For the 98th Birth Anniversary of Bass Maestro Israel “Cachao” Lopez, A 2005 interview with Cachao and Bebo Valdès and an Essay About Cachao From 2012

Today is the 98th birth  anniversary of Israel “Cachao” Lopez, the maestro bassist and inventor of the mambo.  His genius is amply demonstrated in this clip from a concert at the Village Gate, Oct. 10,1989, where he joined Manny Oquendo and Libre. I had an opportunity to interview Cachao and Bebo Valdes in 2005, and am posting that interview below, along with an essay that I wrote for the program notes at Carlos Henriquez’ 2012 concert, The Music of Cachao, with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

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This interview was conducted before Paquito D’Rivera’s 50th anniversary in music concert at Carnegie Hall in 2005, which is why he is the subject at the beginning of the conversation.

BEBO VALDÈS & CACHAO (ENRIQUE FERNANDEZ, TRANSLATOR):

TP: Gentlemen, what I want to ask you is less about your lives and more about your relationship to Paquito, and why you’re here. I know that’s a life-long relationship for Paquito, that you’ve known him since he was a baby because of your friendship with his father. What do you first remember about Paquito?

CACHAO: The first experience I had with Paquito is when he was 12 years old, at a concert we did with the Philharmonic of Havana, a clarinet and piano piece by Weber.

TP: But you knew him before that, no, from going to his father’s store? He said you used to buy bass strings at his father’s store.

CACHAO: Yes. I worked with his father with the Martinez Brothers, the Hermanos Martinez. When I was working with Hermanos Martinez, I was just as a sub. I wasn’t working with them for too long. I think Tito was at the time still single. 1934.

TP: So you first played with Tito in 1934.

CACHAO: Yes. At that time, the bass had to play on time, because the way the beat went. [SING STRAIGHT UP INSTEAD OF SYNCOPATED BEAT]

TP: What was Tito like?

CACHAO: He was an incredible person. With the son, he was really correct. He imposed a lot of discipline on him.

TP: What sort of musician was he?

BEBO: [Very good.]

CACHAO: He played all the styles. He also went into the… He was in a military band also called Columbia.

TP: In Cuba in those days, was it important to play all the styles correctly?

CACHAO: Of course. When you were in the band, you played everything. When you played for the dancers, the dancers danced everything. They danced jazz, they danced pasodoble, foxtrot, everything. Then also, the other problem was the racial problem then. The blacks didn’t dance any of those other dances, like pasodoble.

TP: What did the blacks dance?

CACHAO: They danced really tasty, danzons, things like that. Then there was a thing called danza that they would dance also. When the danza would begin, most of the people would take their hats and go home, because they knew something else was going to start happening. I saw one of the dancers, and they took my hat when they left! I had to hang it there, and when they took it, I said, “Hey, wait a second; that’s my hat!”

TP: Did you play for whites and blacks?

CACHAO: Of course. Both of us.

TP: Where for whites and where for blacks?

CACHAO: The regional centers that were for the Spanish. For the Spanish, they had the Centro Studiano(?), Centra Gallego. For the Spaniards, the whites. Then the regular whites had their own places, like Lyceo and Casino, those kind of clubs. The blacks also had their particular societies.

TP: But the musicians weren’t segregated, or were they?

CACHAO: There was a time when there was a separation, but that was way before the ‘30s and ‘40s.

TP: Do you remember playing with Paquito that first time?

CACHAO: Yes. He debuted on clarinet with that symphony, the Weber symphony. Of course I remember that.

TP: Apart from being 12 and able to play like that, a prodigy, what was his musicianship like at 12?

CACHAO: He was complete. He was more dedicated to jazz than anything else, even at that time. He could play anything at that time.

TP: Paquito said his father taught himself clarinet so he could teach Paquito to play clarinet.

CACHAO: Yes, of course.

TP: Bebo, what is your earliest memory of Paquito?

BEBO: [I knew Paquito’s father.] There’s a place called Rivoli. That was at the entrance of Hidao(?). It was a place for blacks-and-whites at the end of the ‘30s. I played there a lot in the ‘30s, and one of the tenor saxophonists who was there a lot was his father. I had another relationship with him, because when I started working with the Tropicana, he used to sell instruments to the musicians who worked there. He was a great person, because when somebody said they didn’t have enough to pay the weekly fee for the instruments, he’d say, “Another week will come; don’t worry about it.”

Another thing between me and him: He was a boyfriend of this beautiful mulata named Silvia, and I was a boyfriend of her sister, so the four of us would go out together all the time. This was way before Paquito was born! Before they got married… She was so beautiful that… Before they got married, she married this Japanese journalist, Kochi-Lan his name was. He was a great Japanese print journalist. And Paquito was born in 1948. The same thing that Tito did with Paquito… I did the same thing with Chucho.

TP: Chucho told me that you told him to learn all the styles, and to start from stride piano and work his way methodically through all the modern styles.

BEBO: [Si, senor.] Yes, sir.

CACHAO: I have an anecdote about his son. I went to Bebo’s house one time, and Bebo said, “I want you to meet this jazz pianist.” He said, “I don’t want you to look at him before you hear him play, so just turn around. Put your back to him.” Chucho was 4 or 5 years old at the time. I heard him, he was 4 years old, and there was genius! I said, “Who the hell is this pianist?” and I turned around and it was his little boy!

TP: When did you both start listening to jazz?

BEBO: The thing is, the first pianists I liked… I was living in the countryside. I wasn’t in Havana like Cachao. The first guy I liked was Eddy Duchin, and after that was Duke Ellington. Then came my favorite, Art Tatum. I have two favorite pianists, Art Tatum and Bill Evans. Those are my gods.

TP: Cachao, you were in Havana. You must have been listening to jazz all along.

CACHAO: I started listening to jazz when I was really small. I was born in ‘18, and in ‘22 I already was listening to jazz.

TP: But the bass didn’t become prominent in jazz until ‘28 or ‘29.

CACHAO: Yes, from that time on, jazz took a different turn.

TP: Who were some of the first bass players who impressed you? Jimmy Blanton?

CACHAO: When I first started listening to jazz, the bassists weren’t soloists yet. The thing is, it didn’t start happening with Duke Ellington until 1930 onwards. There was this one bassist who had that way of playing. He had a bad temper, but I can’t remember his name. He was American. He was a really great bass player? He was a composer, too.

TP: In the ‘30s?

CACHAO: No.

TP: Oh, Mingus.

CACHAO: [Charlie Mingus.]

TP: When did each of you first come to New York?

CACHAO: In 1948. I just came to visit. I remember this really funny thing. I went to the White House. At that time, Truman was President, and Truman was a pianist. He had a great piano in there. At that time, they let the tourists and excursions go into the White House, because there wasn’t terrorism at that time. Then I went and they let me in with the excursion, with the tourists, and they heard me playing Truman’s piano. They let the people play. It didn’t matter if you were a tourist or not. They didn’t let you play. The pianos were protected by 5,000 people. At the time we’re talking about, jazz was really strong. All the guys who are important, like Ron Carter, were of that generation, and all of them were inspired by Charles Mingus. That’s the first guy I think started doing extraordinary things with the bass. Of the guys who are playing now, I think Charles Mingus was the main influence.

BEBO: Ray Brown.

TP: Paul Chambers, too, and Scott LaFaro.

CACHAO: Milt Hinton. He played with me in Cuba. We did a concert together. It wasn’t a formal thing. It was in a home. It was like a jam session. He was there with the Cab Calloway Orchestra at the time, and I was with Orquesta Arcano at the time. So he liked what he heard, and between the two of us, we started playing melodies together. We played the melodies of Duke Ellington. I would do the melody, he would do the bass, then we’d do it the other way, where he would do the melody and I would do the bass. “Sophisticated Lady.”

TP: Bebo, when did you first come to New York?

BEBO: In 1962. I came to New York and then to L.A. I left Cuba in 1960. The 26th of October, 1960. I went to Mexico.

CACHAO: I went in ‘62 to Spain. I went there for a contract for 3 months that was renewable, so I went, and then I could be renewed, so I stayed. And I’m extending it up to now! 42 years. I never went back to Cuba.

TP: You’ve been gone 45 years and not gone back. How does that make you feel?

CACHAO: What do you think? Bad. We’re Cubans. Imagine.

BEBO: But we can’t accept that government. Impossible. [No.]

CACHAO: In Cuba, musicians were never politicians. Because musicians were musicians for necessity, so you wouldn’t die of hunger. The musicians are musicians for the love and for the work. Since we’re not revolutionaries… I went to Buenos Aires with the Tito Rodriguez Orchestra from here, and the Consulate from Argentina asked me, “Are you Cuban?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “You’re not going to go there and form a revolution, are you?” He thought I was going to go with this musical group to shoot up the place and overturn the presidency. That’s the kind of terror that was happening with the government we have there. We were simply musicians, pacifists. We have nothing to do with any of that. When musicians get together with musicians, all we talk about is music!

TP: So even though you’re both a full generation older than Paquito, you share the same experience of exile.

BEBO: [Si.] Of course.

CACHAO: Look at the way he had to leave. Paquito couldn’t live there again. To escape, he had to go up the down escalator, the wrong way. In Spain. Because if he went down, he wouldn’t have been able to come. He had to go up to escape.

TP: He took advantage of his position to record you. He produced an album by Bebo on Messidor, Bebo Rides Again.

BEBO: [Si.]

TP: And also you and Chucho a year or two later, and he produced the album 40 Years of Cuban Jam Sessions as well.

CACHAO: Of course. In Miami.

TP: Apart from your warm personal relationship, talk about Paquito as a musician. What dynamics enable him to pull off a concert of this scope?

CACHAO: Imagine the admiration we both have for him. Especially with his father. Bebo especially, because Bebo was all the time with Tito.

BEBO: My opinion about Paquito is that he plays divinely the saxophone. He has a really high range; he can go really high on the saxophone. As a soloist… In any kind of genre or style, he’s a great soloist. But now comes the best that he has. The thing is, the clarinet is a thousand times more difficult than the saxophone, and I consider Paquito as one of the best in the world in all the genres, in all the styles. There’s jazz players like Benny Goodman, but I consider Paquito extraordinary; his execution on the clarinet is one of the best I’ve ever seen in my whole life.

TP: What about his conceptual range? That’s a very Cuban quality, the ability to play all the styles on their own terms in an immaculate way.

BEBO: He knows all the genres, all the styles. Also, he knows very, very old traditional music from Cuba. I heard something from him of danzas and contradanzes from the 1800s. So his range is formidable.

TP: He did an album called A Hundred Years of Love Songs.

BEBO: He’s really concerned and focusing a lot on the music of South America, it seems to me. He’s really involved with things that are happening in Brazil and Argentina now.

TP: He calls it the music of the New World.

CACHAO: It’s his opinion as well as ours that the musician doesn’t have any borders. Nationalities are not important. We’re in agreement… There’s a saying from Spain that says [something like “the distance brings you closer.”

TP: It brings you to your roots. You share your common cultural roots.

CACHAO: Let’s put it this way. He’s in Sweden and I’m in Miami. It’s like if I’d be living next to him in Sweden and he lives next to me in Miami, that distance makes us close.

TP: And Paquito is in New Jersey…

CACHAO: The thing is that he may be in New Jersey and I’m in Miami, but I feel like I’m (?). The distance that separates us makes us feel even closer. We’re brothers.

TP: What do you think was the essence of the culture in Cuba, in Havana, that gave you the breadth of interest… What’s the essence of that cultural root that gives you the artistic expansiveness? I’ve heard both of you play every type of music. I’ve heard Cachao at the Village Gate with Tito Puente and with Libre, and you solo like Mingus times two! I’ve heard you play exquisite danzons. It seems the culture imparted to you a true artistic freedom in your musical expression.

CACHAO: You’re asking how is it possible that such a small island could give such an expansiveness…

TP: Something like that. We can go with that.

CACHAO: I don’t know. The thing is, it’s the tropics. The cold climate is not the same as in the tropics. It’s cold out there, and at 50 years old you’re dying already! The heat is so much that all you’re thinking of is hot things, and it keeps you hot. It makes you move from the hips to the top of your head! That’s a problem there.

TP: You were both playing dance music, all sorts of dance music. You were playing art music. You were playing jazz.

CACHAO: We have a facility in general in the Cuban mind. The example of that is the clave. [CLAPS IT] The thing is, Bebo and myself can’t stand a clave that’s crossed. We can hear a melody, and somebody is counting against the clave—we can’t accept that at all. You’ve got to shoot the guy! If that would happen, even the dancers would stop. You can’t dance if you cross the clave like that.

TP: A lot of the younger musicians I speak to say that the most difficult thing is to learn to play in 4/4 swing as opposed to clave. Was that ever an issue for you 50-60 years ago?

BEBO: First of all, I can’t say anything about the musicians in Cuba now. I haven’t been there, I haven’t heard them, so I don’t know what would be their particular problem.

TP: They just say it’s a difficult mental adjustment.

BEBO: It wasn’t a problem at all for us. Since the swing was close and the rhythm was so precise, as our music, we didn’t have a problem with swing.

CACHAO: You’re going to laugh now. The thing was, we had the music with the clave. A lot of our composers, because of the clave, they suspended the clave, so then they would change the songs, and then anybody could compose then and now. There are compositions now that they write where they suspend the clave. Even the singers don’t know where they have to be. This is a bass player, and they’re playing a 6/8 melody. The singer takes note that the bass player is lost and doesn’t know where he is. So she goes professionally, getting close to the bass player… She took advantage, that when the bridge was coming, she went discreetly over to where the bass player was on the bridge, because she was not singing it… She said, “Hey, man, what’s happening? Where are you?” He says, “What’s up?” She says to him, “6/8. We’re playing in 6/8.” But the bass player doesn’t understand what she means by 6/8. She says, “Don’t you know what’s 6/8?” He says, “Yeah, 48.” They don’t understand anything. Because we don’t say 6/8; we say, “6 by 8.” So he was thinking it was a mathematical problem, so he answered 48. So he really didn’t understand anything that was happening.

TP: You said you don’t hear the musicians in Cuba, but you know the younger musicians who left Cuba.

BEBO: Of course. Look at my son. There are some things that I am not in agreement with, but I can’t really blame the musicians over there for that. The musicians are really great instrumentalists and have a great technique, but the government forces them to study so many hours and practice so much that… When it comes to playing a montuno, there’s what the difference is. Most people anywhere can play a montuno, but that’s a characteristic of the music, and it’s been lost a lot. For example, there was a pianist who played with Cachao. He was a mambo player, and he played that montuno style that nobody else could play, and it was really typical. That part is what I’m talking about.

There are some virtuoso musicians who have come out, but when it comes to the traditional folkloric music, they’re not up to the job, not up to the standard. The thing is that those things are not shown in the schools. They can read anything you put in front of them, but those things, the personal inspiration of the folkloric, they don’t have that any more. If you go down to the countryside, maybe you can still find that. In Oriente, in the eastern part of the country.

CACHAO: In Oriente they say there was a bird who invented the clave, because the bird couldn’t sing. The bird couldn’t sing like the rest of the birds, so he sang the clave! The birds are singing da-da-da-da, and duh-de-duh-de, singing this beautiful melody, and then there’s a bird in the background going BATT-BUTT, BATT-BUTT-BATT. That’s why they don’t know where the clave really comes from. The biggest thing about it is that the bird this guy was talking about is extinct now. The bird is gone, but there are still eggs from that bird around. The egg is in Greece, in the mountains of Greece. So now they’ve got to go to the mountains of Greece to find the egg and incubate it to find out if it’s true about the clave bird. Because how could something like that happen? It’s possible. For example, somebody takes a train. A train has a rhythm, too. For example, if you stand between the two wagons on the train you hear that rhythm. If you listen, you hear what the engine is doing and what the wheels are doing, and when you least expect it, there’s a great rumba happening there!

BEBO: There’s a story that Beethoven was an abacua, and the story is he passed through Cuba. Have you heard the Fifth of Beethoven? It’s a rumba!

CACHAO: But it’s true about the train. I’ve stood outside the train, and you listen what’s happening with the wheels. And when you hear it coming out, it sounds like there’s a quinto and there’s a tumba—there’s a rumba happening.

TP: Duke Ellington also listened to the train. In the U.S. all the blues and jazz musicians listened to the train.

CACHAO: “Night Train,” for example. [CACHAO’S DAUGHTER ARRIVES]

BEBO: Everything that happened between 1910 and 1920… There’s a person I admired, he was my idol, and he was an idol of many people even at that time. That’s the person sitting next to me, and that man is Cachao.

There’s a story that Beethoven was an abakua, and the story is he passed through Cuba. Have you heard the Fifth of Beethoven? It’s a rumba!

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The Music of Cachao
By Ted Panken ©2012

His name was Israel “Cachao” López, he came from Havana, Cuba and during his 90 years on the planet he played the contrabass with the imperial authority of Koussevitzky, the Russian-born, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1924-1949), the kinetic precision of a Yoruba drummer, and the unbridled creativity of Charles Mingus. His old friend Bebo Valdés, a fellow 1918 baby, called him “the king of rhythm.”

As a child, Cachao played bass for a theater orchestra that accompanied silent movies. At 13, he began a 30-year run with the Havana Philharmonic. He moonlighted in dance bands, including one called Arcaño y Sus Maravillas that included his older brother, the pianist-cellist Orestes López, with whom, in 1938, he composed “Mambo,” introducing a swinging groove (nuevo ritmo) for the final section of danzón, an elegant, ritualized form—and Cuba’s national dance from the latter 19th century through the 1950s—that involves composing four separate episodes, each in a different tempo. Bandleader Damaso “Perez” Prado popularized the rhythmic weave, and it exploded onto the international stage, including the dance floors of New York City, where it evolved into the lingua franca beat of Latin Jazz.

Cachao’s mambo also propelled a series of recorded jam sessions (billed as descargas, after the Spanish verb meaning, among other things, to discharge electricity and speak one’s mind) with the best-and-brightest—and jazz-aware—Cuban dance musicians employed by the nightclubs and casinos of Batista’s Havana. They directly influenced the evolution of salsa as articulated by Tito Puente (Cachao composed “Oye Como Va”), Tito Rodriguez, and Eddie Palmieri, all of whom hired Cachao after he migrated permanently to the United States in 1964.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, directed by JLCO bassist Carlos Henriquez, will address both the danzón and descarga on this evening’s celebration of Cachao’s legacy. Now 32, Henriquez is a thoroughly 21st century musician, able to navigate the multiplicity of idioms that fall under the jazz umbrella, among them the clave and swing dialects, “without an accent.”

That this is no small task was made clear by the great jazz bassist Ron Carter himself. Speaking on WKCR in 2001, he analogized the jazz feel to “four beats straight up and down, like a picket fence,” while describing clave as that “picket fence leaning over to one side so all the beats move at 45 degree angles from the straight line.” Carter continued: “Jazz isn’t so filled with counter-rhythms, but Latin music has four or five rhythms going all at once in one tune, enough rhythms to last you for a week, held together by the clave beat. All the choices can overwhelm you. I’m amazed that they always pick the right ones.”

Cachao himself was no stranger to jazz. “When I first started listening to jazz, bassists weren’t soloists yet,” he told me during a 2005 encounter. He recalled an informal encounter with bass pioneer Milt Hinton, in Havana with Cab Calloway, perhaps in the late 1940s, at which they “played the songs of Duke Ellington together, one doing the melody and the other doing the bass.” Still, he “spoke jazz” in an accent infused with the infinite permutations of clave.

For Henriquez, the son of a trombone player and a dancer—both of whom were connoisseurs of swing and salsa—the “accent-less” approach is his birthright as a product of the South Bronx “melting pot.” It didn’t hurt to receive hands-on mentoring from the likes of clave wizard Andy Gonzalez and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra predecessors Reginald Veal and Rodney Whitaker, as well as such distinguished prior employers as Danilo Perez, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Tito Puente, and Eddie Palmieri.

“I use Cachao’s concepts all the time,” Henriquez states, noting that the maestro, who learned the bongos even before the bass, extrapolated the rhythms of each component of the Afro-Cuban bata drums, but most notably those associated with the low-range tumbador, and incorporated them into his bass playing. “He learned the instrument with finesse and style, with accuracy and technique. But he also incorporated his life into the music. There’s a side that’s very street-oriented, ferocious, strong, dark, and powerful, which I love, but there was a sweet, beautiful side, too.

“The concept of tumbao [a syncopated, repetitive rhythmic pattern], of playing a fundamental part that becomes a leading part, is widely misunderstood. In African music, the bass is actually the moving line—focusing on the root rhythm and creating that as a solo. That attracts the whole band to you. Cachao was a magnetic force; he was the core of everything.”

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