On the day of the kings, the king of the Afro-Cuban trumpet, Cho-co-la-te Armenteros, passed into eternity the morning of January 6, 2016, at North Westchester Rehab near Peekskill, New York from complications of prostate cancer.
Playing his horn through seven decades of musical trends, Chocolate’s dynamically rich and lyrically vibrant tenor defined the early days of the Cuban conjunto trumpet solo style as much as his charismatically cackling laugh punctuated his many stories. With two fingers holding onto a stogy, Chocolate’s tales took him from the Tropicana Nightclub where he backed Nat King Cole to the many stages he shared with names like Philly Joe Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, and Oscar Brown Jr. at the Apollo Theater. A popular you. tube video features him schooling Wynton Marsalis on the art of Afro-Cuban improvisation. He recorded with the Palmieris, Pacheco, Larry Harlow, Ismael Rivera, and the Estefans. He lived in Spain and France, traveled the world, performed on film with Andy Garcia, and it was Chocolate’s horn that hailed from the horizon of an Infinity car commercial over national television. He answered his phone animatedly asking the caller to dimelo cantando, sing it to me, baby.
An old school dapper dresser who disliked jeans and sneakers his was a happy outlook on a life filled with jokes, adventures, pranks, love, romance, children, and many good times. A bon vivant who enjoyed his cognac, good cigar and great music he nonetheless had strict standards not only with dress codes but life in general; he did not tolerate tardiness, tastelessness or gibberish. He did not suffer fools. Always with an eye on and out for beauty and beauties, Chocolate’s love for life mirrored the passion of his muse; reckless, free-spirited and bold. He sired seven children from eight marriages.
“I approach my trumpet as I approach a woman,” he would say slyly. “I take my time with her. I ask if she wants to play with me. I respect her so she’ll respect me.” Then he’ll pick up his horn and mouth off a freewheeling, uninhibited aggressive kick-ass solo that oozes with creative cunning while rapturous in its brilliantly lyrical color; the color of Chocolate.
Born Teodolo Alfredo Armenteros he described his childhood on the farm in Ranchuelo, Santa Clara the Cuban province of Las Villas as fortunate and blessed. His father Lazaro Alfredo Armenteros had acres of land and a big house and grocery store passed down from his father, Lt. Coronel José Maria Armenteros, right hand to Coronel Antonio Maceo Grajales, leader of the ten-year war against Spain and the fight for the abolition of slavery through the mambi army. Cuba was the last Island to free slaves, a freedom hard to enforce.
His father was a trombone player before he married Angelina Abreu. He retired from the musicians’ life by the time Alfredo was born on April 4, 1928, and dedicated himself to his wife, family, and Villa Ranchuelo, their farming estate before his untimely death when the young Alfredo was twelve years old; but not before instilling a sense of moral commitment and work ethic into his son’s talent and stand up character. A family’s legacy shapes the identity of the clan.
Chocolate’s was the first hand raised when his friend Richard Egües’ father asked for students interested in being part of a local band at school. Richard went on to become Orq. Aragon’s greatest flute player while Chocolate went on to Havana where he played with Septeto Habanero before his first recording with the great René Alvarez in 1949. The 78 recording sat center stage in Chocolate’s living room, a spotlight on his extensive and exciting career that went the next level with Arsenio, El Cieguito Maravilloso, who gave form and substance to the Cuban conjunto style.
The blind Cuban tres (guitar) player who led the most popular conjunto of the 1940s is generally considered the father of modern conjunto and a significant influence on what is now known as salsa music; a cosmopolitan update of the son ensemble. Influenced by the Island’s legendary “laughing” horn approach honed by Felix Chapotin, an original member of Arsenio’s crew, Chocolate studied him closely until “El Cieguito Marvilloso,” the blind marvel, offered Chocolate work with his newly formed conjunto alongside Chapotin and Enrique “Florecita” Velazco.
Arsenio’s innovation of adding a piano to play across his tres upgraded the “septets” of the time anchoring the sound around the inclusion of the forbidden conga drums that kept the groove deep and tight. With Chocolate taking center stage in the brass line-up, a shape-shifting chapter of musical history tumbled out. Harmonized horn lines mocked Eurocentric convention, sparring with each other like boxers, gyrating like dancers, and at some points, crying with each other like sympathetic, jilted lovers.
Chocolate had arrived. Mistaken in bars for Cuban Featherweight World Boxing Champ Kid Chocolate, he retained the “Chocolate” moniker before he began playing with Sonora Matancera.
He backed vocalist Nat King Cole at Cuba’s famous Tropicana Nightclub and performed on his subsequent recording, “Cole Español” while Choco was an in-demand radio and recording session player. During this time, Chocolate became the musical director and lead trumpet for Benny Moré before going on tour with Cuban flautist, José Fajardo. Later, Chocolate joined Machito and his Afro-Cubans in New York opening an international door to Latin music and jazz trumpet improvisation.
Since that auspicious beginning, Chocolate performed with Cesar Concepción, Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, Ismael Rivera, Joe Cotto, Moncho Leña, Cachao, Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, Johnny Pacheco, Larry Harlow, Mongo Santamaria with La Lupe, the Alegre All-Stars, Dianne Carroll and so many more. He bested Bill Cosby at Tito Puente’s 75th birthday party displaying his comedic as well as musical antics on stage. He won the Latin New York category for Best Trumpet of the Year in 1977 for his improvisations on Tipica Novel’s recording of “With a Touch of Brass.” Chocolate has nine albums to his name complimented by countless recordings with virtually every major Latin music artist in the business.
In fact, “the maturation of the solo trumpet style remains the most significant contribution by Rodríguez and his trumpet stars to the Cuban brass performing legacy,” states musician and educator Rick Davis in a published dissertation. The three-trumpet “sonora” format set them apart from their predecessors by dint of their unique improvisational styles sown from earlier septeto experience.
Arsenio was the first to bring the “tumbadora” (conga drum) into the conjunto showcasing the trumpet while dressing up the guaguanco beat. Arsenio revolutionized the instrumentation spotlighting three trumpets, adding a piano to the tres guitar, bass, bongo and three voices. Chocolate, being the youngest, decided to fit right into the center of these two senior trumpet mentors complementing rather than copying them. However, as Professor Rick Davies describes in his dissertation, in the harmonic voicing on one of Arsenio’s memorable numbers, No Puedo Comer Vistagacho, Armenteros’ instrumental virtuosity surpasses that of his older colleagues. His is a fluid linear style containing a high percentage of sixteenth-note figures as well as a mastery of an impressive trumpet range. Armenteros’ first solo in this piece includes a high C# (concert), a major third higher than any note in the Velazco solos and an augmented fourth higher than Chapotin’s highest notes in Dundunbanza. With a rhythmic subtlety akin to Velazco, Armenteros’ playing defies notational representation and belies the youth of the twenty-one-year-old.”
Chocolate began a freelance career working with Julio Gutierrez before joining La Sonora Matancera on radio and television. He quickly became a sought-after session and recording sideman. He toured all of Latin America with La Sonora recording the hit Burundanga with Celia Cruz. He was on tour with Cuban flautist José Fajardo (when percussionist Tata Güines was in the band as well) in Mexico when Machito first asked him to join the Afro-Cubans in New York. But Chocolate had another calling back home. His first cousin, Benny Moré asked Chocolate to help him organize and lead a dance band that would cater to the native Cuban dancer. The band was a hit. From 1953 until ’59 Chocolate continued his steady stream of freelance work recording and performing with Chico O’Farrill and Bebo Valdés.
Next, Chocolate recorded on the album “Salsa” with Cheo Marquetti y Los Salseros. He went on to record with Joseito Fernández, who composed the Cuban classic, Guantanamera that Chocolate later recorded on his own. During this time, American vocalist Nat King Cole arrived in Cuba to record an album in Spanish. Chocolate performed on this recording.
But it was in New York where his “fruit becomes ripened” as he put it. It was in the City where he finally sired a son, Alfredo, after leaving six daughters behind in Cuba. Here he records nine albums on the advice of Machito, who warned him that “creating a style, being accepted, and then being liked by the public are three distinctly different things ¬very hard to achieve.”
After realizing his two lifelong dreams of playing with Arsenio and organizing the most popular dance band in Cuba with Benny Moré, Chocolate took Machito up on his offer and come to New York. Palladium promoter Catalino Rolon booked him a month earlier pairing him with the Puerto Rican big band of Cesar Concepción prior to becoming Machito’s first trumpet for eight years and traveling throughout the world. This opened doors to a variety of Afro-Caribbean musical genres as well as directly exposing Chocolate to the New York jazz scene.
Chocolate, with Machito and his Afro-Cubans, traveled uptown to the Apollo for the shows produced by radio hosts Symphony Syd and Dick “Ricardo” Sugar. There he would accompany performers such as Oscar Brown Junior, Hazel Scott, Philly Joe Jones, Miriam Makeba, Diane Carroll, and others. While having after gig drinks several of the black artists would invite Choco to scat jazz with them to which he would reply that his trumpet spoke Spanish and improv.
The Art of Improvisation
“From the charismatic spark of a moment improvisation is born,” noted the master trumpet player. “You may see it in the face of a fan, the feel of the ambiance, the interaction of the group you’re playing with. All these things influence improvisation; it is born from the feeling of any moment. It can happen without control or will.”
Chocolate’s trumpet solos competed with a young La Lupe’s kinetic vocals over Mongo Santamaria’s debut recording of her fresh style to New York audiences andit was the brilliant color of his trumpet’s sequential lyricism that rides the top of Ismael Rivera’s band in the recording of El Nazareno. From here, Choco soared once more inspiring the now rare cult recordings of the Alegre All-Stars. His recording over the album With A Touch of Brass for Tipica Novel won Armenteros’ a Latin New York Magazine Award in 1974 while the following year found him at music collector René Lopez’ Bronx home at a weekly experimental retreat where he and brothers Andy and Jerry Gonzalez, percussionists Milton Cardona, Marcial Reyes, Nicky Marrero, vocalist Willie Garcia, and an array of folk and local artists were “looking for a sound” in a mixture of Afro-Caribbean structures with a funky Nuyorican backbeat.” They were “guapeando” (ballsy) at its New York best.
“Freelancing and working with so many other bands and musical groups is what keeps the improvisation fresh and creative.” He underscored. “I don’t stay in one band for too long; it becomes mechanical, stagnate. Playing with others expands not only the repertoire but the creative imagination to a point that it can never go back to what it was.”
“The music is always looking for something new and the American influence and young styles of expression continue to create different sounds,” Chocolate pointed out. “In reality, we’ve done it all before. I recorded a Cuban version of Mack the Knife in guaguancó time. I’ve jammed with Los Van Van and Arturo Sandoval. I love jazz, but I bring my Cuban improvisational style within that genre as well. When Cedar Walton asked me to record on his Eastern Rebellion jazz album, he asked me to share my inspiration with his jazz style. That’s different from playing straight up jazz. I don’t play that.”
The trumpet he plays has played a major role in the instrumental makeup of the Latin music sound. Since the Cuban comparsas at the turn of the last century featuring one trumpet as a principle force amid massive drumming, the trumpet lends a colorfully bright and inspirational melodic phrasing to the music different from other instruments.
Up until the summer of 2015, Chocolate Armenteros didn’t miss a beat since he first raised his hand to learn the trumpet. Whether recording an educational jazz series with Wynton Marsalles or playing his flugel horn with a symphony, Chocolate Armenteros performed, recorded and toured the world returning to his beloved New York Barrio where he lived among the memorabilia of a glorious career. He toured the French Caribbean of Martinique and Guadalupe with Zon del Barrio, celebrated his 85th birthday in Central Park where he received a proclamation from the City of New York from Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and could be seen every Sunday at the Julia de Burgos danzettes performing and enjoying the good life.
Chocolate worked with the most significant Latin music bandleaders of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Indeed through every musical milestone from the septeto to the conjunto, the big dance bands to the Latin jazz ensembles and on to his arrival in New York, Chocolate and his liltingly dynamic trumpet solo style were at the cutting edge of the Latin music Diaspora. So when he’d say there’s nothing new in music unless you add a sixth line to the musical staff, he wasn’t kidding. He lived enough for ten lives and has done it all. In his memory, the family wishes that fans remember his zest for life, his love of music, his passion and most of all, his happy laugh.
Alfredo Chocolate Armenteros is survived by his son Alfredo and his two granddaughters Diavana G., and Amanda D. Armenteros. Chocolate also has six daughters he left behind in Cuba however, due to the embargo, the family only has contact with the youngest, Ana Catalina Armenteros, who was two years old when Chocolate left for New York. There will be a memorial celebrating his life on April 4, 2016, what would’ve been his 88th birthday.
Highlights of A Sweet Life: Alfredo Chocolate Armenteros Compiled by Aurora Flores
April 4, 1928: Born to Lazaro Alfredo Armenteros, a trombone player, and plantation farm owner and Angelina Abreu in Ranchuelo, Santa Clara the Cuban province of Las Villas.
1940: Recruited by Eduardo Egües for a local children’s musical group. The mid-40s: Played with Los Hermanos Valladares, in local comparsas and with Melodias de Ironbeer (a popular drink in Cuba back in the day) and Comparsa Jardinera.
1948: Moved to the City of Havana to begin playing with the legendary Septeto Habanero led by Gerardo Martinez.
May 18, 1949: First recording with René Alvarez y Los Astros featuring the now standard for Afro-Cuban style soloing, Para las Niñas y Para las Señoras the title name of the recording.
1949: Joins the conjunto of Arsenio Rodríguez. Performs with Julio Gutierrez.
1951: Begins a long career of freelancing playing with the famous Sonora Matancera and others while a member of the studio orchestra of the Cuban radio and television station CMQ and as a recording session man.
1953 – 1956: Organizes his cousin Benny Moré’s first dance big band for the public in Cuba.
1954 – 1959: Records and works with Chico O’Farrill, Bebo Valdés, recorded Cole Español featuring Nat King Cole. Works with José Fajardo, records “Salsa” with Cheo Marquetti y sus Salseros in 1954 and later with Joseito Fernández composer of the standard, Guantanamera covered two decades later on Armenteros’ Chocolate y Amigos. Goes to New York in 1957 with a contract to play with the Machito and his Afro-Cubans Orchestra. He arrives a month prior to his starting date with Machito to work with Puerto Rican bandleader Cesar Concepción at the Palladium.
1960: Relocates permanently to New York City to continue a long-standing work relationship with Machito as he begins to play with other orquestras and in other venues. Early ‘60s: Performs at the Apollo with the Machito Orchestra accompanying Philly Joe Jones, Miriam Makeba, Oscar Brown Junior, Hazel Scott, Diane Carroll and other acts produced by jazz radio hosts Symphony Syd and Dick Ricardo Sugar. ‘60s ¬ ‘70s: Works with every major bandleader including Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez. Works with Joe Cotto, Moncho Leña and Mon Rivera. Continues to freelance and perform with every “salsa” bandleader in New York including Johnny Pacheco, Alegre All-Stars, Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, Larry Harlow, Ray Baretto, Mongo Santamaria, Ismael Rivera, La Lupe, Celia Cruz, Bobby Capo, Sonora Ponceña, Orlando Marin, Roberto Torres, and many, many more.
1974: Records With a Touch of Brass for Tipica Novel that won Chocolate a Latin New York Award for Best Trumpet.
1975: Records on the two volumes of critically acclaimed and groundbreaking recordings by a workshop group of musicians produced by music producer, René López: Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Nuevayorquino. Kicks off his career as a bandleader and recording artist with Chocolate Aquí on the Carib Music label.
The late ’70s ¬ Chocolate traveled the world with La Sonora Matancera during the late 1970s.
’80: Records Chocolate Caliente and Juntos a collaboration with Roberto Torres on the Salsoul label. Releases Chocolate En El Rincon featuring Manny Oquendo and Andy Gonzalez in 1976 on Salsoul; followed by Prefiero El Son and Sigo Con Mi Son and Chocolate Dice over the SAR label in the early ‘1980s. Prefiero El Son and Sigo Con Mi Son were re-released on CD as Lo Mejor de Chocolate, Volumes 1 and 2.
1983 – 1984: On the Caiman label Chocolate records, Chocolate en Sexteto; ¡Rompiendo Hielo! and Chocolate y Amigos.
Chocolate continues his intermittent relationship with the Machito Orchestra recording three albums between 1982 and 1983 while appearing with the band in London. He appears with an American jazz group on pianist Cedar Walton’s Eastern Rebellion 4 featuring jazz trombonist Curtis Fuller. He also continues recording with Caiman Records as a featured sideman with a notable performance on Super All-Star ’84 featuring Tito Puente and Paquito D’Rivera. He records on Pionero Del Son with Alfredo Valdés, Sr., in 1984 and on Con Tumbao with Los Guaracheros de Oriente.
Late ‘80s – 90s: Recorded with the legendary Cuban bassist Israel Cachao López in a two volume Grammy award-winning CD set: Master Session, 1 and II in 1995 and in the documentary produced by actor Andy Garcia, Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos, creating an Afro-Cuban renaissance. Receives a certificate of recognition along with John Santos and the Machito Ensemble for Jazz from the City Festival, David Symphony Hall in San Francisco, California. Oct. 1990: Receives three awards from Santo Domingo, Republica Dominicana, Discos Terrazo and Discoteca Kristal in recognition of Chocolate’s work.
1991: Colombia Club in New Jersey recognizes the lifetime achievements of Chocolate Armenteros.
1992: Records with Paquito D’Rivera on 40 Years of Cuban Jam Sessions. 1994: Recognition from the City of New Orleans.
1995: Recorded on Descarga in New York (Estrellas Caiman) featuring Armenteros’ version of the Kurt Weill standard Mack the Knife previously recorded on his own ¡Rompiendo Hielo!
1996: Records Descarga del Milenio (Estrellas Caiman).Receives recognition from the New York City Council.
1997: Records his own Chocolate and His Latin Soul on the Caiman label and was later featured on trombonist Jimmy Bosch’s first recording as a leader, Soneando Trombón released on the Ryko-Latino label. Receives a star “Walk of Fame” from Willie’s Steak House in the Bronx, New York.
1998: Plays a comedic solo beside Bill Cosby at Tito Puente’s 75th Birthday on April 20 at a private party attended by Lionel Hampton, Isaac Hayes and other celebrities. Received the New York ACE Award on March 21.
1999: Records Heart of A Legend with Chico O’Farrell. Receives recognition from the Smithsonian Associates for Lifetime Dedication to the Enrichment and Diffusion of Latin Music on February 27th.
2000: Recorded and performed with Wynton Marsalis on his educational jazz music series for Lincoln Center. 2002: Honored by the Caribbean Cultural Center as one of the most important and influential trumpet players in the history of Cuban music. August 10, 2002: Celebrated with the big band orchestra of Ray Santos and tresero Nelson Gonzalez’ septeto conjunto at Prospect Park for the Celebrate Brooklyn festival. Historian Henry Medina’s vintage films danced across a big screen showcasing highlights of Chocolate’s intense and exciting musical career.
2010 – 2015: Recording, performing and touring with Zon del Barrio —Commissioned ZDB’s David Fernandez to write the Danzón: Villa Ranchuelo. August, 2013: Proclamation from the City of New York