Born: February 16, 1908 | Died: April 15, 1984 Primary Instrument: Band/orchestra
Machito and his Afro Cubans was an absolute powerhouse unit that lay the foundation for Latin Jazz, a seminal force in the original fusion of Cuban clave rhythms and the melodies and harmonies of jazz. They were the original Mambo Kings in New York in the ‘40’s and are considered the most innovative and influential orchestra in the genre.
Francisco Gutierrez Grillo was born in Havana, Cuba on Apr16, 1908. He set out to be a singer, and music became his life. He acquired the nickname Machito, as a youngster, though he was called Macho by his close friends. He sang in many local groups, and also became a very proficient clave and maraca player, essential instruments in Cuban music. He relocated to New York in 1937, where he immediately found work singing, and landed in Conjunto Moderno, with whom he made his first recordings. He moved on to the Conjunto Caney, and recorded with them until 1939. Became lead singer for pianist Noro Morales, did a short stint with Xavier Cugat, recording with both.
It was to be the formation of his own band The Afro-Cubans that would place him in jazz history. Fronted by a frontline of saxophones and trumpets, backed by a Cuban rhythm section, they debuted at the Park Plaza Ballroom in New York in Dec. 1940, and set the pace for Latin dance bands in what was to become the mambo craze era. They went on to record a self titled record,and another titled Afro Cuban Music” with Cuban singer Miguelito Valdés doing some numbers in a direct Yoruba dialect, which was novel at this time (1941). His brother in law Mario Bauza had joined the band and brought in jazz arrangements integrating them into their repertoire, but with a distinct Cuban interpretation. They were known for the hit “Tanga”, which become the bands theme song. Machito and his Afro Cubans would perform and record straight through the forties with studio and live broadcast releases. They also shared many bills with jazz bands of the time as Stan Kenton, on the historic Manhattan Town Hall concert in January, 1947. By 1948, they were in top form, and on top of their hot Latin musicians, brought in American jazz players to augment their sound some of which were Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich, Harry Edison,and Dexter Gordon. This period is considered by jazz aficionados as Machito’s finest, and is available as “Mucho Macho” (Pablo). His more Latin dance flavors are on the Palladium label.
They did not slow down throughout the fifties, doing live broadcasts from the famed Birdland, and recording for the Tico/Roulette label with notable jazz figures as Doc Chetham, Cannonball Adderley, Johnny Griffin, and Herbie Mann sitting in. The were the premier Latin dance band in NYC, and covered all the bases with rumbas,mambos, guarachas, sones, guajiras, afros, congas and boleros.
During the sixties they kept apace of the changing times, gigging and recording up to 1965, when there was a winding down, as popular demands took a noticeable turn with the advent of salsa. They were suddenly old fashioned and the music of the last generation. The young dancers were into the new salsa beats. Machito tried to go a different direction and did a Latin Soul record in ’68 but things started to quiet down. Ironic as it seems, salsa was a direct result of the music he was playing all along, which was picked up by the young Puerto Ricans as Machito alumnus Tito Puente, also Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, and Willie Colon. They turned it into an international phenomenon.
Machito took a hiatus from music in the early to mid ‘70’s and worked as a social worker for the city of New York. He made a big comeback in 1975 recording Afro-Cuban Moods (Pablo) with Dizzy Gillespie, this introduced him to a whole new audience, especially Europeans. He went on to reform a band and toured Europe for several years, drawing huge crowds, receiving accolades and a Grammy for his “Machito and his Salsa Big Band”(Timeless 1982). In a lifetime career in the music business, Machito would have over fifty albums to his credit.
He was performing steady at Ronnie Scott’s in London, and after suffering a heart attack, died on Apr.15, 1984.
There was a film “Machito: A Latin Jazz History”, released in 1987 which commemorated his life and music. Machito’s son Mario Grillo took over the revamped Machito Orchestra, and enjoyed a renewed interest in the great musical legacy of his father.