancer of the throat. They had to remove my vocal cords so that now I speak with a voice box. I told myself at that time “This is not going to kill me”. I didn’t let me get down. Two weeks after I got out of the hospital, I was back playing with the band. I love music—it is in my blood. The music is my life. As you grow old, good things and bad things come to you. You just have to keep going.
HOW DID YOUR LATEST CD “VIVE VELLARDE” GET MADE?
Well my last recording was in 1972—so it has been a long time. It all started when we played at the Sacramento Jazz Festival in 2000. All other bands at the festival had CDS. WE did not have a CD. Everybody was coming up to us asking “Where is your CD?” So Ross, my trumpet player ,works at a recording studio. He introduced me to the owner of the recording studio and he really liked me. He said “We really have to record a CD for you”. So we started working on the CD and it was finally finished at the end of two years. We went to the studio, doing a little bit of recording here and there since we were using the studio when it was not already booked with bands. We were able to finish this CD all due to the generosity of Tom. Now we are able to pay him back. The guys in the band wanted to record this CD as a tribute to me because I am getting old and I don’t know how more years I will be around. But I am glad that I am still around to enjoy this. Some great guys are on this CD. Like Sol Nunez who started with me in 1989
ANY THOUGHTS FOR TODAY’S YOUNG MUSICIANS?
I was lucky that I could live by making music for many, many years. Music is the thing that you have to feel in your blood. It is something that you have to love, like the way you love a woman. At the same time you have to respect the music. If you really feel deeply about music, then you will be able to play for a long time. That’s my opinion because that is the way that I have lived.
BENNY Y SU SUPER COMBO WILL BE AT CAFE COCOMO ON FEBRUARY 13. Go to www.salsacrazy.com for more info.
LOOK FOR A BAY AREA TRIBUTE TO BENNY LATER THIS YEAR.