In Conversation with BASILIO SERRANO
Educator, writer Basilio Serrano is no stranger to the plight of Puerto Ricans on the island and in the States whose contributions to jazz have been overlooked or forgotten by the Puerto Rican intellectual community, university faculty and those who are most likely to write about the subject.
In 2000, he laid the groundwork for Juan Tizol – His Caravan Through Life and American Culture (Xlibris, 2013), when he composed a series of articles for Centro Journal (Hunter College) about Tizol’s collaborations with Duke Ellington, Harry James, and other internationally known orchestras.
In 2014 I interviewed Serrano by telephone, and I was curious to know why he chose Tizol as the primary subject. “When he arrived in the U.S., he spoke no English and was not familiar with American culture,” said Serrano. “Also, he knew little of jazz and played the valve trombone, an instrument that was more suitable for marching bands. Some would say Tizol had three strikes against him, but he had an incredibly successful life in music.”
Tizol was born in Puerto Rico to a prominent musical family. His uncle, Manuel “Manolo” Tizol played the cello, trombone, bassoon and directed the municipal band, the symphony and numerous bands and orchestras throughout the island.
In 1920, he joined a band that traveled to the United States to work in Washington D.C. The group eventually made it to Washington (traveling as stowaways) and established residence at the Howard Theater where they played for touring shows and silent movies. Also, in small jazz and dance groups. It was at there that Tizol came in contact with “Duke” Ellington.
Today Tizol is best known as a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, but he was a consummate musician, composer, arranger, sight-reader, transcriber and the first significant valve trombone player to use the instrument in a jazz setting.
In addition, he was a racial trailblazer who paid a steep price for choosing to work with primarily black jazz orchestras. One writer described Tizol as “a blob of sour creme in a black bowl of caviar.” In other instances, his face was blackened for the films, Black and Tan (1929) and Check and Double Check (1930) in order to “fit in.” Moreover, when the band was on the road, he was often placed in the awkward position of standing up for his bandmates.
In the chapter titled The Progenitor of Latin Jazz: Trombonist Extraordinaire, Serrano raises questions about the development of Latin jazz and the role Tizol and Duke Ellington played. Among other things, he cites the tune “Caravan,” which was composed by Tizol and contains Latin rhythms and jazz, eight years before Mario Bauza’s “Tanga,” considered by some to be the first real Latin jazz or Afro-Cuban jazz tune.
During his long and distinguished career Tizol 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, Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters, Ben Webster and Sarah Vaughan among others.
Serrano’s book will be of interest to anyone who is interested in learning about the significant role Puerto Ricans played in the development of jazz.
Lastly, Serrano lays the groundwork for writers, researchers, and historians to expand on a topic that is deserves wider attention and recognition.
About Basilio Serrano
He has written for The Centro Journal for Puerto Rican Studies (Hunter College), Latin Beat Magazine, La Revista Puertorriqueña de Musica, and Great Lives from History: Latinos.
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 a Professor of Teacher Education at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury.
2015 saw the release of “Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz – From Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz” (iUniverse)
“In this study, author Basilio Serrano provides a detailed look at the lives of these men and women and their contributions to the development of jazz and Latin jazz. Serrano explores how the music of Puerto Rico helped to shape them and offers a comprehensive review of the bands in which they played, studying specialist’s in a variety of instruments as well as bandleaders and composers. The group includes notable figures such as Fernando Arbello, the Bayron sisters, the Rivera family, Louis King Garcia, Joe Loco, Juan and Paco Tizol, Augusto and Willie Rodriguez, Augusto Coen, and Cesar Concepcion. Covering a period from 1900 to 1939, Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz presents the stories of early Puerto Rican jazz musicians whose contributions to the genre have been overlooked.”