Home PR Project Boricua Jazz Pioneer: Rafael Escudero (1912-1970)

Boricua Jazz Pioneer: Rafael Escudero (1912-1970)

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“Puerto Rican musicians were active music protagonists in the jazz scene. This participation in a variety of jazz styles was brought to bear on the development of Latin music in New York. Possessing a truly bicultural outlook, Puerto Rican musicians in New York fashioned a sound and an aesthetic that embraced the best elements of Spanish and African American musical traditions. They made innovative music for dancers while pursuing the latest musical advances and techniques and simultaneously inhabiting multiple musical and social identities.” Ben Lapidus – Excerpt, New York, and the International Sound of Latin Music, 1940-1990 (Mississippi Press, 2021).

The bassist, tubist, RAFAEL ESCUDERO was one of the first Boricuas 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.

At twenty-one, he boarded the steamer “Caracas” in San Juan bound for New York on a scholarship from the New Amerstand Music Association (NAMA) and arrived on June 13, 1912 (or 1914). Later, he became associated with the Clef Club, an important organization for African Americans and Latinos that functioned as a union and venue.

Over the years he performed with the NAMA band, featuring 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. In the book, Early Jazz, Its 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.” Also, Thomas J. Hennessy wrote, Escudero “was one of the Caribbean musicians prized in New York for reading ability, technique and legitimate tone.”

Escudero was also a member of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, widely considered one of the most renowned African-American bands of the Harlem Renaissance. Henderson recruited Escudero when he heard him perform with 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, 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. He was also 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 (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 but there is speculation it was the trend. Also, the bass is more audible in large ballrooms and recording studios.

In 1942, at the age of fifty-one, Escudero registered for the military. He was not drafted, Instead, he was employed by the Work Projects Administration (WPA), which employed musicians in a variety of capacities.

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, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and 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.

Escudero can be heard on 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.

SOURCES

  • Blondet, Richie (Re: Miguelito Miranda)
  • 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 – Jazz Age Timeline – The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra (Rafael Escudero, pictured far right).

Article Updated: January 2021

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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