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Cuban Music Lesson: Mario Bauza


Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

By Jack Tomas

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Cuban music is one of the major influences on modern jazz. Not just for Cuban artists here and in Cuba, but for Black and White jazz guys alike. The reason, besides Cuban music’s awesomeness, is that it infused American jazz with a fresh dose of African beats. Jazz is, after all, Black music born from African traditions in New Orleans. One of the most influential musicians was Mario Bauza, “The founding father of Latin jazz.”

Mario was born in Cuba in 1911. People throw around the word genius lightly, but this guy was a genuine genius. At the tender age of 14 he was playing clarinet with Antonio Romeu’s band, which was one of the biggest bands of the time. Think of what you were doing at 14. All I did was play video games and have pimples. At the time Cuban musicians traveled back and forth to New York, where they would play with American jazz musicians. In the early 30’s he was playing with the great Chick Webb. He is credited with “discovering” Ella Fitzgerald. While playing with Cab Calloway, he brought a young trumpeter named Dizzie Gillespie into the band. Dizzie later became one of the major protagonists of Cuban jazz. Mario’s brother-in-law was the great Machito and he later became his bandleader. In 1941 he gave the young Tito Puente his first chance at recording. How much more influential can one guy be?

Mario’s most famous song was “Tanga”, which is still one of the most played Cuban jazz songs. In the 60’s, along with Dizzie Gillespie, he fused existing Cuban jazz with the bebop style that was popular at the time and invented Cubop. Starting in the 80’s he started playing less because he was friggin’ old. The year before his death, he appeared in an episode of “The Cosby Show”. This introduced a new generation to Cubop.

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