ARVITO: THE HARVEY AVERNE STORY
FROM THE CATSKILLS TO THE GRAMMYS AND BEYOND!
by CHICO ALVAREZ PERAZA
Preamble: "Montuno Meets the Blues" – A Prelude to Salsa
Sometime around 1968, I became totally disillusioned with Cuban music, or "latin" music as it was called back then. It seemed that the endless array of boogaloos and shingalings were inadvertedly channeling me into another direction. I was an aspiring conga drummer at this point in my life and my main inspiration was Mongo Santamaría, who was one of the chief architects of "latin boogaloo". His version of Herbie Hancock’s "Watermelon Man" was the first son montuno/blues hybrid to "crossover" in the sixties. Another seminal figure was Willie Bobo. My favorite singer, La Lupe, had her sights on becoming a pop crossover artist, and I really loved her version of "Fever". Of course by this time I had discovered straight ahead jazz, beginning in 1962 when I heard Henry Mancini’s theme from the television series "Peter Gunn", a novelty item which opened my ears to a style that revolved around the blues and which would later be referred to as "barbecue music" or "funk". This was practically one hundred per cent instrumental music, the kind you could really groove on, and my favorite instrumentalists were Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith, Wild Bill Davis and Donald Byrd. The "Spanish tinge" came later, in terms of my own development.
Despite being exposed to these and other virtuoso jazz-blues instrumentalists, there existed in my life the vocal and upbeat street sound of Motown Soul, which was still very much in my blood, as well as the jumpy pachanga music that first hipped me to syncopated Cuban rhythms. Through the ongoing efforts of latin jazz pioneers such as Mongo, Willie and Cal Tjader I kept an even balance of afro-centric music in my head, despite being bombarded daily by all that insipid music coming out of Liverpool. By the time I graduated high school I had opened myself up to a whole new set of influences, including Herbie Mann, Oscar Peterson and Pharaoh Sanders. I still had no idea what clave was about, and the art of improvisation was alien to me. Yet I knew that this was where I wanted to be, in the hip world of modern jazz. I was young and still in touch with my Cuban roots, especially after hearing the landmark Verve recording by rumberos Patato and Totico. On the other side of the rumba was the fast driving yet light charanga style of the Palmieri Brothers, Pacheco, Quijano, Fajardo and Aragón, coupled with the ballsy and frenzied big band mambos of the "big six" (Machito, Bebo Valdés, Beny Moré, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and René Touzet). Most of this music was already available to me via the scratchy 78 rpms that I inherited from my parents. Years later I discovered that the catalyst for this phenomenon was someone by the name of Dámaso Pérez Prado. What a revelation that was! All I knew about this guy was that he played "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White". You live and you learn.
And lastly, there was the Stax brand of soul music, which was all the rage at this time, and the reason that I was drawn toward the boogaloo in the first place. Latin soul wasn’t yet labeled as such, nor was it called latin rock either, but as soon as I heard it I instinctively knew that these commercial manifestations were the result of combining son montuno with blues. All this ethnic cross fertilization made for a healthy palet of "soul sauce", and I reveled in the fact that the two genres of music complemented each other so beautifully. It was really a match made in heaven, the perfect combination, and one which made so many of my generation view the flip side of the latin jazz coin. I don’t think I was alone in my passion for the montuno-blues combination, but the fruits of that movement began to yield sour grapes for me, and I soon found the emerging Nuyorican style rather predictable and boring. Johnny Colon’s "Boogaloo Blues" may have started off really nice, but as soon as the singing came in it all fell apart. Almost as if on cue, it seemed to lose that black urban essence, and you didn’t have to listen very hard to see that this music had what Frankie Crocker often referred to as a "hole in its soul".
Faster and more upbeat son montunos replaced the slower guajira and cha cha chá versions, yet nothing seemed to impress me, not even when pianist Pete Rodriguez covered Beny Moré’s "Que Bueno Baila Usted", renaming it "Micaela" and labeling it a boogaloo. It may have been danceable, but musically it was not challenging. Most non-musicians of my generation thought it was something new and marveled at it. Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz’s incursions into this turf were nothing to write home about either. To be fair, there were some highlights during that period, such as pianist Hector Rivera’s "At The Party" album, or the mellow boleros of Joe Cuba. Noteworthy too was "My Dream" by the Harvey Averne Dozen. Joe Battan almost hit the target right on, but apparently he too was restricted by the record label and not allowed to move beyond the "formula". His voice spewed soulfulness, but musically speaking, it was amateur night on almost every groove. I longed for something better, hipper, and eventually found my niche within the jazz tinged music of Louie Ramirez, Pucho Brown and other progressive musicians of that period. Suddenly, I stopped going to the big dances and buying latin records. I frequented small clubs in Greenwich Village which catered to what I started to call "real music". This was music for the head, and not just for the feet. At the corner of 10th Street and Avenue B, in a pub in the Alphabet City section of the East Village just off Thomkins Square Park my love for modern jazz was born. Frequent visits to a bar called The Angry Squire on 7th Avenue and to the world famous Apollo Theatre on 125th Street sealed my fate as a jazz lover – forever after. I first hit The Village Gate in 1963 and it became my all time favorite hang-out. I cried when it finally closed down.
Playing real jazz was out of the question for me, not only because it required some really good chops, but also because clave was not integral to that music, at least not at the time. These were my formative years and I still had not received any formal training in music. I marveled at the ease with which jazzmen played their improvised solos. Professionally, I had found my groove playing with an r&b/soul group out of Jersey City, although I was without any cultural orientation, and I mean none whatsoever. I found myself stuck in the middle of two worlds, and then it happened, as if by magic. I heard Ray Barretto’s recording of "Acid". My antennae spiraled up as soon as I heard the first few bass lines flowing over the clave. This was the record that made me a fan of Ray Barretto for life. I knew his name from the crossover hit "El Watusi", which was pretty much straight ahead Cuban dance music. Truth be told, it was the Spanish language guapería "rap" that made that record unique, and its catchy piano-bass-violin riffs appealed to gringos of all hues (a group which by the way never understood a damned word that was being said).
Another musician to incorporate the unique mix of guajira-blues-son montuno, along with Mongo and Willie, was pianist Eddie Bonnemere, for whom Barretto had worked with as a sideman. His career in terms of playing evolved from the church to the blues, working the cocktail lounge circuit and then back to the church, inspired by the combination of these, and of course by Cuban rhythms. He recorded around ten albums, beginning in 1953, but was never a popular radio star. The closest Bonnemere ever got was a local hit, "Piano Mambo", which was very popular in Harlem. He also worked for 30 years in the jazz ministry at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in NYC. Largely forgotten in latin music circles, Bonnemere was nonetheless a key figure in the development of this hybrid and responsible for jump starting the careers of many great musicians.
As early as 1960 the stage was being set for a completely new and "americanized" sound. Albeit still a bit premature, the genesis was there, overshadowed perhaps by a few prevailing popular trends, such as rock ‘n’ roll, pop music and certain spin-offs on the traditional Cuban son montuno (namely the lively "pachanga" rhythm). These modalities appealed mainly to hip, young urban "latinos" and not to the old school diehards. The phenomenal cross-over success of "El Watusi" temporarily detoured Barretto from further incursions into the r&b realm, but "soul music" was already on its way and it was simply a matter of time before the two genres would meet head-on. "El Watusi" catapulted Barretto’s recently formed charanga "La Moderna" into the national spotlight, making it one of the most popular dance ensembles of the "pachanga" era (during which time Barretto kept it "típico"). He began to experiment once again after he signed with United Artists Records, but failed to interest the label, which was mainly looking for someone who could produce a groove like Mongo’s. Somewhere in Barretto’s head was that happy medium, the perfect blend, but he didn’t have the musical or financial backing that he needed. And then along came a lawyer by the name of Jerry Massucci. In Mr. Barretto’s own words "the time was right" and Cuban music would never again be the same. "Acid" was also the first record where I noticed there was such a thing as an A&R man, the "third ear", the finisher, that obscure behind-the-scenes someone who invariably took responsibility for turning a project into a reality and a viable commodity (ie, a "hit"). I soon realized that next to the artist, the most important person present at a recording session was the producer. In the case of "Acid", the A&R credits on the backcover listed a name that was not familiar to me, Harvey Averne. I didn’t know it then, but in a few short years I would have a great deal to do with Harvey and his company Coco Records, and even more to learn from the man personally.
The music contained on that seminal album, like all the music Barretto recorded for Fania and other labels during the sixties, chronicled one of the most gratifying periods of the post-mambo era. It was the turning point for Cuban music. In retrospect, it seems true that there were other, more obvious incursions into pop crossover trends, but "Acid" featured music that was primarily formed from the epicenter of the Afro-Cuban evolution, with only a minimal amount of sophistication, virtually no bebop lines and a lot of the early Cachao style descarga feeling woven into contemporary 1968 expressions. It was the best of both worlds, a bridge from La Habana to New York. Sadly, Mr. Barretto was no longer around to relate his unique experiences within that realm to us, so the idea then came to me to interview Mr. Averne and ask him not only about his input into the "Acid" album, but about other equally impressive projects that he produced.
And as fate would have it, I was assigned to interview José Mangual Jr., one of the participants in the classic 1978 "Siembra" recording for the special November issue of Latin Beat. His revelations prompted me to go even further and dig deep into that vast repertoire of music recorded by those artists who were not signed to the Fania label, but who were actively recording during the same period. I immediately thought of Barretto’s "Latino Con Soul" for the United Artists label and Mongo’s "El Pussy Cat", released on Columbia Records, both of which came out during the previous decade, as well as some of the classic Eddie Palmieri recordings for the Tico label. And that’s when the thought hit me. Coco Records! Why not? It was a label which had been at the forefront of the salsa movement, but for some reason it was being ignored by all the authorities of our music, you know who I mean – the faniaphiles. One thing led to another and before I knew it I was having brunch in midtown Manhattan with Harvey Averne, founder and principal producer for the label. Mostly we reminisced about the old days, and I told him I wanted to write about his Coco experiences, particularly about the "Unfinished Masterpiece" album. He agreed, but since he was now living in Florida, I decided to formulate a series of questions within the following week and forward them to him via e-mail. I told him that I was merely a part time storyteller (as opposed to a full time journalist) and by no means a researcher (detective). More often than not, things that are said in private are re-written and then those same anecdotes are altered and retold without much verification. This time I wanted to get the story right, by doing some additional research. My goal was to gather more information and get a real insight into the workings of a recorded masterpiece, and I wanted to view it from both perspectives. Unfortunately, I was unable to reach Eddie Palmieri, who never returned my phone calls. As soon as I began, I realized that doing this via e-mail was not the way to go. A few months later, I met with Harvey once again, this time at a diner in Queens, where the conversation yielded a deeper insight into Harvey the man, the musician, his label and his experiences within "latin" music circles. Immediately following are some excerpts from our somewhat off-beat and informal conversations during the summer of 2008 and the spring of 2009. Needless to say, a whole lot of editing has taken place since then.