The bassist and tubist, RAFAEL ESCUDERO, was one of the first Puerto Ricans to receive recognition for his contribution to early jazz. He was also a crucial link between jazz bands and orchestras in Washington, DC, New York, and Puerto Rico.
He boarded the steamer “Caracas” in San Juan at twenty-one and headed for New York on a New Amerstand Music Association (NAMA) scholarship. He arrived on June 13, either in 1912 or 1914. Later, he got involved with the Clef Club, a significant organization for African Americans and Latinos, serving as a union and venue.
During his career, Escudero played with various bands, including the NAMA band that featured Ethel Waters, the Marie Lucas band at the Howard Theater in Washington, DC, and the Wilber C. Sweatman band, where he played the tuba and string double bass. 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 also praised Escudero’s reading ability, technique, and legitimate tone, which made him one of the most highly esteemed Caribbean musicians in New York.
Escudero was a famous member of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, widely regarded as one of the most distinguished African-American bands of the Harlem Renaissance. Henderson noticed Escudero’s talent when he saw him perform with Wilbur C. Sweatman’s band at the Howard Theater and recruited him to join his orchestra.
Escudero eventually departed from Henderson’s band to join the Detroit-based McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, led by Don Redman, who, off and on, included jazz greats 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. In addition, he 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.” Additionally, according to Eugene Chadbourne of All Music Guide, Escudero was “a valuable member of the rhythm section in some of the most prominent larger classic jazz ensembles.”
Escudero’s switch from tuba to bass is speculated to have been due to a trend.
In 1942, at the age of fifty-one, Escudero registered for the military, but he was not drafted. Instead, he was employed by the Work Projects Administration (WPA), which hired musicians for various roles.
As per the late orchestra leader and trumpeter, Miguelito Miranda, who spoke at a Record Collector’s conference in either 2000 or 2001, it is known that Escudero was an active musician in Puerto Rico. However, his colleagues considered him a joke and referred to him as a “crazy old man” who would talk about his experiences to anyone who would listen. They found it hard to believe that he had actually performed with jazz legends such as Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong, among others.
Escudero died tragically on April 10, 1970, at seventy-nine, the victim of a fire in the Roma Hotel in Old San Juan. He was musically active up until his death.
Recordings of Bob Escudero include Louis Armstrong in New York (1924), McKinney’s Cotton Pickers Volume 1 (1928), Bessie Smith’s Yellow Dog Blues, and The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra featuring Coleman Hawkins (1923-1927), among others.
Blondet, Richie – Contributor (Research)
Lapidus, Ben – New York and the International Sound of Latin Music, 1949-1990 (Mississippi Press, 2021)
Lord, Tom – The Jazz Discography – www.lordisco.com
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).
The article has been updated as of December 2023. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors were corrected to clarify the text.