He was born in poverty, worked as a shoe-shine boy, lived the thug life, walked around with a bullet in his back, and flashed a gold tooth.
But the Afro-Cuban Luciano Pozo y Gonzalez, AKA Chano Pozo, was a master percussionist and entertainer in his native land, who traveled to the United States, and with the great bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, co-created the hot and hybrid musical genre called Latin jazz (also called Cubop), and in doing so, helped reintroduce the African hand drum to America after slavemasters had suppressed it for centuries.
Born in 1915, Pozo grew up Havana’s roughest slum, and spent time in reform school. He was a spellbinding dancer in his twenties, who often entertained musicians at his shoeshine stand, which was setup near a radio station, with his conga drumming. He was featured on several Cuban radio broadcasts with a number of bandleaders, and became a star in his own right, composing several local hits, including “Blen, Blen, Blen” and “Nague.”
But life for a musician like Pozo wasn’t easy. He often had money disputes. And in 1945, he stormed into the office of a music publisher, demanded his money, was shot, and the bullet stayed lodged in an inoperable area near his spine. Two years later, he came to New York, in February, 1947, and worked with the famed dancer/anthropologist Katherine Dunham and Latin bandleader Machito and his Afro-Cubans.
It was during that time when Dizzy Gillespie was looking for an Afro-Cuban drummer for his upcoming Carnegie Hall concert. He contacted his mentor, trumpeter/arranger Mario Bauza – Machito’s brother-in-law, who came to New York from Havana in 1938, discovered Ella Fitzgerald and worked with Gillespie in Cab Calloway’s band – for a referral.
“Dizzy got hold of me,” says Bauza, recounted in Donald Maggin’s biography, Dizzy: The Life and Times of John Birks Gillespie. “I say I got the man for you. I took Dizzy to Chano house. Introduce him to Chano. I was interpreter there because Chano didn’t speak English. Neither Dizzy Spanish.”
So how did they communicate? As Chano Pozo famously said in his broken English, “Dizzy no peaky ‘Pani, I no peak ‘Engly, but both speak African.”
Their collaboration was a match made in Heaven: a rhythmic reunion of long-lost Motherland percussive pulses that gave birth to a new form of music that would be called Latin jazz: a blend of modern jazz and West African-derived, Afro-Cuban rhythms.
The importance of this musical marriage cannot be overstated. Pozo’s Afro-Cuban rhythms were derived from the sacred West African Abuku’a/Lucumi drumming, which are also found in the religion of Santeria. As musicologist David Garcia writes in the Journal of the Society of American Music, “[I]n the eyes of Gillespie, Pozo was an authentic purveyor of African music via his knowledge of, and association with, the Abaku´a, an all-male neo-African secret society of Cuba. Gillespie hired Pozo, therefore, to inscribe an African past into African American music.”
And so, on September, 29th, 1947, the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, featuring Chano Pozo, unleashed their formidable Latin jazz fusion onto the world, as they performed a suite entitled “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop” written by Gillespie, Pozo, and composer/arranger George Russell. The trumpeter and the percussionist also co-created several anthemic, soon-to-be Latin-jazz standards, including “Manteca,” “Tin Tin Deo” and “Guarachi Guaro.” But what was destined to be a lifelong, fruitful collaboration between Gillespie and Pozo came to a bloody end, one night in Harlem in 1948 in the Rio Bar on Lenox Avenue at 111th Street, where Pozo was fatally shot, resulting from a dispute over money and/or drugs.
But the syncopated African seed had been re-planted in America. Other percussionists would build on Chano Pozo’s contributions: from Candido Camero, Mongo Santamaria , Carlos “Patato” Valdes and Ray Barretto, to Francisco Aguabella, Tata Guines, Daniel Ponce, Jerry Gonzalez, Miguel “Anga” Diaz, Sheila E, Poncho Sanchez and Pedro Martinez. Gillespie would go on augmenting and extending on the Latin jazz innovations he and Chano Pozo began decades ago, until the trumpeter died in 1993.
“I was lucky enough to have Chano Pozo teach me the fundamentals,” Gillespie said. “After Chano Pozo … everybody started getting congas.”
And the rest is jazz history.