In the introduction to Basilio Serrano’s book, “Juan Tizol, His Caravan Through American Life and Culture,” he makes no bones about why he chose to document Juan Tizol’s life and music. “To set the record straight and to give credit where credit is due.”
Serrano is a seasoned educator and historian who specializes in the plight of Puerto Rican artists whose significant contributions to jazz have been minimized, misunderstood and ignored.
In 2000, Serrano documented Tizol’s compositions with Duke Ellington, Harry James, and other nationally known bandleaders and orchestras. Also, he composed the essays, “Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz,” “Puerto Rican Musicians of the Harlem Renaissance” and profiles about the pianist Noro Morales, the actress Miriam Solo and the political activist Lolita Lebron.
During the course of a recent conversation I asked Serrano what drew him to Juan Tizol. “I chose Tizol because he spoke no English when he arrived in the U.S. from Puerto Rico and was unfamiliar with American culture,” he explained. “Also, Tizol knew little of jazz and played the valve trombone, mainly used in marching bands. Some would say Tizol had three strikes against him, if not four, yet, despite the odds, he had an extremely successful career in music.”
Juan Tizol was born in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, in 1900. He grew up in a musical family and environment and trained under his uncle and surrogate father, Manuel Tizol Marquez (1876-1940), a significant figure in the history of Puerto Rico. Among his many accomplishments, Manuel Tizol founded The Concert Society of San Juan (1913), The Harmonic Club of San Juan (1923), and the first symphony orchestra (1926). In the popular realm, Tizol lead a dance orchestra and directed the Municipal Band of San Juan, which spawned multi-instrumentalists such as Rafael Hernandez, the tubist, and the bass player Rafael Escudero and his nephew, among others.
Tizol came to the U.S. on a ship traveling to Washington, D.C. as a stowaway. in 1920. Shortly after, he set up residence and established himself in the Howard Theater pit band, performing mainly for touring shows and silent movies. It was at the Howard Theater that Duke Ellington heard Tizol perform. In 1929, when his band was broadcasting from the Cotton Club in Harlem, Ellington asked Tizol to bring his valve trombone to hear how it would mesh with the orchestra. It did.
Tizol joined Ellington’s band in 1929 and composed what he describes as “Spanish (exotic) melodies,” songs such as Moonlight Fiesta, Jubilesta, Caravan, and Conga Brava. Also, Tizol injected Latin influences into Ellington’s repertoire and, as a senior and respected member of the orchestra, was responsible for rehearsing and integrating new musicians into the band. In his autobiography, “Music is My Mistress”(Da Capo Press, 1973), Ellington described Tizol as “A tremendous asset to our band, a very big man, a very unselfish man and one of the finest musicians I have ever known.”
Tizol made other significant contributions to Ellington’s band as well. One of his signature roles was copying parts from Ellington’s scores and extracting parts for upcoming shows. Additionally, Tizol was known for being an expert sight-reader and was the “rock” of the trombones section. Less known is the fact that Tizol was not, by and large, an improviser. Instead, he was often featured playing written solos that displayed his masterful technique and agility on the horn.
Tizol’s plight as a light-skinned Puerto Rican in an African American band is less known. During his tenure with Ellington, one critic described him as a “blob of sour crème in a black bowl of caviar.” Also, he adhered to “color codes” and allowed the director of the films “Black and Tan” (1929) and “Check and Double Check” (the 1930s) to blacken his face in order to “fit in.” Despite that, Tizol consciously chose to work with black jazz orchestras, married an African American woman, and lived and worked in an African-American community when racial inequities were rampant. Ironically, Tizol’s detractors accused him of “trying to pass for black.”
Serrano’s most compelling theory appears in the chapter titled, “The Progenitor of Latin Jazz: Trombonist Extraordinaire.” “Tizol is often credited as a pioneer in Latin jazz. Credit is often denied for the roles he and Duke Ellington played in developing the Latin jazz genre. For example, some consider the tune, Tanga, by the trumpeter Mario Bauza and Frank “Machito” Grillo and recorded in 1945, almost nine years after Tizol’s Porto Rican Chaos and eight years after Caravan, to be the first Latin jazz recording. The Tanga proponents fail to recognize that Tizol and Ellington experimented with and recorded ‘Latin Tinge’ melodies before Caravan.”
Tizol remained with Ellington until 1944. Afterward, he joined Harry James’s orchestra because it was based out of the West Coast, and it allowed him to spend time with his wife. He returned to the Ellington orchestra in 1951 and reunited with Harry James three years later. In 1960, he spent one year with Ellington and appeared on television with Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole before retiring.
In 1984, at 84, Tizol died of a heart attack at the Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood, California. He was survived by his wife, Rose.
Juan Tizol was part of Puerto Rico’s Tizol Dynasty. The story of the Tizol family is a deep topic that has yet to receive the recognition it deserves or be presented in book form. See below for related articles about other members of the Tizol family.
ABOUT BASILIO SERRANO
Basilio Serrano was born in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico. He moved to Brooklyn, New York as a child, where he attended school and subsequently relocated to the Lower East Side of Manhattan with his family (where he spent most of his youth). He attended City College (CCNY – City University of New York) where he completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s degree and went on to receive a Ph.D. from New York University. Dr. Serrano is a Professor Emeritus and former chair of the Childhood Education Department of the State University of New York – College at Old Westbury.
In addition to educating teachers, Professor Serrano served as a curriculum writer specializing in the area of Latin American Studies (LAS). His extensive work in the LAS field has led him to research many facets of the Latin American experience in the United States, in particular, the Puerto Rican Diaspora and the Boricuas’ wide range of experiences in the States.
In recent years, Dr. Serrano has conducted in-depth investigations into Puerto Ricans and the development of popular music and jazz. The result of this research has been documented in his seminal book on Juan Tizol, and an assortment of other related articles and writings. Moreover, he has written articles on the history of the Puerto Rican community in the United States as well as biographical essays on musicians in the world of jazz. His publications appear in academic journals and magazines published in the United States and Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz 1900 – 1939; Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz (iUniverse, 2015)
Puerto Rican Women From the Jazz Age: Stories of Success (AuthorHouse, 2019)