Jazz in Puerto Rico

Article written by: Wilbert Sostre

Even those with knowledge in jazz history may be surprised to learn about the great contribution of Puerto Rican musicians to this genre.

The first recordings in jazz were made in 1917, and already the Puerto Rican musician/composer Rafael Hernandez is part of the US Army Orchestra lead by Lt. James Reese Europe. This orchestra is credited with introducing jazz to France and the rest of Europe.

Some years later in 1923, Rafael Duchesne recorded with the Noble Sissle Orchestra alongside Sidney Bechet, one of the first jazz virtuosos. Also in 1923, Ralph Escudero recorded with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, among the members of that orchestra were Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong.

Well known is the musical relation between Puerto Rican trombonist, Juan Tizol with Duke Ellington. Juan Tizol was the composer of jazz standards like Caravan and Perdido. The bassist virtuoso from Puerto Rico, Eddie Gomez, played for more than a decade with pianist Bill Evans.

Less known is the case of Rogelio “Ram” Ramirez, pianist and composer of Lover Man, one of the most recognized and recorded jazz standards. Jazz connoisseurs might remember this song in the voice of Billie Holiday. Ramirez also worked with the great Ella Fitzgerald.

Of course one cannot talk about jazz, specifically Latin jazz without mentioning masters like Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, and the brothers Charlie and Eddie Palmieri. Musicians that also helped in the creation and development of Salsa music.

The importance of Puerto Rican musicians in the last decades of the twentieth century and first years of the twentieth-first century is widely recognized. In every musical instrument often related with jazz a musician from Puerto Rico stands out. Saxophonists David Sanchez and Miguel Zenón, pianist Hilton Ruiz, percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo, trombonist William Cepeda, bassist John Benitez and trumpet player/percussionist Jerry Gonzalez are just a few examples of master instrumentalists from Puerto Rico.

The vast quantity of amazing musicians coming out of Puerto Rico in recent years is due in part to the great work of music schools like La Escuela Libre de Música and The Music Conservatory of Puerto Rico. In April 2011 was the sixth edition of the Conservatory Jazz Festival that included guests like David Sanchez, Ignacio Berroa and Alexis Cole. This school faculty is a who’s who of the best musicians in Puerto Rico today, bassist Aldemar Valentin, pianist Brenda Hopkins and jazz legend Eddie Gomez.

The organizers of the internationally recognized Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival, make their contribution to music, with grants for the Puerto Rican youth to continue studies in one of the most prestigious music school, Berklee College of Music.

It is important to highlight the work of broadcasting heroes whom have taken over the responsibility to keep quality music alive among young people. Naphis Torres, with radio programs dedicated to jazz and music from Brasil in the government radio stations. Wito Morales, “Mister Jazz”, conductor of “En Clave de Jazz”, one the jazz programs with more years in Puerto Rican Radio. The University of Puerto Rico radio station keep various program dedicated to jazz music. And of course Vid 90.3, the only Jazz radio station in Puerto Rico. This radio station located in the west town of Mayaguez, town officially named as the jazz capital of Puerto Rico, also organized the Mayaguez Jazz Festival, second major jazz festival in Puerto Rico and recently created the first jazz web magazine in Puerto Rico, www.vid90magazine.com.