IN CONVERSATION WITH BASILIO SERRANO
JUAN TIZOL, HIS CARAVAN THROUGH LIFE AND AMERICAN CULTURE
Basilio Serrano is no stranger to the plight of Puerto Ricans – on the Island and in the States – whose contributions to jazz (and music in general) have been forgotten or ignored by the Puerto Rican intellectual community, university faculty and the people who are most likely to write about it.
There are other contributing factors as well. “Many Puerto Rican musicians were mistaken for Cuban,” says Serrano. “Writers just assumed that documenting them as ‘Latin’ or ‘Cuban’ was okay, but it wasn’t because, in the end, they became other Cubans.” Also, with the passing of time documents are lost and memories fade.
Serrano laid the groundwork for “Juan Tizol – His Caravan Through Life and American Culture” in 2000 when he composed a series of articles about Tizol’s collaborations with Duke Ellington, Harry James, and other internationally known orchestras.
I asked the Serrano why he chose Juan Tizol as his main subject. “Because, 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 an unusual 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. Nevertheless, Tizol chose to follow his muse to Washington, DC., Where he arrived as a stowaway, set up residence in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, married Rosebud Brown, an African-American and established himself at The Howard Theater, where he performed for touring shows, silent movies and crossed paths with Duke Ellington.
Today Tizol is best known as a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. However, he was also a consummate musician, composer, arranger, sight-reader, transcriber and the first significant player to use the valve trombone in a jazz setting.
Whether it be on purpose or by default, Tizol was a racial trailblazer who paid the price for working with primarily black jazz orchestras. One writer describes him as “a blob of sour creme in a black bowl of caviar.” Moreover, he had his face blackened for the films, Black and Tan (1929) and Check and Double Check (1930) and assumed roles to protect and assist his colleagues as the only “Caucasian” in a black orchestra.
The fact that Tizol made the decisions during a time when racial inequities were rampant speaks volumes about his character, determination, and moral fiber. Coming from the Caribbean, Tizol was comfortable with the African-American community.
In the chapter, “The Progenitor of Latin Jazz: Trombonist Extraordinaire,” Serrano raises questions about the origins or Latin jazz and Tizol and Duke Ellington’s role in its development. He cites the tune “Caravan,” which was composed by Tizol and contains Latin rhythms and jazz, eight years before Mario Bauza’s “Tanga.” Also, the “Moonlight Fiesta” and “Perdido,” which introduced Latin influences to Ellington’s repertoire.
During his 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.
“Juan Tizol,” will interest anyone who is interested in learning more about the invaluable contributions Puerto Ricans have made and continue to make in jazz.
Finally, the book lays the groundwork for future writers, researchers, historians and the intellectual community to pick up where Serrano left off and “give credit where credit is due.”
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.
Update: 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.”