Home Puerto Rico Project Early Jazz Pioneer Rafael Escudero

Early Jazz Pioneer Rafael Escudero

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Rafael “Ralph” Escudero, a bassist and tubist, was among the first Puerto Ricans to receive recognition for his contribution to early jazz. He played a crucial role in bridging the gap between jazz bands and orchestras in Washington, DC, New York, and Puerto Rico.
When he was twenty-one years old, he embarked on a journey from San Juan to New York on a scholarship provided by the New Amerstand Music Association (NAMA). He traveled on a ship called “Caracas” and arrived on June 13, either in 1912 or 1914. Later on, he became involved with the Clef Club, a significant organization for African Americans and Latinos that served as both a union and a venue.
Escudero had a successful career as a musician, playing with various bands. He was part of the NAMA band, which included Ethel Waters, and the Marie Lucas band at the Howard Theater in Washington, DC. He also played the tuba and string double bass with the Wilber C. Sweatman band. According to Gunther Schuller’s book Early Jazz, Its Roots and Musical Development (Oxford University Press, 1968), Escudero was credited with introducing the “swing” in the famous tune “Put it There.” Thomas J. Hennessy praised Escudero’s reading ability, technique, and legitimate tone, which made him one of the most highly respected Caribbean musicians in New York.
Escudero was a member of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, widely regarded as one of the most distinguished African-American bands of the Harlem Renaissance. Henderson noticed Escudero when he saw him perform with Wilbur C. Sweatman’s band at the Howard Theater and recruited him.
Escudero left Henderson’s band and joined McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in Detroit, led by Don Redman. The band included jazz legends such as Benny Carter and Rex Stewart in its lineup, and they participated in all-star sessions with other notable musicians like Jabbo Smith, Sidney de Paris, Coleman Hawkins, and Fats Waller.
Escudero also recorded with the Cotton Pickers, known as “The Chocolate Dandies,” featuring Lucille Hegamin, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters. Additionally, he was part of Louis Armstrong’s early band and toured with W.C. Handy.
Gunther Schuller referred to Escudero as a “stalwart of the tuba,” and Eugene Chadbourne of All Music Guide stated that he was “a valuable member of the rhythm section in some of the most prominent larger classic jazz ensembles.”
There is speculation that Escudero switched from playing the tuba to playing the bass due to the trend.
In 1942, Escudero registered for the military at fifty-one but was not drafted. Instead, he was employed by the Work Projects Administration (WPA), which hired musicians for various roles.
According to Miguelito Miranda, a late orchestra leader and trumpeter who spoke at a record collector’s conference in 2000 or 2001, Escudero was an active musician in Puerto Rico. Despite this, his colleagues considered him a joke, often referring to him as a “crazy old man” due to his tendency to talk about his experiences with anyone who would listen. They found it hard to believe that he had performed with jazz legends such as Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong, among others.
Escudero died under tragic circumstances on April 10, 1970, at seventy-nine, the victim of a fire in the Roma Hotel in Old San Juan. He was active up until his death.
El bajista y tubista RAFAEL “RALPH” ESCUDERO fue uno de los primeros puertorriqueños en recibir un reconocimiento por su contribución al jazz temprano. También fue un vínculo crucial entre bandas y orquestas de jazz en Washington, DC, Nueva York y Puerto Rico.
A los veintiún años se embarcó en el vapor “Caracas” en San Juan y se dirigió a Nueva York con una beca de la New Amerstand Music Association (NAMA). Llegó el 13 de junio, ya sea en 1912 o 1914. Posteriormente, se involucró con el Clef Club, una importante organización para afroamericanos y latinos, sirviendo como sindicato y sede.
Durante su carrera, Escudero tocó con varias bandas, incluida la banda NAMA que incluía a Ethel Waters, la banda Marie Lucas en el Teatro Howard en Washington, DC y la banda Wilber C. Sweatman, donde tocaba la tuba y el contrabajo de cuerda. Según el libro de Gunther Schuller Early Jazz, Its Roots and Musical Development (Oxford University Press, 1968), a Escudero se le atribuye la introducción del “swing” en la famosa melodía “Put it There”. Thomas J. Hennessy también elogió la capacidad de lectura, la técnica y el tono legítimo de Escudero, que lo convirtieron en uno de los músicos caribeños más estimados en Nueva York.
Escudero fue un miembro famoso de la Orquesta Fletcher Henderson, ampliamente considerada como una de las bandas afroamericanas más distinguidas del Renacimiento de Harlem. Henderson notó el talento de Escudero cuando lo vio actuar con la banda de Wilbur C. Sweatman en el Howard Theatre y lo reclutó para unirse a su orquesta.
Escudero finalmente dejó la banda de Henderson para unirse a McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, con sede en Detroit, dirigidos por Don Redman, quien, de vez en cuando, incluía a los grandes del jazz Benny Carter y Rex Stewart, entre otros. Además, la banda participó en sesiones estelares con Jabbo Smith, Sidney de Paris, Coleman Hawkins y Fats Waller, entre otros.
Escudero también grabó con los Cotton Pickers bajo el nombre de “The Chocolate Dandies,” con Lucille Hegamin, Bessie Smith y Ethel Waters. Además, fue miembro de la (primera) banda de Louis Armstrong y realizó una gira con W.C. Práctico.
En otro caso, Schuller describió a Escudero como un “incondicional de la tuba”. Eugene Chadbourne de All Music Guide también dijo que Escudero era “un miembro valioso de la sección rítmica de algunos de los conjuntos de jazz clásico más importantes y destacados”.
Se especula que el cambio de Escudero de la tuba al bajo se debió a una tendencia.
En 1942, a los cincuenta y un años, Escudero se inscribió en el ejército, pero no fue reclutado. En cambio, fue contratado por la Administración de Proyectos de Trabajo (WPA), que contrató músicos para diversos roles.
Según el fallecido director de orquesta y trompetista Miguelito Miranda, quien habló en una conferencia de coleccionistas de discos en 2000 o 2001, Escudero era un músico activo en Puerto Rico. Sin embargo, sus compañeros lo consideraron una broma y se refirieron a él como un “viejo loco” que hablaba de sus experiencias con cualquiera que quisiera escucharlo. Les costaba creer que hubiera actuado con leyendas del jazz como Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington y Louis Armstrong, entre otros.
Escudero murió trágicamente el 10 de abril de 1970, a los setenta y nueve años, víctima de un incendio en el Hotel Roma del Viejo San Juan. Estuvo musicalmente activo hasta su muerte.
SOURCES
Blondet, Richie – Contributor (Research)
Discogs – www.discogs.com
Lapidus, Ben – New York and the International Sound of Latin Music, 1949-1990 (Mississippi Press, 2021)
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 #1: Jazz Age Timeline – The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra (Rafael Escudero, pictured far right).
Photo #2: Rafael Escudero (Discogs.com)
Article Updated: January 2024.
A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Editor-in-Chief Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject. His writing appears on Latin Jazz Network; Chamber Music America magazine and numerous other publications.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for celebrating Escudero. The late orchestra leader and trumpeter Miguelito Miranda appeared at a Record Collector’s conference in Ponce ’round 2000-’01. He mentioned this man during the period Escudero was an active musician in Puerto Rico well after he had relocated from New York city. Miranda described how Escudero was somewhat of a “running joke” among musicians on the island. The crazy “old man” who claimed to have played with all of the Jazz pioneers as Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington (as members of the Howard theater pit band), Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake (Shuffle Along), etc., inaugurating the Savoy ballroom in 1926 and recorded for Black Swan records, the very first recording label owned by an African American. Apparently, Escudero had been recounting his New York exploits as a young man to whomever would listen. But a segment of Puerto Rico’s musical community didn’t believe him.

    BTW-Rafael Escudero and “Bob” Escudero are two distinct individuals. Dr. Serrano deserves credit for being the first among Latino scholars to make the distinction and clarify who Bob was.

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