We haven’t featured Latin jazz in quite a while, and even though the subject might bring to mind guys like Xavier Cugat, Perez Prado, and Tito Puente, there were many others who were a big part of the history of the music. The popular bandleader known as Machito was an early star who had a lot of success for many years, but part of the credit should go to his brother-in-law, the talented Mario Bauzá, who ably served as the musical director of the band known as the Afro-Cubans.
Machito was born Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo in Havana, although one source says Tampa, Florida. In any case, the son of a cigar maker grew to adulthood in Cuba and was fully immersed in the local music scene by the late 1920s, working as a percussionist and singer. During the 1930s he found his way to America and logged some valuable experience working in the bands of established stars like Cugat and others. By 1940 he was in New York and forming his own band, which he called the Afro-Cubans.
Although the charismatic Machito was usually fronting the group, singing and shaking his maracas, the band didn’t really hit its stride until his brother-in-law Mario Bauzá came aboard as musical director. Bauzá was the consummate pro, a classically trained musical prodigy who could play several instruments and had already spent time in the top-tier bands of Chick Webb and Cab Calloway. With his help, the band soon became a polished, dynamic outfit; one that presented an audience-pleasing fusion of Latin percussion and big band brass.
The band’s popularity grew through the war years and beyond, and to add to the appeal the group began incorporating a lot of collaborations with conventional jazz stars like Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, and Buddy Rich. The band’s success continued into the 1950s, peaking in popularity during that decade’s mambo craze, but it continued to do well in the 1960s and 1970s. Bauzá’s death in 1976 slowed things down, but Machito continued to forge ahead and for several more years he was able to find plenty of spots for the group while continuing to make the occasional record. He was in his late seventies when he died in 1984.