In the opening pages of his enlightening and informative book, Juan Tizol- His Caravan through Life and American Culture the author makes no bones about the fact that his purpose in writing the book is to set the record straight and give credit where credit is due.
Basilio Serrano is a man on a mission. He is a seasoned educator and historian who is all too familiar with the plight of Puerto Ricans whose contributions to jazz have been overlooked or lost.
In 2000 Serrano wrote a series of articles on Juan Tizol’s cross-cultural collaborations with Duke Ellington, Harry James and other nationally known orchestras. In addition, he has written articles about Boricua Pioneers in Latin Jazz, Puerto Rican Musicians of the Harlem Renaissance and essays about pianist Noro Morales, actress Miriam Colón and political activist Lolita Lebrón among others.
In the opening pages of Juan Tizol- His Caravan through Life and American Culture the author makes it clear that his purpose in writing the book is to set the record straight and give credit where it is due.
During a recent Q&A with Serrano I asked him why he chose Juan Tizol as his primary subject. “I chose Tizol because when he arrived in the U.S from Puerto Rico he spoke no English and was not familiar with American culture. Tizol knew little of jazz, and he played an unusual instrument that was considered best for marching bands than orchestra ensembles. Many would say that Tizol had three strikes against him, if not four,” said Serrano, “yet despite the odds, he went on to have an extremely successful life in music.”
Juan Tizol hails from Vega Baja, Puerto Rico where he grew up in a musical environment. His first instrument was the violin however he switched to the valve trombone at an early age and it became his instrument of choice. In large part, he received his musical training from his uncle, Manuel Tizol, who was the director of the municipal band and symphony in San Juan, however, he also gained experience playing local operas, ballets, and dance bands. Ironically, Tizol came to the U.S. as a stowaway in 1920, aboard a ship that was traveling to Washington, D.C., where he set up residence and established himself at the Howard Theater and played for touring shows and silent movies. It was at the there that Tizol met Duke Ellington.
Tizol is best known as a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra however he was also a consummate musician, sight reader, composer, arranger, and transcriber. In addition, he was the first significant musician to use the valve trombone in a jazz setting, thus revolutionizing the instrument and adding a new dimension to Ellington’s sound. Tizol is also responsible for incorporating Latin influences into Ellington’s repertoire with compositions such as “Moonlight Fiesta”, “Jubilesta”, “Caravan” and “Perdido” among others. As a senior and highly respected member of the Ellington orchestra, Tizol was also responsible for rehearsing and integrating new musicians into the band.
In the autobiography, Music is My Mistress (Da Capo Press, 1976) Ellington describes Tizol as “A tremendous asset to our band, a very big man, a very unselfish man and one of the finest musicians I’ve ever known.”
Tizol was also a racial trailblazer who paved the way for the future generation of Latin musicians. During his lifetime Tizol endured the indignity of being called a “blob of sour crème in a black bowl of caviar,” and forced to adhere to “color codes” by blackening his face for the films Black and Tan (1929) and Check and Double Check (the 1930s). The fact that Tizol made a conscious choice to work with primarily black jazz orchestra’s, married Rosebud Brown-Tizol, an African American and lived in a primarily African American community in Washington, DC during a time when racial inequities were the order of the day says a lot about Tizol’s moral fiber.
When the Duke Ellington Orchestra toured the South and restaurants refused to serve African American members of the band Tizol’s trademark response was, “If you don’t serve them, you don’t serve me because I am with them.” Ironically, his detractors accused him of “trying to pass for black.”
One of the most compelling sections in Serrano’s book is titled The Progenitor of Latin Jazz: Trombonist Extraordinaire. Prior to reading Serrano’s book, I was of the opinion that Mario Bauza’s “Tanga” was the first Afro Cuban (Latin) jazz recording. According to Tizol, not necessarily so, “Tizol is often credited as a pioneer in Latin jazz. More often than not, however, credit is denied to the roles played by him and Duke Ellington in the development of the Latin jazz genre. For example, some consider “Tanga”, credited to the trumpeter Maria Bauza and Frank “Machito” Grillo and recorded in 1943, almost nine years after “Porto Rican Chaos” and eight years after “Caravan”, which many considered the first Latin jazz recording. Others suggest that the first Latin jazz genre recording was the 1947 “Manteca” by Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie. However, both “Tanga” and “Manteca” were recorded during the bebop era and almost eight and twelve years, respectively after Tizol’s 1935 “Porto Rican Chaos.” According to Serrano, Tizol is described as the “Progenitor of Latin jazz” because he experimented with Latin rhythms most often. I like to think of Tizol as an unsung founding father of Latin jazz.”
During his long and illustrious career Tizol also worked extensively with Harry James, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle, Louie Bellson, Billy Strayhorn, Woody Herman, Sy Zentner, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Durante, B.B. King, Rosemary Clooney, Billy Holiday, Ethel Waters, Ben Webster and Sarah Vaughan among others.
Serrano also devotes a chapter to Tizol’s contemporaries – Rafael Hernández, Rafael Escudero, and Rafael Duchesne among others and devotes another additional chapter to Juan Tizol’s known compositions.
As our conversation came to a close I asked Serrano if he was aware of the following excerpt from Ned Sublette’s book, “Cuba and Its Music – From the First Drums to the Mambo” (Chicago Review Press, 2004). “As soon as Puerto Ricans were Americans, they were helping transform its music. From 1917 on, there is no African American music in New York in which Puerto Ricans don’t figure. They have been a natural part of jazz in New York since before cats were taking improvised solos, and as the Latin Jazz hybrid developed, they provided critical links between the African American and Cuban styles, because they were the ones who understood them both; and made them their own, in their own way. The unique bicultural sophistication of the Puerto Rican is a deep topic – for another book – but it can’t be left unmentioned in talking about the development of music in New York.” “I’ve not seen this quote ever,” said Serrano, “It is timely and reminds me of a quote by the legendary Ray Santos when he described ‘Salsa,’ he simply said: ‘Salsa is our take on Cuban music.’ Sublette realizes that the Puerto Rican participation in jazz is important and unique. It resulted in a new hybrid. I agree with him.”
For more on Juan Tizol’s life and music I highly recommend “Juan Tizol – His Caravan through Life and American Culture.” Basilio Serrano is currently working on a follow-up to Puerto Rican Musicians of the Harlem Renaissance. Possible future projects include biographies on Puerto Rican pianists Noro Morales and Joe Loco.
Basilio Serrano holds a Ph.D. in Educational Administration and Supervision, a Master of Science in Bilingual Education and a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education. He is currently a Professor of Teacher Education at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. He has written for numerous publications, such as the Centro Journal for Puerto Rican Studies, Latin Beat Magazine, La Revista Puertorriqueña de Música and Great Lives from History: Latinos, among others.