Jack Costanzo and Gerrie WooLatin Percussion with Soul
Master bongosero/conguero Jack “Mr. Bongo” Costanzo was at the top of his game in 1968. His twenty-three previous years as one of the top percussionists in jazz and Latin music had taken him all over the world, and he was constantly in demand as a bandleader and studio session player and for work in motion pictures. His bands had always featured the top musicians in the Los Angeles area in the jazz and Latin fields, but an eight-week spring engagement in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the San Juan International Hotel was the impetus for Latin Percussion with Soul. “What happened in Puerto Rico was the crowd fired up the band,” says band member and timbalero Pat Rodríguez. ...MORE >
Master bongosero/conguero Jack “Mr. Bongo” Costanzo was at the top of his game in 1968. His twenty-three previous years as one of the top percussionists in jazz and Latin music had taken him all over the world, and he was constantly in demand as a bandleader and studio session player and for work in motion pictures. His bands had always featured the top musicians in the Los Angeles area in the jazz and Latin fields, but an eight-week spring engagement in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the San Juan International Hotel was the impetus for Latin Percussion with Soul. “What happened in Puerto Rico was the crowd fired up the band,” says band member and timbalero Pat Rodríguez. “It was a loud and responsive crowd that forced us as musicians above our limits.” He adds, “The entire band was smoking, and their time was impeccable. All of the group surpassed their normal level of playing, with Jack and bassist Humberto Cané pushing me forward.”
Born in 1922 in Chicago, Illinois, Jack Costanzo universally gets credit for introducing the bongo drums to American jazz. As a teenager, he witnessed a Puerto Rican dance group whose leader played bongos, and there was no looking back. With no one to help, Costanzo had to teach himself to play. He fashioned a pair of bongos out of wooden butter tubs and began his long percussion quest. He started in show business in his later teens as a dancer and then toured with his soon-to-be first wife, Marda Saxton, as a dance team, finally ending up in Los Angeles after serving in the Navy in World War II. His dance career in Los Angeles began as an instructor at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Latin bandleader Bobby Ramos first saw him playing in a jam session in 1946, which sparked his career as a professional musician. In the mid-’40s, he worked with a number of bands including those of René Touzet, Desi Arnaz, and the Lecuona Cuban Boys, but his big break came in 1947 when jazz giant Stan Kenton brought him into his orchestra. His pioneering bongo work is heard on such Kenton classics as “The Peanut Vendor,” “Cuban Carnival,” “Bongo Riff,” “Monotony,” and “Abstraction.”
After the breakup of Stan Kenton’s band in the late ’40s, Jack then moved on to a lucrative gig with Nat King Cole. Costanzo worked with Cole from 1949 to 1953 and can be heard on the classic tunes “Calypso Blues” and “Go Bongo.” After his tenure with Cole ended, Jack then started his own band and released Afro Cuban Jazz North-of-the-Border for Norgran Records in 1955. His mambo/Latin-jazz dream, though, came to fruition on his 1957 GNP Crescendo Records LP, Mr. Bongo, thus leading to groundbreaking records through the ’50s and ’60s with the Verve, Liberty, Sunset, Tico, Zephyr, Clarity, Tops, and Golden Tone labels. In the live arena, his band maintained a status as one of the top Latin orchestras in Los Angeles throughout the ’50s and ’60s with amazing players coming out of his band, including Eddie Cano, Al Escobar, Chino Pozo, Johnny “La Vaca” Rodríguez, Modesto Duran, Luis Miranda, Vladimir Vasiloff, and Carlos Vidal. Costanzo was constantly at work in the studio and at concerts and club engagements, working with luminaries such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Lester Young, Max Roach, Bud Powell, Harry James, Buddy Rich, Art Pepper, Shorty Rogers, the Lighthouse All-Stars, Henry Mancini, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Esquivel, Pérez Prado, the Supremes, and Sam Cooke.
“The people in the band on Latin Percussion with Soul were all people that I knew, and we were comfortable as musicians,” notes Costanzo. “At the time, they were all at the top of their field.” Leading the charge on the record are such heavyweights as Puerto Rican timbalero Pat Rodríguez, Cuban bassist Humberto Cané, and Mexican trumpeter Paul López with impressive playing credentials behind them in the groups of Tito Rodríguez, Eddie Palmieri, Sonora Matancera, Noro Morales, Machito, and Miguelito Valdés. Producer Pancho Cristal heard the band was tearing up the island in 1968 and immediately flew to San Juan to check out the hype—the band was signed immediately to Tico Records with well-respected pianist Héctor Rivera put in place as arranger. “Jack would take trips to New York City and sit in with bands dating back to the early ’40s,” states Rodríguez. “On the West Coast, he couldn’t get an Eastern flavor or New York City sound, so this was his chance to make it happen.” This comes to life in such fiery mambo instrumentals as “Recuerdos,” “Mambo Jack,” and “Mantequilla” in addition to the swinging cha-cha “Que Vengo Acabanado” featuring Johnny Nelson on vocals.
Costanzo’s true vision, though, was a crossover record in the vein of boogaloo or Latin soul, as he states, “I told Héctor Rivera I wanted to do a track that would do as well as Mongo Santamaria’s ‘Watermelon Man.’ Several songs and ideas were mentioned, and I brought to the table Cannonball Adderley’s ‘Jive Samba,’ Booker T. and the MGs’ ‘Green Onions,’ and the Gerrie Woo numbers.” Ex–Playboy bunny Woo, Costanzo’s second wife, does a credible job on vocals on the tunes “Hey Boy (Hey Girl),” “Words,” “Some Kind-A Wonderful,” and “Don’t Squeeze the Peaches,” but it’s the instrumental monster “Jive Samba” that is the album’s showstopper, without a doubt. Says Costanzo, “I think ‘Jive Samba’ is the main song of the album. My main contribution on it was telling Humberto what I wanted in the bass line. I wrote it and wanted to keep the structure and phrasing modern and up to date.” He adds, “Those notes hit you someway that notes aren’t supposed to.” Adds Rodríguez, “It came out exactly how we wanted it to come out with the groove, and no clashes in the rhythm.” To this day, Costanzo is proud of the track, which appears on numerous compilations and as sample fodder around the globe.
“I give the writer Nat Adderley and my great musicians a lot of credit,” Costanzo humbly says. In closing, Rodríguez adds, “It was a tremendous feeling in Puerto Rico and in the studio how this band gelled.” Indeed, Latin Percussion with Soul showcases musicians and songs that come together with mucho swing and sabor!
(Tico 1177) Originally released in the fall of 1968
Produced by Pancho Cristal
Arranged by Héctor Rivera (except for “Jive Samba” by Jay Corre)
Recorded at Bell Sound Studio, Hollywood, summer of 1968
Remastered by Alex Abrash/Wax Poetics
Mastering Liner notes by Steve Kader
Personnel Jack “Mr. Bongo” Costanzo: congas, bongos
Gerrie Woo: lead vocal
Johnny Nelson: lead vocal (“Que Vengo Acabando”), coro
Pat Rodríguez: timbales, cowbell
Frank De Vito: trap drums
Humberto Cané: bass
Eddie Cano: piano
Paul López: trumpet
Marcus Cabuto: trumpet
Tony Terran: trumpet
Jimmy Salko: trumpet
Jay Corre: tenor sax
Bob Hernández: tenor sax, flute
Burke Hatfield: alto sax
Dick Holgate: baritone sax
Héctor Rivera: coro