Trombonist, composer and arranger Papo Vázquez is more than thirty-five years into a career spanning the jazz, Latin, Afro-Caribbean and classical music and recording worlds. Recent honors include an invitation by “The Presidents Own” US Marine Band to lead and direct the band on its first Afro Caribbean Jazz performance in the long history of this band, in Washington, DC.
In May 2013, was commissioned by Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and Symphony Space to compose new music for “Nueva Musica” concert series, in New York. In 2011, was presented with a Latino Masters Award by the Pregones Theater under The National Endowment for the Arts American Masterpieces: Presenting program. In 2010, was commissioned by Mr. Wynton Marsalis to compose a work inspired by Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam, he conducted and performed with Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Orchestra on The Jazz and Art concert. In 2008, won a Grammy nomination for Best Latin Jazz Album for Papo Vázquez’ Mighty Pirates 2008 recording Marooned/Aíslado.
Vázquez was born in 1958 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After spending his early years in Puerto Rico, he grew up in the heart of North Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican community. He bought his first trombone from a friend for $5 and joined the elementary school band. At the age of 14, an uncle recommended him to a local salsa band, where he met trumpet player Jimmy Purvis. Purvis inspired Papo’s lifelong passion for jazz by giving him two records: J.J. Johnson’s Blue Trombone and John Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard. By 15, Vázquez was performing with local Latin bands in Philadelphia and accompanying visiting artists such as Eddie Palmieri. At only 17, he moved to New York and was hired to play for trumpet player Chocolate Armentero’s. Soon after began playing and recording with top artists in the salsa scene like The Fania All-Stars, Ray Barretto, Willie Colón, Grupo Folklorico Nuyorquino, Eddie Palmieri, Larry Harlow, and Hector La Voe. Vázquez also became a key player in New York’s burgeoning Latin jazz scene of the late 1970’s, performing with Jerry Gonzalez, Hilton Ruiz, and more. He began studying with Slide Hampton, eventually recording and performing for Slide Hampton’s World of Trombones.
Vázquez went on to perform with jazz luminaries Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Foster, Mel Lewis, Mario Rivera, Hilton Ruiz and Milton Cardona, and to tour Europe with the Ray Charles Orchestra. By the age of 22, Vázquez had traveled the globe. He was a founding member of Jerry Gonzalez’ Fort Apache and Conjunto Libre as well as of Puerto Rico’s popular Latin fusion band Batacumbele, performing and recording several albums with the group from 1981 to 1985. Upon his return to New York, he joined Tito Puente’s Latin Jazz Ensemble, traveling with them as principal trombonist, and toured Europe with Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra.
Leader, Composer, Innovator
Vázquez has always been deeply moved by jazz, and specifically cites the music of John Coltrane and J.J. Johnson as having most influenced him. In addition, his appreciation for and knowledge of the indigenous music of the Caribbean peoples provides him with a unique ability to fuse Afro-Caribbean rhythms, specifically those from Puerto Rico, with freer melodic and harmonic elements of progressive jazz.
During his time back in Puerto Rico with Batacumbele in the 1980s, he began to experiment with “bomba jazz,” a mixture of jazz and traditional Puerto Rican bomba. In 1993 he recorded his first album as a leader, Breakout. He continued collaborating with a variety of Latin Jazz artists, contributing Overtime Mambo to Hilton Ruiz’s Manhattan Mambo and Contra Viento y Mareo Descarga Boricua, Vol. 1. In 1999, he released a live recording featuring a number of important New York Latin and jazz artists, including bassist Andy Gonzalez, saxophonists Willie Williams and Michael Brecker, and drummer Horacio El Negro Hernandez. The release of Pirates & Troubadours – At the Point, Vol. 1 was followed next year with At The Point, Vol. 2. This project evolved into the Pirates Troubadours, an “Afro- Puerto Rican jazz band” including musicians such as Roberto Cepeda from the famous Familia Cepeda from Puerto Rico, Milton Cardona and Anthony Carrillo on percussion, John Benitez on bass and Dafnis Prieto on drums, The group performed at festivals around the world and released Carnival in San Juan in 2003, followed by From The Badlands in 2007.
Interest in Vázquez as a composer grew. He was the first artist to receive a composer’s commission (Iron Jungle) for the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, then a resident orchestra at Jazz at Lincoln Center. His first classical composition, Palomita – Afro-Caribbean Suite, which to this date has not been credited with being the first time Bomba and Plena were performed with a Chamber Orchestra, was commissioned by the Bronx Arts Ensemble and premiered at the Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture in the Bronx in 2004. In 2007, on a commission from the Bronx River Arts Center, he wrote Sube el Rio (River Rising) for his Mighty Pirate Orchestra for their 20th Anniversary “Bronx River Sounds” concert.
The same year, through a grant from The Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, Vázquez was asked to expand Pirates Troubadours, and was commissioned to compose new music for a 19-piece, Afro-Puerto Rican Jazz Orchestra. The 2008 event was recorded live, resulting in Papo Vázquez Mighty Pirates Marooned/Aíslado, which received a Grammy nomination for Best Latin Jazz Album. The Mighty Pirates Orchestra continues to allow Vázquez the opportunity to blend multi-faceted compositions and trombone style with rhythms of Afro Caribbean origins and jazz. Sometimes joined by folk dancers that enhance the music, the orchestra has garnered rave reviews. They are known for Papo’s variations on traditional themes, and terms like Yuba’ Jazz, Holande Pirata, Jibaro Waltz, Plena Funk and Mapeye Jazz are used to help describe his music.
In 2009, Vázquez premiered a composition “Oasis” with the Bronx Arts Ensemble at its Memorial Day Concert. It was his seventh year writing for this concert, held annually in Van Cortland Park in the Bronx. This work grew into the expanded Oasis Project, which had its 2010 premiere at the Pregones Theater in the Bronx with the Pirates Troubadours performing with the Bronx Arts Ensemble and Multicultural Music Group. Vázquez has also shared his compositions with Ruben Blades (Tengan Fe/Antecedente), Hilton Ruiz (Manhattan Mambo) and Dave Valentin (Tropic Heat), among others.
His song “Baila Plena” from At The Point, Vol I. is featured on the soundtrack for Free Enterprise. Other movie credits include playing on the soundtracks for The Mambo Kings and Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues.
Selected Honors and Awards
- Grammy Nominated 2008 – Papo Vazquez Marooned/Aislado on his Picaro Records.
- Grammy: Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Wayne Shorter’s Alegria (Verve Records).
- Grammy: Bebo Valdez – Bebo de Cuba.
- Recognized by Los Pleneros de La 21 for his contributions to Puerto Rican Culture.
- New York Times’ list of “Top 10 Undeservedly Obscure Recordings”.
- Taller de Jazz Don Pedro in Puerto Rico Award.
- DownBeat Magazine’s list of “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” 1980.
- Best Trombone “Latin New York Magazine” 1980, 1979.
- Papo Vazquez Mighty Pirates Troubadours – Oasis, Picaro Records, 2012
- Papo Vázquez The Mighty Pirates – Marooned/Aislado, Picaro Records, Grammy Nomination 2008
- Papo Vázquez Pirates Troubadours – From The Badlands, Picaro Records, 2007
- El Niño Josele – 2011
- Tego Calderon – The Underdog/El Subestimado, Jiggiri Records, 2006
- Shakira & Wyclef Jean – World Soccer Final Theme (“Bamboo”), 2006
- Ray Barretto – Standards Rican-ditioned, Zoho Music,2006
- Los Pleneros de la 21 Para Todos Ustedes, Smithsonian Folkways, 2005 – Grammy Nomination
- Bebo Valdez – Bebo de Cuba, Calle 54, 2005 – Grammy, Best Latin Jazz Album
- Papo Vázquez Pirates Troubadours – Carnival in San Juan, Cu-Bop Records, 2003
- Wayne Shorter Alegria, Verve, 2003 – Grammy, Best Jazz Instrumental Album
- Freddie Cole Rio de Janeiro Blues, Telarc
- Chico O’Farrill “Carambola” Fantasy
- Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues movie soundtrack
- Papo Vázquez “Pirates & Troubadours – At the Point Vol. I” Cubop
- Papo Vázquez “Pirates & Troubadours – At the Point Vol. 2” Cubop
- Milton Cardona “Cambucha” American Clave
- Arturo O’Farrill “Bloodlines” Fantasy
- Chucho Valdes “All Stars Bronx Lebanon New Directions Project”
- RMM “Jammin’ in the Bronx” Papo Vázquez Band, Chucho Valdes & The Machito Orq RMM
- Chart Busters with Dr. Lonnie Smith, Lenny White, Hiram Bullock, Craig Handy, Papo Vázquez, et.al.
- Chico O’Farrill “Pure Emotion” Fantasy
- Steve Berrios “First World” Fantasy
- Descarga Boricua “Descarga Boricua” Tierrazo
- Dave Valentin “Tropic Heat” GRP
- Juan Luis Guerra 440 “Fogarate” 440
- Papo Vázquez “Breakout” Timeless
- Ruben Blades “Amor y Control” “Antecedente” & “Caminando” Sony
- Hilton Ruiz “Mannhatan Mambo” Telarc & “Hands on Percusion”
- RMM Tito Puente “Out of this World” Tito Puente “100th” RMM
- Jerry Gonzalez Fort Apache Band “Obatala” “Live in Berlin” Enja & “Ya Yo Me Cure” American Clave
- New York Latin Jazz All Stars “Feliz Navidad”
- Batacumbele “Con Un Poco de Songo” & “En Aquellos Tiempos” Tierrazo
- Ray Barretto “Ricanstruction” Fania
- Slide Hampton “World of Trombones” WEST54 Chico O’Farrill “Calle 54”
- Fania All Stars “Habana Jam” Fania
- Willie Colon & Ruben Blades “Siembra” Fania Willie Colon & Celia Cruz Fania
- Hector La Voe “De Ti Depende” Fania
- Mon Rivera “Vuelvo a Vivir” Fania