The exact origin of Machito (Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo) is a bit of mystery.
Where and when he was be born isn’t clear. Some scholars say he was born in Tampa. Others day Havana. Some put the year at 1909, others say 1912. Still others day 1915.
What isn’t a mystery is that he was raised in the Jesús María district of Havana and his foster sister Graciela (featured below) was born August 23, 1915.
What also isn’t a mystery is the impact he and his band had on world music.
Like so many accomplished musicians of that era, Machito moved to New York City (in his case in 1937) to take advantage of the opportunities in the Big Apple.
In 1940, he started his own orchestra The Afro-Cubans, one of the most important units in jazz and Cuban music history.
First, the band’s name: The Afro-Cubans.
This was a radical name for the time.
For perspective, the term “Afro-American” was not accepted as common usage by the New York Times until 1990. So Machito and his musicians were fifty years ahead of the social curve.
Racism and the accompanying failure to acknowledge the power and virtue of African culture was as common and virulent in the Cuba of the 1930s as it was in the US.
Calling his band The Afro-Cubans was the 1940 equivalent of “We’re black and we’re proud” at a time when making such statements were rare at best and dangerous as worst.
Second, Machito’s orchestra was extraordinary by every conceivable standard and moved the art forward not only for Cuban music but for American jazz as well.
Though Dizzy Gillespie is rightly credited with helping the cause of Latin music in the US jazz world, “Manteca” wasn’t recorded until 1947 and New York City jazz musicians had been digging Machito’s music for years by then.
Also, the introduction of Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo was made by another giant of Cuban music, the incomparable Mario Bauzá who was Machito’s musical partner and music director.
We’re just scratching the surface here (as we do with all these brief profiles.)
Start with these clips and dig deeper with your own research and you’ll surely be richly rewarded.
– Ken McCarthy
Jazz on the Tube
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