Machito was the heartbeat of Afro-Cuban jazz. As one of the legendary Mambo Kings of New York, Machito had the music of his homeland coursing through his veins, igniting clubs and concert halls alike. From the Palladium to the historic 1947 concert at Manhattan’s Town Hall, Machito and His Afro-Cubans took their audiences to a place where they could move their feet like Cuban Pete while getting their getting their fill of hot bop jazz. Machito demonstrated time and time again that the art of entertainment saw no separation of art from entertainment. ...MORE >
Liner notes by Robbie Busch
Machito was the heartbeat of Afro-Cuban jazz. As one of the legendary Mambo Kings of New York, Machito had the music of his homeland coursing through his veins, igniting clubs and concert halls alike. From the Palladium to the historic 1947 concert at Manhattan’s Town Hall, Machito and His Afro-Cubans took their audiences to a place where they could move their feet like Cuban Pete while getting their getting their fill of hot bop jazz. Machito demonstrated time and time again that the art of entertainment saw no separation of art from entertainment.
“My childhood was filled with typical Cuban music,” Machito related in Carlo Ortiz’s documentary, Machito: A Latin Jazz Legacy. “My father had a business delivering food to sugar mills in Havana, Pinar del Rio… We used to make these deliveries by truck. My father’s coworkers used to sing, and I listened to them. I was young—fourteen or fifteen—still going to school. My father wanted me to become a grocer. Well, that’s how my musical life started. I grew up in a mostly Black neighborhood. I was surrounded by music [in] places like Jesús María, Los Barracones, Cayo Hueso, and Belen. All the rumberos would go to the sugar mills and play the rumba. They were called the Invaders, because they invaded the sugar-mill barracks. Since I had a grocery store, they’d say, ‘Macho, we’re playing tonight; we need beans, rice, meat, sausage, and oil.’ And I’d say, ‘Sure, but you have to invite me.’ And they’d party all night until sunrise.”
Machito was born Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo in Havana, Cuba, on December 3, 1908, according to his son, Mario Grillo. “Machito had about twenty birth dates,” says Mario. “This is the one we celebrated with him as a family.” When Machito was a kid, he would often sneak into rehearsals of the band Líderes de Redención to watch the great Cuban maraquero, Champito. “Such control!” Machito recalled. He became entranced with the master’s prowess with the maracas. “He was fantastic! Even the musicians said so. I told myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to learn this.’ I locked myself in my room… My mother thought I was crazy.”
Ultimately, he became a master technician on the maracas and was a consummate timekeeper. Mario Grillo, aka Machito Jr., percussionist and later musical director of the Machito Orchestra, remembers, “What you had to do as a rhythm player, specifically, was watch Machito and listen to his maracas. If you were on top of that, you were in perfect time. You would never think about it twice, because this guy was a human metronome. He was a great leader. The best bandleader that I’ve ever worked for, and I’ve worked for many.”
Mario Bauzá, Machito’s good friend, made the move to New York in 1930 to marry Machito’s sister, Estela, and was playing trumpet for Chick Webb’s orchestra. The lure of the big city was too strong, and in 1937, Machito made the leap as well. “The jump from Havana to New York was fantastic,” Machito recalled. “My sister met me at the dock. When we arrived in Harlem, there was much happiness. It was a flourishing era. Everyone was trying to better themselves.” He continued, “Since my brother-in-law already knew Chick Webb, it made it easier for me to become involved with high-caliber music. Every night, we used to go to the Savoy. Chick Webb’s band was already well known.”
Machito began singing for the Latin big bands of Noro Morales and Augusto Coen. But he was looking to do something with more impact, so he teamed up with Bauzá to form the Afro-Cubans band in 1939. Their first go at the band didn’t last long due to some technical difficulties at La Conga, the club they were scheduled to play. The group split up, with Mario going on to work as the musical director for Cab Calloway. It was there that Mario struck up a friendship with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Their relationship would lead to giant steps in the musical world. Dizzy would go on to write and record the 1946 Latin jazz masterpiece “Manteca” after Bauzá introduced him to Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo.
Meanwhile, the idea of having a big band with real Cubans playing authentic Latin music was stuck in Machito’s head. After a gig recording with the popular but sterile Xavier Cugat band in 1940, Machito got a new Afro-Cubans band together. A year later, he enticed Bauzá to become his musical director. Mario’s genius was given free rein, and he was flourishing in the new musical arena. At the same time, Machito’s reputation as a bandleader capable of packing the dance floor was growing exponentially.