It was no place for slobs, slouches or squares. There’d be hundreds, maybe a thousand, fancy steppers and hip shakers, dressed to the nines, gyrating on the wood floor of the converted dance studio. On any given night, Sammy, Tony, Marlon, Lena or Marlene (as in Davis Jr., Bennett, Brando, Horne, Dietrich) might be hanging out. It was a had-to-be-there place like the Whiskey A Go-Go in the ’60s, or Studio 54 in the ’70s or that archetypal space that Prince sang about the ’80s with “black, white, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’.”
It was the epicenter of mambo mania, a populist embodiment of one of the great fusion musics of all time, Latin jazz. It was New York’s Palladium Ballroom, starting in the late ’40s, and burning through the next decade and then some.
“What I remember about the Palladium — as if I were standing in there right now — is the quality of the sound,” says Mario Grillo, who debuted there at age 5, slamming at the timbales under the watchful eye of his dad, the bandleader and Latin jazz giant Machito. “It was a very acoustic room, and music sounded great in there. And packed, packed with people.”
Forty years later Grillo is revisiting and reinvigorating that era as a co-leader of the Big 3 Palladium Orchestra, a super ghost-band whose helm he shares with the sons of the two other top late Palladium bandleaders, Tito Puente Jr. and Tito Rodríguez Jr.
“It was a dream — you dig it? — like Martin Luther King had a dream,” says Grillo, who speaks over the phone with the energized rat-a-tat poetry of Latin jazz jive. “I woke up in the middle of the night, and said, ‘Shit, wouldn’t it be great if I could make a band and pay tribute to our fathers and get the other sons involved with me?’”
So was born the Big 3 Palladium Orchestra. Rodríguez died in the ’70s and Machito in the ’80s, and their sons, in their late 40s, have been continuing the family franchises for years. Puente died in 2000 and his son, who’d been active in contemporary Latin dance music, has taken up his father’s music as well. (Puente Jr. has also opened some dates for the White Stripes of late.)
For all the history it taps into, the 22-piece Big 3 Palladium hasn’t exactly caught the imagination of the big labels. “We can’t get a record deal, we can’t even get arrested. I ran across 47th Street naked, the cops didn’t even look at me,” says Grillo, bemoaning the lack of interest. Yet Big 3 Palladium is a dream band for the Concert of Colors, which has as its raison d’être to bring diverse audiences together around the diverse musics of the world. Underlying the varied offerings, there’s always a lesson in the ability of musics to speak universally, whether the lyrics are in English or Yoruba; and underlying that there’s often a tangled series of connections that make the various musics less distant than they might seem from one another.
Cuban music, for instance, is deeply rooted in the music of slaves brought from Africa, and exported Afro-Cuban styles are in turn at the root of soukous, the influential Zairean pop style. Some musicologists hear the echo of the fundamental Afro-Cuban beat, the clave, in the chunk-a-chunk-chunk, chunk-chunk of Bo Diddley’s archetypal rock guitar. Others cite the Cuban influences on such classical composers as Bizet, Ravel and Debussy.
And Latin jazz turns out to be something other than the simple marriage of two musics as the name might imply. Rather its story is one of multiple Mexican, Cuban and other Caribbean influences on jazz at its very roots in turn-of-the-century New Orleans; then repeated musical interchanges follow until the grand era of the mambo and beyond.
That’s the kind of vision being popularized in recent years with a rising stature for Latin jazz. You could see that, for instance, in last year’s Smithsonian exhibit and the accompanying bilingual book Latin Jazz: The Perfect Combination by Raúl Fernández.
Fernández gives an almost breathless overview of his subject as he cuts back and forth from New York to Havana, from Duke Ellington to Xavier Cugat, and up through such young artists as saxophonists David Sanchez and Jane Bunnett.
But from the late 1930s until his death, Cuban-born Frank Grillo, better known as Machito, is rarely far from the heart of the narrative, usually along with his brother-in-law and longtime musical director Mario Bauzá. In the 1940s, Machito and his Afro-Cubans, writes Fernández, became the “cauldron for a new musical brew.” Seemingly everyone in jazz had a taste, and cats like Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Kenton got totally juiced on what was dubbed “cubop.” Meanwhile, for the dance crowd, Machito and his contemporaries served up the mambo, which became a bona fide national dance craze with the Palladium as the hippest asylum.
Alongside Machito, younger bands led by Puente and Rodríguez established themselves as his musical peers and competitors. They’d headline individual nights, and for special occasions, they’d appear in teams of two or three.
Each group had its own sound, Grillo says. Machito’s band was “the blueprint.” Puente, whose main instrument was the timbales, fittingly, had a more percussive sound as a whole; born stateside rather than an immigrant, Puente brought an urban edge to things.
Rodríguez, also of the U.S.-born generation, was a suave singer who crafted a lusher sound to wrap around his voice. “But by the same token, he wanted very swinging arrangements behind him so he could compete with Tito Puente and Machito,” says Grillo
Grillo recalls his father’s explanation of what it was like to play with the two Titos in battles of the bands: “He told me that when I had the two of them together, it was easy. And he said, Tito would beat the crap out of Tito, and Tito would beat the crap out of Tito, and by the time they got to me, they were easy to take. But if I played with them head-to-head, I knew that I was in for a battle royal.”
The attraction of the current three-headed band isn’t just the leaders and the crack band of Latin jazz veterans, but the cache of original instrumental scores from the original bands.
“I’m talking about arrangements that are done in India ink, you know … which are 40, 50, 60 years old. One of the things we’ve had to do is recopy a lot of the music because it’s brittle, you can’t just be taking it out and exposing it to the elements. It falls apart on you.”
And there’s a lot of it, Grillo adds: “Tito Puente recorded 118 albums; Machito recorded 85 albums; Tito Rodríguez recorded about 60, so between us we have almost 300 albums, which means we have 3,000 arrangements.”
Not that they carry all of them at any one time, but they’ll bring enough, he promises: “I tell people, when you come and see this band, you better wear an asbestos jacket, baby, because we gonna burn you, yeah. I ain’t playin’ around. It’s fire on top of fire on top of fire.”
The Big 3 Palladium Orchestra performs at the Concert of Colors at Chene Park on the Detroit River, Saturday, July 12, 8:45 p.m. Admission to all shows is free.