In the introduction to the book Juan Tizol, His Caravan Through American Life and Culture (Xlibris, 2012), Basilio Serrano makes no bones about the reason he chose to document the life and music of Juan Tizol. “To set the record straight,” says he, “and to give credit where credit is due.”
Serrano is a seasoned educator and historian who familiar with the plight of Puerto Rican artists whose significant contributions to jazz have been misunderstood, minimized, and ignored.
In 2000, he wrote a series of articles about Tizol’s collaborations with Duke Ellington, Harry James, and other nationally known bandleaders and orchestras. Also, Puerto Rican Pioneers in Latin Jazz, Puerto Rican Musicians of the Harlem Renaissance, and essays about the pianist Noro Morales, the actress Miriam Colon and the political activist Lolita Lebron.
During a conversation with Serrano, I asked what drew him to Tizol. “I chose Tizol because he spoke no English when he arrived in the U.S. from Puerto Rico and was not familiar with American culture,” he explained. “Also, Tizol knew little of jazz and played the valve trombone, mainly used in marching bands. Some would say Tizol had three strikes against him, if not four, yet, despite the odds, he had an extremely successful life in music.”
Juan Tizol was born in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, in 1900. He grew up in a musical environment and trained under his uncle and surrogate father, Manuel Tizol Marquez (1876-1940), a significant figure in Puerto Rican history. Among his many accomplishments, Manuel Tizol founded the Concert Society of San Juan (1913), the Harmonic Club of San Juan (1923), and the first Symphony Orchestra (1926). In the popular realm, Tizol led a dance orchestra and directed the Municipal Band of San Juan, which spawned multi-instrumentalists such as Rafael Hernandez, the tubist, and the bass player Rafael Escudero and his nephew, among others.
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 mainly played for touring shows and silent movies. It was at the Howard that Ellington heard Tizol perform. In 1929, 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 mesh with the orchestra. It did.
Tizol joined Ellington’s band in 1929 and composed what he describes as “Spanish (exotic) melodies.” Songs such as Moonlight Fiesta, Jubilesta, Caravan, and Conga Brava Also, he injected Latin influences into Ellington’s repertoire and, as a senior and respected member of the orchestra was responsible for rehearsing and integrating new musicians into the band. In his autobiography titled, Music is My Mistress (Da Capo Press, 1973), Ellington described 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 plight as a light-skinned Puerto Rican in an African American band. During his tenure with Ellington, he endured the indignity of being described by one critic as a “blob of sour crème in a black bowl of caviar.” Also, he willingly adhered to “color codes” and allowed the director of the films “Black and Tan” (1929) and “Check and Double Check” (the 1930s) to blacken his face. In spit of that, Tizol consciously chose to work with black jazz orchestras, married an African American woman, and lived and worked in an African-American community when racial inequities were rampant. Ironically, some of Tizol’s detractors unjustly accused him of “trying to pass for black.”
One of Serrano’s book most compelling theories appears in the chapter, The Progenitor of Latin Jazz: Trombonist Extraordinaire. According to Serrano, “Tizol is often credited as a pioneer in Latin jazz. More often than not, however, credit is denied in the roles played by him and Duke Ellington in the development of the Latin jazz genre. For example, some consider the tune, Tanga, credited by the trumpeter Mario Bauza and Frank “Machito” Grillo and recorded in 1945, almost nine years after Tizol’s Porto Rican Chaos and eight years after Caravan, to be the first Latin jazz recording. What the ‘Tanga’ proponents fail to recognize is, Tizol and Ellington experimented and recorded ‘Latin Tinge’ melodies before Caravan.”
Tizol remained with Ellington until 1944. Afterward, he joined Harry James’s orchestra because it was based out of the West Coast, and allowed him to spend time with his wife. 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, at 84, Tizol died of a heart attack at the Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood, California.
For more on Juan Tizol’s Caravan Through American Life and Culture pick up a digital or physical copy wherever books are sold. Aside from being an informative and insightful read, it gives Tizol, “credit, where credit is due.”
- Ellington, Duke – Music is My Mistress (De Capo Press, 1973)
- Serrano, Basilio – Juan Tizol – His Caravan Through Life and American Culture (Xlibris, 2012).
- Wilson, John S. – NY Times – Juan Tizol Dead; Jazz Trombonist (1984)