Among the first Boricuas to receive recognition for his contributions to early jazz was the tubist, bassist Rafael Escudero. Also, he was a crucial link between jazz bands and orchestras in Washington, DC, New York, and Puerto Rico.
At twenty-one, he boarded the steamer Caracas in the port of San Juan bound for New York on a scholarship from the New Amsterdam Association (NAMA). He arrived on June 13, 1912.
Over the years he performed with the NAMA band, featuring the great Ethel Waters, also the Marie Lucas band at the Howard Theater in Washington, DC, and the Wilber C. Sweatman band, where he played the tuba and the string double-bass.
In the book, Early Jazz, It’s Roots and Musical Development (Oxford University Press, 1968), author Gunther Schuller describes Escudero as the one who put the “swing” in the popular tune, “Put it There.”
Escudero was also a member of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, which is considered one of the most famous African-American bands of the Harlem Renaissance. Henderson recruited him when he heard Escudero perform with the Wilbur C. Sweatman’s band at the Howard Theater.
Eventually, Escudero left Henderson’s band to join the Detroit-based McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, led by Don Redman who, on and off, included such jazz greats as Benny Carter and Rex Stewart among others. Also, the band participated in all-star sessions with Jabbo Smith, Sidney de Paris, Coleman Hawkins, and Fats Waller among others.
Escudero also recorded with the Cotton Pickers under the name, The Chocolate Dandies featuring Lucille Hegamin, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters, was a member of Louis Armstrong’s (early) band and toured with W.C. Handy.
In another instance, Schuller described Escudero as a “stalwart of the tuba.” Also, according to Eugene Chadbourne of the All Music Guide, Escudero was “a valuable rhythm section member in some of the most prominent of the larger classic jazz ensembles.”
Despite his stellar reputation as a tubist, Escudero switched to the string bass. No one knows why he chose to switch but there is speculation it might have been a trend. Also, the bass is more audible in large ballrooms and recording studios.
According to the late orchestra leader and trumpeter, Miguelito Miranda, who appeared at a Record Collector’s conference in 2000 or 2001, Escudero was an active musician in Puerto Rico. Also, he was somewhat of a “running joke” amongst musicians on the island. A “crazy old man” who talked about his exploits as a young man to anyone who would listen. Apparently, some colleagues couldn’t conceive or refused to believe that Escudero performed with the likes of Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington others.
In 1942, at the age of fifty-one, he registered for the military. He was not drafted but the registration showed he was employed by Work Projects Administration (WPA), which employed musicians in a variety of capacities.
Escudero died tragically on April 10, 1970, at seventy-nine, the victim of a fire in the Roma Hotel in Old San Juan. Musically, he was active up until the time of his death.
Thankfully, Escudero can be heard on recordings such as Louis Armstrong in New York (1924), Mc Kinney’s Cotton Picker’s Volume 1 (1928), Bessie Smith’s Yellow Dog Blues (as Bob Escudero) and with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra featuring Coleman Hawkins (1923-1927) among others.
- Blondet, Richie (Re: Miguelito Miranda)
- Discogs – www.discogs.com
- Lord, Tom – The Jazz Discography (www.lordisco.com)
- NAMA – www.nama.org
- Serrano, Basilio – Musicians of the Harlem Renaissance (Centro Journal, 2007)
- Schuller, Gunther – Early Jazz – Its Roots and Musical Development (Oxford University Press, 1968)
- Photo – Jazz Age Timeline – The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra (Rafael Escudero, pictured far right).