Boricua Pioneer, trumpeter, bandleader César Concepción (Cayetano César Concépción y Martinez) holds a special place in the pantheon of Puerto Rican music. “He is remembered as a virtuoso trumpeter; a melodist of fine sensitivity who bequeathed no less than one hundred beautiful boleros to our romantic pentagram and raised the Plena to the category of ‘Parlor Music,” introducing it to the most fabulous halls, and is the founder and leader of one of the most sensational orchestras to emerge in the 20th century,” writes Miguel Lopez of the National Foundation for Puerto Rican Culture.
Concépción was born in the mountain municipality of Cayey to Tomás Concépción and Margarita Martínez (from Guyana) in 1909. He completed elementary school at the Luis Muñoz Rivera School. Also, he attended the Benigno Carrión School in Cayey.
At nine, Concépción gravitated to the trumpet and studied with the professor and director of the Cayey Municipal Band, Claudio Torres. At thirteen, he was part of a group that entertained audiences at Don Emilio Martinez’s silent movie theater.
In 1925, the pianist Augusto Rodríguez Amador offered the 16-year-old prodigy a position with the Midnight Serenaders. He was a member of the group for seven years. After that, he joined Ralph Sanchez and his Symphonians. In 1935, he moved to New York.
According to the historian, Richard Blondet, Concépción made a name for himself in New York City as a sideman with many orchestras. Including a band led by Pedro “Piquito” Marcano, one of the foremost Puerto Rican bandleaders, composers, and vocalists of the 1930s and 40s and the director of the Cuarteto Marcano, which specialized in the boleros (soulful ballads). Marcano worked closely with Pedro Flores, Pedro Ortíz Dávila, Bobby Capó, and Tito Rodríguez among others. Also, Concépción performed with the Cuban bandleader Oscar De La Rosa. In 1939, the latter led an all-star band that included the pianist Jose Curbelo, Machito, and Alfredo Valdes Sr. on vocals and Concépción on trumpet. The band performed at the Picadilly Hotel in Herald Square.
There, he joined the Eddie LeBaron Orchestra, which performed regularly at the luxurious Rainbow Room. Also, Concépción participated in sessions with some of the most prominent Latin bands in the city, including Xavier Cugat, Ernic Madriguera, Don Maya, Jose Morand, Carlos Molina, and Nano Rodrigo among others. Moreover, he collaborated with the renowned composer Pedro Flores. His connection with LeBaron lasted until 1940.
In 1942 Concépción returned to Puerto Rico and joined Armando Castro’s Jazz Band, which performed regularly at Jack’s Club cabaret in Santurce. The group popularized the tune, Jack, Jack, Jack/Cutuguru, featuring the vocalist Juan Ramon Torres “El Boy.” It was the first song by a Puerto Rican group to break into the 1945 North American Hit Parade. Later, Benny Goodman, Machito, and Noro Morales, among others, interpreted the tune.
After one year and a half at the Escambron Beach Club in Puerto Rico, Concépción, with the support of the Arecibo businessman, Jorge “El Nene” Correa, formed an orchestra and debuted at the luxurious New Yorker Club. The event, which took place on June 14, 1947, received extensive press, radio, and television coverage. Also, it marked the Puerto Rico debut of the pianist, Noro Morales (who alternated with Concépción’s orchestra on the bandstand).
Concépción’s orchestra owes some of its popularity to its daily participation in the radio program, La Roulette Musical, and television appearances. Also, to the vocalist, Joe Valle (his principal singer after “El Boy”). They were a formidable duo whose boleros and songs dedicated to Puerto Rico’s municipalities led to classic recordings.
Between the years 1950 to 1952, Concépción’s orchestra was the house band at the Caribe Hilton. Also, the orchestra held court at the Hotel Flamboyan from 1958-1968. During that time, the group accompanied many international artists who passed through its doors.
In 1968, Concépción disbanded the orchestra, relocated to New York, and retired. Four years later, he came out of retirement, returned to Puerto Rico, and organized a new band with Joe Valle.
César Concépción died of a heart attack on March 11, 1974. At the time of his death, he was making plans to legalize a union with his second wife, Elvira Peña, who he divorced (but never stopped living with) a few years earlier.
In 1983, nine years after Concépción’s death, the lawyer, politician, and pianist, Nicolás Nogueras Cartagena, reunited some of the original bandmembers and attempted to recreate Concépción’s sound. The orchestra performed on Sundays at the Caribe Hilton Hotel and the San Juan Fine Arts Center until 1997.
In 2019, the Puerto Rican icon, vocalist, Danny Rivera, and Musical Director and trumpeter Humberto Ramirez (a Concépción devotee) released the album Mil Años de Plena – Tribute to César Concépción. In the liner notes, Rivera describes the experience of auditioning and performing with the orchestra. Also, he refers to the band as “My university, my school, my great opportunity.”
According to Humberto Ramirez, “César Concépción was innovative and created new sounds by merging our traditional plena with the mambo and bringing it to the ballroom. The teacher, Cesar Concépción, left the sound of his trumpet and his orchestra for the enjoyment of generations to come.”
César Concépción’s legacy survives through his recordings and rare footage on YouTube.
Blondet, Richard – Personal Communique. Also, The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College: Pedro “Piquito” Marcano Papers, 1920-1972 (Collection, 1999-004)
Lopez, Miguel Ortiz – Article: César Concépción – Trumpeter, Arranger and Orchestra Conductor – Fundacion Nacional Para La Cultura Popular (2019)
Ramirez, Humberto – Mil Años de Plena – Tributo a César Concépción Liner Notes
Rivera, Danny – Mil Años de Plena – Tributo a César Concépción Liner Notes
Serrano, Basilio – Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz (1900-1939) – Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz (iUniverse, 2015)
ABOUT THE PUERTO RICO PROJECT: With rare exceptions, books, and articles about Boricua Pioneers are mostly written and published in Spanish. The Puerto Rico Project aims to level the playing field and broaden the public’s awareness about Boricua Pioneers by writing, translating, and publishing materials in an English, or bilingual format. It has been my experience that a wealth of books, articles, and online resources go unread because of the language barrier. The PR Project aims to make the information available to anyone and everyone who expresses an interest in the subject matter. Together, we learn!