Born: July 14, 1930 | Died: January 13, 1979 Primary Instrument: Congas
Sabu was recognized as a virtuoso percussionist at a young age. Playing for the major Latin and be-bop names as a teenager, it was not long before he teamed up with top jazz artists and created astounding Afro-Latin jazz. With his own group he recorded the two wildest exotica records ever. and he continued working for great stars in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Eventually he moved to Sweden, where he led a conga school, resumed making records, and contributed to top Latin, big band, pop, jazz, fusion, and funk groups.
Louis Sabu Martinez was born July 14th, 1930 in New York City's El Barrio (Spanish Harlem). As a youth he got into all sorts of trouble but also banged on cans in a street band. His professional career began at age 11, when he began playing Latin percussion for renowned mambo and jazz bands, touring. In 1944 he returned from Puerto Rico to New York, where he continued to play in famous bands and develop his technique.
Sabu claimed the Lecuona Cuban Boys as major influences as well as the legendary Chano Pozo. In 1948 Sabu replaced Pozo in Dizzy Gillespie's last big band; the baton of Afro-Cuban jazz drumming literally was passed to Sabu. He joined Benny Goodman the following year. Other mentors were his friends Art Blakey, with whom he was associated from 1949 to 1958, Arsenio Rodriguez, and Candido. He did his famous “Palo Congo,” session in 1957 with Arsenio. He was a member of the original Joe Loco Trio, which recorded the first mambo in America. He performed in Broadway's House of Flowers and with other luminaries such as Xavier Cugat, Tony Bennett, and Sammy Davis, Jr.
From 1953 to 1957, Sabu recorded with Art Blakey, memorably leading a rhythm section on the fantastic “Orgy in Rhythm” session. The Blakey/Sabu recordings showcase the interplay of two master drummers and successfully pair both African and [African-derived] Latin rhythms. They provide convincing renditions of traditional African as well as improvisational tunes and motifs, complete with gongs, wild cries, and authentic Swahili chants.
Sabu formed his own quintet in 1957 and recorded three exotic classics: “Palo Congo,” for Blue Note, “Safari,” for RCA, and “Sorcery,” for Columbia. While not masterpieces of jazz, “Safari,” and “Sorcery,” are the strangest, most powerful recordings in the dubious exotica idiom.
Like many jazzmen in the late 1950s, Sabu struggled with heroin addiction, which took its toll on him as on all of jazz. He took odd jobs and even left music for a time, at one point running a strip joint on Baltimore's famous Block. But with the help of friends he landed new gigs. In 1960 he joined Louie Ramirez briefly to record one of the masterpieces of Latin jazz, “Jazz Espagnole.”
More work as a sideman followed. Sabu spent the early to middle 1960s in Puerto Rico (where he was involved in a Sammy Davis, Jr. film). He married and moved to Sweden permanently in 1967. Over the years he married several times and had many children. At least two sons, Rene and Johnny, are drummers.
Sabu recorded, performed, and gave instruction throughout the 1960s and '70s. He played with the Radio Jazz Group of Stockholm and on many Scandinavian and European jazz, Latin, big band, fusion, and funk records. In 1973 he formed the group New Burnt Sugar and published a book of conga exercises.
Sabu died January 13, 1979, of a gastric ulcer. He was neither the first nor the last jazz-conga virtuoso, but he may well have been the best. Certainly he led an exciting life and was in most of the right places at the right times. Fortunately he left behind an incredible variety of unique, important, and truly excellent records.
Sabu was left-handed. This came in handy when teaching conga rhythm patterns, since you could sit face-to-face and see a mirror image of how to move the hands. He placed his drums in a manner not seen otherwise. The quinto was in the middle, the conga to the left (left-handed, remember) and the tumba to the right. If you analyze some of the solos, you will see that they would be hard to play in another way. They would be hard to play anyway, admittedly. On some recordings he used five congas to produce fantastic rhythms -- not just scales going up and down.
Source: James Nadal