Home Interviews Boricua Jazz Pioneer: Juan Tizol (1900-1984)

Boricua Jazz Pioneer: Juan Tizol (1900-1984)


In the introduction to Juan Tizol – His Caravan Through Life and American Culture, author, Basilio Serrano makes no bones about why he decided to put pen to paper: “To set the record straight and give credit where credit is due.”

Serrano is a seasoned educator and historian who is all too familiar with the plight of Puerto Rican artists whose contributions to jazz have been unjustly ignored or forgotten. In 2000, he wrote several articles about Juan Tizol’s collaborations with Duke Ellington, Harry James, and other nationally known orchestras. Also, about Boricua Pioneers in Latin Jazz, Puerto Rican Musicians of the Harlem Renaissance, and essays about the pianist Noro Morales, the actress Miriam Colón and the political activist Lolita Lebrón.

During a recent conversation with Serrano, I asked him why he chose Juan Tizol as his main subject. “I chose Tizol because when he arrived in the U.S from Puerto Rico he spoke no English and was not familiar with American culture. Tizol knew little of jazz, and he played an unusual instrument – the valve trombone – which was mainly used in marching bands. Some would say Tizol had three strikes against him, if not four,” said Serrano, “yet despite the odds, he had an extremely successful life in music.”

Juan Tizol was born in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico where he grew up in a musical environment. His first instrument was the violin but, at an early age, he switched to the valve trombone. Mostly, he trained under his uncle and surrogate father, Manuel Tizol, the director of a municipal band, the San Juan Symphony, and local operas, ballets, and dance bands. Ironically, Tizol came to the U.S. as a stowaway on a ship traveling to Washington, D.C. in 1920. There, he set up residence and established himself in the pit band at the Howard Theater, who played mostly for touring shows and silent movies. Duke Ellington heard Tizol perform at the Howard Theater and in the late, 1920s when Ellington’s band was broadcasting from the Cotton Club in Harlem, he asked Tizol to bring his (valve) trombone to hear how it would sound with the band.

Tizol joined Ellington’s band in 1929 and composed, what he describes as “Spanish (exotic) melodies.” Songs like “Moonlight Fiesta,” Jubilesta,” “Caravan” and “Conga Brava” and injected Latin influences into Ellington’s repertoire. Also, as a senior and highly respected member of the orchestra, Tizol was responsible for rehearsing and integrating new musicians into the band. In his autobiography titled, “Music is My Mistress” (Da Capo Press, 1973) Ellington describes Tizol as “A tremendous asset to our band, a very big man, a very unselfish man and one of the finest musicians I’ve ever known.”

Lesser known is Tizol’s role as a racial trailblazer. During his tenure with Ellington’s orchestra, Tizol endured the indignity of being described as a “blob of sour crème in a black bowl of caviar.” Also, he adhered to “color codes” and black face for the films “Black and Tan” (1929) and “Check and Double Check” (the 1930s). The fact that Tizol made a conscious choice to work with black jazz orchestras, marry an African American woman (Rosebud Brown) and live in a mostly African-American community during a time when racial inequities were rampant speaks volumes about his character. When the Duke Ellington Orchestra toured the South and restaurants refused to serve bandmembers Tizol’s typical response was, “If you don’t serve them, you don’t serve me.” Ironically, Tizol’s detractors unjustly criticized him for “trying to pass for black.”

One of the most compelling theories in Serrano’s book appears in Chapter 8, titled The Progenitor of Latin Jazz: Trombonist Extraordinaire. According to Serrano “I describe Tizol as the ‘Progenitor of Latin Jazz,’ because, he was a ‘Founding Father’ of Latin Jazz.”

Tizol remained with Ellington until 1944. Afterward, he joined Harry James’s orchestra in order to be close to home (California). He returned to the Ellington orchestra in 1951 and reunited with Harry James three years later. In 1960, he spent one year with Ellington, and appeared on television with Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, before retiring.

In 1984, Tizol died of a heart attack at the Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood, California. He was 84 years young.

Juan Tizol – His Caravan Through Life and American Culture, is an insightful and engaging read. Also, it demonstrates there was much more to the icon than meets the eye. Highly recommended!


  • Ellington, Duke – Music is My Mistress (De Capo Press, 1973)
  • Serrano, Basilio – Juan Tizol – His Caravan Through Life and American Culture
  • Wilson, John S. – NY Times – Juan Tizol Dead; Jazz Trombonist (1984)
A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Editor-in-Chief Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject. His writing appears on Latin Jazz Network; Chamber Music America magazine and numerous other publications.


  1. Prior to 1917, Puerto Ricans were already contributing to musical development within “Black” (African-American, West Indian, etc) musical organizations. Rafael Escudero is a highlighted example, having been recruited and given room and board by the New Amsterdam Musical Association in NYC circa 1912, while comprising its New Amsterdam Brass Band. In fact, Puerto Rican musicians are part of the earliest development of Black American Music at the turn of the century (19th into 20th) through their presence at such institutions at Tuskegee and Hampton. One of the instructors at Tuskegee in 1904, when the school begins to receive an influx of students hailing from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Philippines, and West Indies, was none other than James Reese Europe.

    The reality is, as soon as the island of “Porto Rico” became a U.S. possession, that is where this story truly begins. The U.S. media was profiling the USA’s newest island possession from 1899-1902 with stories of its musical culture, specifically revolved around the municipal bands. On top of Jim Europe’s exposure to their musicianship (of “Porto Ricans”) at Tuskegee, that is how Jim Europe discovered Puerto Rico was an oasis of “music stand” musicians. Because EVERYONE knew. The U.S. media had been reporting on it since Puerto Rico was invaded.

    There is also a Puerto Rican and Caribbean presence of both music and dance artistry within the All-Black traveling vaudeville circuit (companies such as Williams & Walker and Cole & Johnson). Of which Lt. Europe was involved in as a musical director, prior to establishing himself as a founder of N.A.M.A, as leader of the Clef Club and, later, as head of the Tempo Club.

    All roads to this story lead back to 1898.


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