On June 24, 2004, the music community and the world lost a master percussionist and visionary on the path to greatness. Shortly after, the Long Beach Jazz Search Competition posthumously named Long John Oliva “Latin Jazz Artist of the Year” and his ensemble, The AC (Afro-Cuban) Jazz Project, “Latin Jazz Artists of the Year.”
Juan Sanchez Oliva, also known as Juan “Penalty” and “Long John,” was born and raised in Old Havana’s Belen Barrio. At three, his father, the renowned rumbero and founder of the rumba ensemble Yoruba Andabo, Pancho Quinto, started “Juanito” on the drums at three. In his teens, Oliva studied with master percussionists Jose Luis Quintana “Changuito” and Tata Guines. Also, he idolized and was strongly influenced by Chucho Valdes, the group, Irakere, and drummer Jose Alfonso “El Nino.”
ARRIVAL IN THE U.S.
Oliva arrived in the U.S. in 1980 as part of the Mariel Boatlift with Orlando “Puntilla” Rios, Daniel Ponce, and Ignacio Berroa, among others. Unbeknownst to many of his followers, he was a gifted baseball player (shortstop) who considered a career as a professional athlete but was, more than likely, discouraged by the sport’s discriminatory practices.
OLIVA, AS A SIDEMAN
The same year Oliva moved to New York and joined Orlando “Puntilla” Rios’s “Nueva Generacion.” Next, he ventured to Puerto Rico, where he performed with Batacumbele and Zaperoko, influenced by the progressive sounds of Cuba’s Los Van Van and songo, which incorporated rhythmic elements from folkloric rumba into popular dance music. The result was the groundbreaking album, “Cosas de Locos” (Montuno Records, 1983), in which Oliva appeared.
Shortly after, Oliva moved to Los Angeles and became the lead percussionist with Willie Bobo’s Pan-American band. According to Oliva, Willie allowed him to explore his Yoruba roots and was the person who christened him “Long John” for his endurance and masterful percussion solos.
OLIVA, AS A LEADER
In 1999, Oliva met his soul-mate and wife-to-be, Peggy Jo, at a Muñequitos de Matanzas concert at the Wiltern Theater in West Hollywood. In 2000, they wed and vowed to pursue a dream. One year later, they founded Lucumi Productions and AC (Afro-Cuban) Project, and their dream came to fruition.
In 2002, Lucumi Productions released Long John Oliva and the AC Jazz Project’s “Lucumi” (under the auspices of “Orisha Records”) featuring master folklorist, vocalist, percussionist Orlando “Puntilla” Rios, Oliva’s former instructor and mentor Jose Luis Quintana “Changuito,” pianist, composer, arranger Omar Sosa “Sokere,” bassist Rahsaan Fredericks, trumpeter Julio Jr. Melendez, trumpeter, and flugelhorn player Bill Ortiz and percussionist, timbal player, and vocalist Jesús Díaz.
The repertoire ran the gamut, from “Cubanized” American jazz standards to traditional rumba, songo, elements of the Yoruba tradition, and jazz improvisation. Shortly after its release, Latin Beat magazine’s Nelson Rodriguez declared Lucumi “One of the top 100 Latin Jazz Recordings of All Time.” In a recent interview with Omar Sosa, he shared his thoughts about the project and participation: “Participating in the Lucumi sessions and working with Long John, Changuito and Puntilla was an honor and a privilege. The band was tight, and the music was ahead of its time!”
In 2003, Oliva and AC Timba Jazz released the acclaimed “Buscando La Ortografia,” whose title signifies Oliva’s continual search for the perfect musical path. Dedicated to Chucho Valdes, Jorge Alfonso “El Nino,” and the prolific Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández, the music was timba-based, progressive, and dance-oriented.
In 2004, Oliva released “Cuba Rico,” whose title signifies his love for Cuba and Puerto. The same year, for reasons unknown, Oliva changed the title to “Buleya” (after his mother) and altered the titles of the tracks. Regrettably, Oliva died the same year.
PREMATURE DEATH (2004)
After Oliva’s death, the AC Project performed at the KCET 24th Annual Christmas Celebration, a high-profile fundraiser at MOCA with host Paula Abdul, showcased the IAJE Conference in New York City (after receiving the Best Latin Jazz Award), and received a standing ovation at the Long Beach Jazz and Playboy Jazz Festival (Pasadena Rose Bowl) and various festivals, including the Jazz Aspen Snowmass and the Utah Arts Festival.
In 2013, under the direction of trumpeter Josiel Perez, the AC Project released “Conga Buena,” which was well-received and produced several hits, including “Tamaya Tumbao” and “El Dano Esta Hecho.” Though “Conga Buena” was successful, it reflected Perez’s vision and sound.
In a career that spanned over two decades, Oliva recorded and toured with Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea, Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera, Andy Garcia, Strunz and Farah, Jackson Brown, Anthony Jackson, Dave Weckl, Kenny Loggins, Frank Emilio Flynn, Hilario Duran, Omar Sosa, Changuito, Dave Samuels, Wilie Bobo, Bobby Matos, Jane Bunnet and the Spirits of Havana, the Cuban Piano Masters, Dafnis Prieto, Batacumbele, Zaperoko and lesser-known bands such as Orishas, Okanise, and Mango Bang among others.
RESURRECTING OLIVA’S LEGACY
Twenty years after his death, Oliva’s recordings are revered by a select audience but mostly forgotten by the public. Thanks to Peggy Jo Oliva, a “Lucumi 20th Anniversary Collector’s Box Set” is in the works. Set to be released in 2023 (date to be announced), “Lucumi” will expose Long John Oliva’s music to a new generation of listeners and, with luck, ignite a renewed interest and appreciation of Oliva’s artistry and enduring contributions to the music.
In this writer’s view and the opinion of Oliva’s peers and enthusiasts who experienced Oliva’s music when it ruled the airwaves, his name deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Pancho Quinto, Tata Guines, Jose Luis Quintana “Changuito,” Mongo Santamaria, Francisco Aguabella, Willie Bobo, Tito Puente, Candido Camero, Carlos “Patato” Valdes, Anga, Jerry Gonzalez, Ray Barretto, and other legendary percussion masters.
The Long John Oliva Project is a Work-in-Progress.
DISCOGRAPHY AS A LEADER
Lucumi (2002) – Buscando La Ortografia (2003) – Cuba Rico a.k.a. Buleya (2005).
DISCOGRAPHY AS A SIDEMAN
Zaperoko – Cosas de Locos (Montuno Records, 1983)
Strunz & Farah – Primal Magic (Mesa, 1990)
Arturo Sandoval – Flight to Freedom (GRP, 1991)
Strunz & Farah – Americas (Mesa, 1992)
Dave Samuels – Del Sol (GRP, 1993)
Yeska – Skaafrocubanjazz (1998, Aztlan)
Dos Cubanos – Las Palmas Colectivas (Run Recordings, 2002)
Buscando La Ortografia – Liner Notes
Cantrell, David – Contributor: Research
Clark, Walter Aaron – From Tejano to Tango (Routledge, 2002)
Cuba Rico – Liner Notes
Lucumi – Liner Notes
Miller, Ivor – Contributor: Research
Oliva, Peggy Jo – Producer, Graphic Art, Photography
Pacheco, Javier Barrales – A Chicano in a Mexican Band (Chapter 6, From Tejano to Tango)
Rosada, Paula – Para Long John Oliva, Musica Es Tambien Saber Vivir (La Opinion, 1990)
Tamargo, Luis – La Nueva Vision Percussive de Long John Oliva (La Opinion, 1988)