While browsing through back-issues of Latin Beat magazine, I found an interesting article by writer Silvio Alava titled “Bebop Spoken Here.” Alava wrote about how, over a decade ago, La Sonora Ponceña, a Puerto Rican band, started incorporating instrumental jazz in their albums. This delighted their audience and intrigued Alava. He particularly enjoyed Elias Lopez’s arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” and Enrique “Papo” Lucca’s arrangement of Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream,” which he considered to be of the highest quality. As a jazz enthusiast in New York City, Alava had witnessed the birth of bebop and seen many of its creators in person. He often wondered what motivated a guy in Ponce, Puerto Rico, to record arrangements by notable jazz musicians. Alava noted that Papo Lucca’s piano playing has always displayed a facility for using long phrases and extended melodic figures, which is the essence of the bebop style. These extensions are also apparent in the song structures and various cores in many of the band’s arrangements.
In 1991, Alava caught up with the band at the Co-Op City Ballroom in The Bronx and requested an interview with Papo Lucca. The next day, they met and spoke over lunch.
Alava says, “He (Papo Lucca) told me that he was a restless musical soul, seeking other experiences in Cuban music and jazz. When he was a student at La Escuela Libre de Ponce in Puerto Rico, the school director asked Papo if he was interested in purchasing his record collection. Papo bought the entire collection and brought home a treasure trove of jazz records that included the music of Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, and McCoy Tyner. Bud Powell was Papo’s favorite because he liked how the ‘Amazing Bud’ handled melodies, dissonance, and long-extended playing. Soon, these features entered into his playing and arranging, and to this day, it is the essence of his style.”
According to Mary Kent’s book “Salsa Talks! A Musical Heritage Uncovered,” Papo confirmed that the jazz influence is evident in the music played by almost all the bands that play salsa rhythms. Papo claims that the brass phrasing and solos are where the jazz influence can be sensed the most. The arrangers must dress up the numbers, which makes it inevitable to hear a phrase in salsa that you haven’t necessarily heard in jazz, but sounds like it originated there due to the influences.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Papo, and I asked him if he had any plans to record La Sonora Ponceña in a jazz setting or create a compilation of the jazz instrumentals featured on their albums. His response was a simple “yes,” but for reasons that were unclear, the project never came to fruition.
The legacy of bebop also lives in the music of Bobby Valentin, Willie Rosario, Robert Roena’s Apollo Sound, Papo Vazquez Mighty Pirates Troubadours, David Sanchez, Miguel Zenón, Furito Rios, Charlie Sepulveda, and others, who routinely incorporate jazz and other influences.
THE CUBAN CONNECTION
La Sonora Ponceña was part of the evolution of the Cuban dance music of the mid-nineteenth century into the salsa of the 1970s in New York City.
The son started in Cuba as small groups, including tres guitar, violins, flute, and percussion. In the 1920s, the son bands expanded into sextetos (sextets). In the 1930s, son bands added a trumpet and became septetos (septets). In the 1940s, son bands added congas and piano and called themselves conjuntos. In 1944, Quique Lucca formed El Conjunto Internacional, which evolved into Conjunto Sonora Ponceña.
In 1954, La Sonora Ponceña was founded by Quique from the ashes of his earlier band, Conjunto Internacional. The concept of having a horn section made up entirely of trumpets was lifted from one of Quique’s favorite Cuban groups, La Sonora Matancera, as was the idea for the band’s name. By naming the band after his hometown, Ponce, Puerto Rico, Quique not only showed pride for his small town but ensured the band’s place in Afro-Cuban musical history.
THE INTERNATIONAL CONNECTION
Papo Lucca cites the Cuban pianists Lili Martinez, Ruben Gonzalez, and trumpeter Peruchin as early influences. Also, as evidenced by the song, Boranda, composed by the Brazilian singer, guitarist, and composerEdu Lobo, Papo draws inspiration from Brazil, Latin America, and other countries.
Despite Quique Lucca’s death and all sorts of challenges, under the leadership of Papo Lucca, La Sonora Ponceña recently celebrated its 69th Anniversary and is going strong.