There have been many unsung heroes that have participated in one way or another throughout the history of what today some call Latin music. One that comes to mind is the late, great pianist Rene Hernandez, who was instrumental in developing the sound of the Machito Orchestra. Often times we neglect to pay homage to these musical giants simply because they were never upfront and center. However, one would be negligent if they were to disregard the contributions made by these "invisible" men when writing about the history behind this music. One such "invisible" man is saxophonist/flautist Jesus Caunedo. For those of you who are hearing this name for the very first time allow me to make the introduction. Jesus Caunedo has been an important ingredient in the history of this music having played with all of the most important orchestras of his time such as Machito and his Afro-Cubans, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Apollo Sounds, and that of Bobby Valentin among many others.
Q&A: A Conversation with Jesus Caunedo
GR: Jesus, why don't we start with how you got involved in music.
JC: I started my musical training in a school for orphans in my country. I wasn't really interested in the school band, but, the children in the band had certain privileges, like better and extra food, we would get to travel, we lived in the school so we would get to go to other towns for parades and other events. So I really only joined the band so that I could eat better and to be able to travel. The school was outside the capital. I stayed there until I finished my secondary school studies. I studied music there with a teacher by the of Manuel Garcia Gautier. Looking back now I have come to see him as my father, even though I didn't back then. During vacations, since I didn't have much family, I would stay in the school and even though he was on vacation he would make the hour and a half trip to give me extra lesson, which he was not obligated to do.
GR: When you say your country, you are referring to Cuba, right?
GR: What barrio of Cuba are you from?
JC: I was born in La Vivora, a barrio of Havana. I lived for many years in the barrio San Leopoldo.
GR: You were an orphan?
JC: Over there you were considered an orphan if you did not have a father because mothers were housekeepers. My mother was alive but she did not earn any money. The school was for either fatherless or motherless orphans. There were many children that were orphaned by the sailors that would come as a result of the sugar trade. I'm talking about the time around the first World War. Looking back now I think that it was a beautiful experience. I wouldn't change it for anything. I met many people that became real friends. I have had a lot of luck throughout my life. Professionally speaking I do what I like and wherever I have traveled to I have been treated well. What more can one ask for in life? Including New York, a city that is very hard to make it in. Things went well for me there as well. I arrived there not speaking one word of English and I still found work! I worked with Machito. I recorded with Machito. I worked with Tito Puente for many years. I worked in the pit orchestras of Broadway. I have been very lucky. I also played on many recordings with Tito Rodriguez in New York and later in Puerto Rico when he moved over here where we did the television show. I worked with Xavier Cugat in the Waldorf Astoria and the Paramount Theater when it was re-opened.
GR: Who were some of the musicians playing during the time you were studying at the orphanage?
JC: Well, during those days the most famous bands on the streets, now mind you my teacher wanted me to be a classical musician and he would have me practicing on the clarinet seven to eight hours a days! Through all that practicing I did get to hear the top bands and one of my favorites at the time was Arsenio Rodriguez's conjunto. I also liked Arcaño y sus Maravillas, which was a charanga. He had a big orchestra that would play on the radio. Cachao played with him. I liked Conjunto Casino very much. It was mainly a trumpet band but the arrangements were very original. Roberto Faz was their best singer. When I was a little older we became good friends. I was an admirer of his when I was just a child. He was a tremendous gentleman, as well as a tremendous sonero. The music of my country always grabbed my attention. When I began to really understand the music my interest in jazz increased. Jazz, harmonically speaking, is the mother of all music! When I started playing professionally, I was a part of a group that is considered to be the founding fathers of Cuban Jazz along with Walfredo de los Reyes, who is currently living in San Francisco, California. His son plays with Santana, and the other son plays with Yanni. Papito Hernandez, the bass player, was also one of the guys involved. He later went on to play with Andy Williams. We had started a sort of Jazz club with the objective of bringing American Jazz musicians over to Cuba with the money we made so that we could study with them. During that period Cuba was fortunate in that many American musicians would travel to the island. We were lucky at the time because we would be able to bring them to our club for a small fee, and sometimes for free! We would get guys like Philly Joe Jones, Stan Getz, Soot Sims, a whole lot of really good musicians would come by. There was a really good sax player by the name of Maurice Lewis who helped me a lot. I even got to work with Art Scheaffer in Cuba, at the Riviera. We were lucky to have access to some really talented Jazz musicians and to learn from them. They were interested in our rhythms, and we were interested in theirs.
GR: When you were a child in the orphanage the "son" was already a staple of Cuba's musical cuisine. What were the innovations to the "son" that guys like Arsenio made?
JC: The "son" is originally from Oriente, from people like Trio Matamoros. However, Havana was always in the forefront when it came to the drums. That section of Cuba rhythmically speaking was always way ahead of the other sections. What Arsenio did was he Africanized the "son" with the congas and the tumbaos that he would inject into it. The "son" was much more simple before Arsenio came around. What Arsenio was doing was never heard before. I had the honor of knowing Arsenio in Cuba, and later in New York. Arsenio had an incredible ear. You spoke and he would immediately know who you were. It didn't matter if he hadn't heard you in a while. He would still recognize your voice. A natural musician with incredible abilities. A great composer as well. I also had the honor of working with Rene Hernandez. Rene Hernandez was my brother! He was my pianist here in Puerto Rico which was an incredible honor for me. He also played on my very first recording here in Puerto Rico. Rene is such a special person in my life that I can remember the day he passed away. He died on the 5th of September of 1977 and I was crushed! Rene was a guy with very impressive musical skills and a very humble fellow. He was something from out of this world. We Cubans are not the humblest people in the world. Rene was such an important figure in Cuban music. People don't realize, including many Cubans, that the orchestra of Julio Cuevas was the first orchestra where the piano played the parts originally played by the tres, and where the horns played more than long notes. Cuevas' orchestra was the first where the sax guajeos were used, along with more intricate horn lines. And that was because of Rene Hernandez, and no one else. And with all due respect to my friends, the ones that gave me my first opportunity in New York, Machito and Mario Bauza, if we were to define Machito's sound, understand, and you for one should know, neither Machito or Mario (Bauza) were arrangers, it was Rene Hernandez. A man who has never been recognized as one of the leaders, a man who's defect was to be far too humble. Sometimes in this world one has to scream to be heard. I always have him in my thoughts. For me it's like he's still alive. He was a true friend.
GR: Let's go to the 60's when you first arrive in New York City. Before that, you were well aware of the music scene in New York during the 50's, right?
JC: Yes, I first met Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez in Cuba. I met Mario Bauza back in Cuba when while in the orphanage he presented us with certificates for presenting the music of Cuba outside of the country. That's when I first had the honor of meeting Mario Bauza. However, Mario never heard me play. Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez both had seen me play in the Hilton in Cuba where I played with Rafael Somavilla. At the time when I decided to leave Cuba one could not speak on the phone because all conversations were monitored. So I had to send a personal message through someone to Chocolate (Alfredo Armenteros). Chocolate is my brother! Next time you see him ask him for "la grulla". That's what he calls me. That's my brother. When I arrived in the United States Chocolate helped me. Chocolate introduced me to Machito, with who I recorded my first record here in the U.S. It was titled THE NEW SOUND OF MACHITO. Can you believe that I just found it on cd recently! Mauricio Smith played flute on that date because I was not playing flute at that time. Doc Cheetham was also on that record. Cecil Payne was there as well. There were some really great talent in that band at that time. Rene Hernandez was there as well, along with Emilio Reales, the trumpeter from Panama. I have fond memories of that era because of all the help I received from people that I didn't even know. I don't mean Chocolate, because we were friends back in Cuba, but, all the other people which I never had met before.
GR: It is said that the "son" was born in Cuba, however, something happened to it when it arrived in New York City. What in your opinion were the contributions made by those musicians in New York City in reference to what is referred to as Afro-Cuban music?
JC: I'll answer that with the words of the late, great Miguelito Valdes. The show bands that played in the hotels in Cuba hardly played Cuban music. There were some secondary bands such as Riverside or Aragon at the Tropicana, or Casino de la Playa at the Riviera. However, the showcased band was comprised of musicians that really didn't have an interest in Cuban music. When Miguelito Valdes would play the Hotel circuit in Cuba he would find himself in the company of Cuban musicians that didn't know much about Cuban music. I remember this quite vividly because I was a young musician with an interest in learning as much about music as I could. He would say to them, "gentlemen, if you want to learn how to play Cuban music go to New York!" There was such a preoccupation with this music in New York that was not seen anywhere else, and that includes Cuba. I have known many Cuban musicians, friends of mine, that played with guys like Woody Herman. Tremendous musicians, that could not even play a rumba! Born and raised in Cuba! They didn't even understand the concept of clave.
GR: With that said, is it your opinion that New York City played a major role in the development of this music?
JC: New York is the capital of the world! Period! New York is so full of people from different places that come with different ideas and views. Keep in mind that Cuba is just Cuba. It's like in Puerto Rico nowadays. Puerto Rico today is influenced by the Dominicans and the Cubans. From that you get a Puerto Rican product enriched by these influences. And that's what happened in New York during that period. An example of what happened during that era would be the Machito Orchestra. The Machito Orchestra had musicians like Jerome Richardson, Cecil Payne, Doc Cheetham, those were big stars from the Jazz world. And they were playing rumba! That was not happening anywhere else in the world. And it couldn't happen anywhere else! That's how the music evolved. There were also contributions from musicians like Mauricio Smith, who is from Panama. These guys came with different and distinct ideas, so the product was different and distinct as well.
GR: What about the contributions of the Puerto Rican musicians of that period?
JC: Well imagine, Tito Puente! Tito Puente is a man that I have a lot of respect for. Aside from the fact that he is an excellent musician, arranger, innovator, and friend, he always treated Cuban music with the utmost respect. With more respect than most Cuban musician that I have known.
GR: What about Tito Rodriguez?
JC: Well Tito Rodriguez's mother, as you well know, was Cuban. Tito Rodriguez's character was more complex than Puente's. Puente was more lenient, while Rodriguez was a very strict bandleader. Puente was more a funny guy, as well as a talented musician. He had that certain leadership quality and a sound of his own.
GR: In your opinion how was the music scene effected in Cuba and New York in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution?
JC: In Cuba, after the revolution, to say the word "jazz" was a crime. Imagine that for guys like Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval, in order to play the music that they liked they had to use names for their bands like Orquesta de Musica Moderna because if they used or said the word "jazz" it was a crime. That was so stupid, especially so because jazz is consider by many to be the music of the poor, those that were in the worst state in the United States. Eventually since guys like them were truly talented the government had to utilize them in order to get some much needed cash. The salaries the musicians received and continue to receive are really ridiculous. When they would come to Puerto Rico they would come to my house and be fed because otherwise they would starve since the daily stipend they received would not be enough. We're talking about people like Irakere, Arturo, Paquito, and Chucho. The amount of the stipend was really ridiculous. That was done so that they would more-or-less starve while away from Cuba. They were kind of isolated over there in Cuba during that period. That is why you hear so many influences from the 50's in the Cuban music of the 80's.
GR: How would you respond to those that say that the musicians in New York and Puerto Rico kept the music alive, while it was stagnant in Cuba during that "blackout" period?
JC: My humble opinion would be as follows. I believe that all music has it's origin. For instance, the bolero was born in Cuba, as well as the danzon. You can say that coffee originated in Arabia, but today everyone drinks coffee and there is very good coffee in Colombia. And there is some very good coffee here in Puerto Rico which is exported to Japan. I feel that everything has it's origin. I am Cuban, and proud of the fact that I was born there. I think about Cuba every single day. My roots are there. But, I cannot deny that even though the bolero may have been born in Cuba that it is an international rhythm. One cannot talk about the bolero without speaking about Agustin Lara, or without mentioning the name of Rafael Hernandez, or that of Pedro Flores, or Armando Manzanero, or Chico Novarro. Ok, it may be Cuban in origin, but there are those that do not have to envy any Cuban composer, because their work is just as good as any. And as for the danzon the Mexicans have "mexicanized" it so much so that I believe it is played more today in Mexico than in Cuba! The same goes for what we refer to as "salsa" nowadays. I believe that there is a manner in which to play music with Cuban roots in such an original and different way from what the Cubans have done, with a Puerto Rican flavor and originality. That is what we call "salsa". The problem is not where something comes from, but how it is done. If it were not for guys like Tito Puente or Tito Rodriguez, I would have died of starvation or have had to go to work in some factory! I owe the Puerto Rican musicians for being able to continue my career as a musician. I believe that the contributions of the Puerto Rican musicians to the music that came out of Cuba from the late forties to the present have played an important role in the evolution of this music. Those contributions have been so great that there are lots of Cuban singers today that are following the lead of the Puerto Rican musicians, and not that of Cuba's. That in itself should show that there is indeed some good music coming out of the Puerto Rican community. There is a tremendous product that must be respected.
GR: What is needed to keep this music alive and vibrant?
JC: The people are currently enthused with the merengue. Why? First, because one does not really need to know how to dance to enjoy it. Secondly, because it is simple rhythmically speaking. At times, I believe, we musicians who play "salsa" get so involved in the music that we forget about the dancer. A merengue has that steady four beat bombo that even a deaf person can dance to. The musicians that play "salsa" are so good that at times they get so carried away with these four bar breaks that in order to stay in step the dancer has to be like Annibal! You have to be really good. Commercially speaking that is one of the things that we have to work on. For instance you saw how everyone got on the floor when we closed with that conga. Why? Because the trick to the conga is the bombo on four! One-two-three-boom! It's the same as the merengue basically. I think that those of us that record and produce "salsa" have to start thinking about that. We have to start making it accessible to the majority, and not the minority.
GR: With that said what advice do you have for the up and coming musician of today?
JC: They have opportunities that were not available to my generation. There are many opportunities for those that want to learn. After they have learned the basics they should start listening to the records of the great musicians that interest them. You can't build a building without a foundation. That foundation, musically speaking, has been laid down by those that came before us. Once they get an understanding of what was laid down, then they can spread their wings and fly.
GR: With that said, thank you...
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