In the opening pages of his enlightening and informative book, Juan Tizol- His Caravan through Life and American Culture the author makes it clear that his purpose in writing the book was, to “set the record straight and give credit where credit is due.”
Basilio Serrano is a seasoned educator and historian who is all too familiar with the plight of Puerto Ricans whose contributions to jazz have been ignored or lost, ignored or forgotten. In 2000, he wrote a series of articles on Juan Tizol’s collaborations with Duke Ellington, Harry James, and other nationally known orchestras. Also, he has written articles about Boricua Pioneers in Latin Jazz, Puerto Rican Musicians of the Harlem Renaissance and essays on pianist Noro Morales, actress Miriam Colón and political activist Lolita Lebrón among others.
During a recent conversation with Serrano, I asked him why he chose Juan Tizol. “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 (the valve trombone) which was used in marching bands. Some would say Tizol had three strikes against him, if not four,” said Serrano, “yet despite the odds, he had an extremely successful life in music.”
Juan Tizol was born in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico where he grew up in a musical environment. His first instrument was the violin but 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 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 Howard Theater that Tizol met Duke Ellington.
Tizol is known as a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. However, he was also a consummate musician, sight-reader, composer, arranger, and transcriber and 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.
Also, he was 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 during Ellington’s absence. In his autobiography, 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.”
Lesser known but no less significant, Tizol was a racial trailblazer who paved the way for the next generation of Latin musicians. During his lifetime Tizol endured the indignities of being called a “blob of sour crème in a black bowl of caviar.” Also, he was forced to adhere to “color codes” and 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, marry an African American woman (Rosebud Brown) and live in a mostly African-American community in Washington, DC at a time when racial inequities were the order of the day speaks volumes about Tizol’s character and moral fiber. When the Duke Ellington Orchestra toured the South and restaurants refused to serve its members Tizol’s typical 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 chapters is The Progenitor of Latin Jazz: Trombonist Extraordinaire. Serrano differs from the notion that Tizol was merely a ‘pioneer” and the Afro-Cuban tunes “Tanga” and “Manteca” gave birth to Latin jazz. As proof, he cites Tizol’s collaboration with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and tunes like, “Puerto Rican Chaos,” which were recorded almost a decade before “Tanga” and Manteca” and experimented with Latins rhythms and jazz. Serrano describes Tizol as, the ‘Progenitor of Latin Jazz because “he experimented with Latin rhythms most often and was a ‘Founding Father’ of Latin Jazz.”
During his long, illustrious career Tizol also worked 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. Also, another chapter is dedicated to Tizol’s compositions.
As the conversation came to an end, 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. “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 profound 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,” said Serrano, “It’s timely. Sublette realizes that Puerto Rican participation in jazz is important and unique. Also, it resulted in a new hybrid.”
Serrano is currently working on a follow-up to Puerto Rican Musicians of the Harlem Renaissance and other projects including biographies of the Puerto Rican pianists Noro Morales and Joe Loco.
Basilio Serrano is originally from Puerto Rico. Educated in New York, he holds a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from New York University. He has been a faculty member at Brooklyn College and the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. He has published numerous articles in journals and trade magazines in the United States and Puerto Rico, with a focus on the Latin American immigrant experience in education and acculturation and the world of American music.
BOOKS BY BASILIO SERRANO
- Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz (1900-1939) – Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz (iUniverse, 2015)
- Puerto Rican Women from the Jazz Age – Stores of Success (AuthorHouse, 2019)