THE INTERVIEW – August, 2008 – April, 2009:
Conversations Between CHICO ALVAREZ PERAZA and HARVEY AVERNE
Below is the unedited version of my interview with Grammy winner Harvey Averne, musician, band leader, record producer and founder of Coco Records. Because it was too extensive to print in its entirety in the April Issue of LATIN BEAT MAGAZINE, I am re-editing it for the readers of latinjazznet.com, with some added questions pertaining to latin jazz in general, and with the generous permission of RUDY MANGUAL, editor and publisher of said magazine.
– CHICO ALVAREZ PERAZA
I spoke with Harvey Averne several times over the past summer, mostly by phone, where our conversations eventually turned from latin jazz and his own personal experiences as a performer to his experiences with superstar Eddie Palmieri, with particular focus on the “Unfinished Masterpiece” controversy, which we discussed at length. Naturally, it is Mr. Averne’s side of the story, raw and uncensored. He is now living in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he maintains a somewhat low profile, albeit not oblivious to the current trends in the latin scene. “Unfinished Masterpiece” notwithstanding, I decided that our readers needed to get more of an insight into Harvey the man, the musician, his label and his experiences within “latin” music circles. So here it is, with the hopes that you will not only enjoy his anecdotes, but that you will also become more informed.
CAP: Harvey, what’s it like to be removed from all the craziness of the music industry? Do you miss it any?
HA: Chico, I love being semi-retired in beautiful Daytona Beach. It’s really a paradise down there, totally stress free. I have a lot of things going on that I never did before and I have a bunch of really good friends to do stuff with. I work out and shoot pool at the Port Orange YMCA and go fishing almost every week. I listen to a lot of music, both recent releases and vintage stuff from back in the day. Whileviewing TV or videos I find myself looking out at the jungle in the back of my home. Have you noticed that good music never gets old?
CAP: Tell me about it bro. I’ve got a record collection that some people would kill for!
HA: I can just imagine Chico. I own a few gems myself, and if I ever do come across a great or interesting new talent I would gladly go back into the studio again. It’s in my blood, man. I would even to do it for an older or established artist, one whom I feel that I have learned something from and who can still perform on a high level. Anyone who knows the work I did with Machito, Cortijo and Fajardo, all of whom were senior citizens at the time they recorded with me, can appreciate the fact that it has been an honor for me to have worked with my idols and to have given something back to them. Even though I knew at the time that these albums were not going to yield any major profits, I recorded them anyway, simply because these guys inspired and gave me everything when I was coming up. My company never made any money from their records, but we didn’t lose any money either. Sometimes you have to do things from the heart. My criteria was that if they still had stage presence and could perform well in the studio, then I was going to do something that would improve their lives. I tried to revive their careers to whatever level I could. Believe me when I say this Chico, it was a labor of love and I got a lot of satisfaction from those sessions. You know, I still get passionate working in a recording studio, and as a matter of fact, I’m working on two projects as we speak. In addition, some of my music is included on “Tribute To The Beatles”, “Latin Funk/Nuyorican Funk” and “El Barrio – Back on the Streets of Spanish Harlem”, three brand new compilations recently released on the Fania label, distributed by Universal. Look for the Harvey Averne “Never Learned To Dance Anthology” (1967-71) a twenty song compilation CD that includes a sixteen page booklet. The album drops May 26th 2009. Whew! All that promo aside, let’s talk some music Mr. Alvarez.
CAP: Sure. I’ll start by taking you on a time trip. What are your musical and cultural roots?
HA: This is the easy part. I was born in 1936, in Brooklyn. My parents were European-American Jews who lived a modest life. They were hard working and very supportive of me during my formative years. My dad was born in Soviet Georgia, he arrived here when he was ten years old. My mother is a native New Yorker of Polish descent. They started me on the violin at the age of nine, then I switched to the accordion. At twelve I turned professional, can you believe it? I can still remember my first summer gig away from home, I was fourteen. By the age of sixteen I was already a full time musician, working small clubs on the weekends. That was so long ago Chico, but I remember it like it was yesterday. At seventeen I was making ninety bucks a weekend – which was a lot of money back then. During my high school years I worked regularly at the Boulevard Night Club on Queens Boulevard in Rego Park, NY and continued working there even after I graduated from Thomas Jefferson High. It was such a fun time for me Chico, it felt great – like I was in heaven – especially after appearing on the same bill with such big name stars as Don Rickles, Jerry Vale, Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughn, Al Hibbler, The Platters, The Four Aces and The Mills Brothers. Come to think of it, there were also a few up and coming artists who played The Boulevard, like Teddy Randazzo and The Chuckles, The Diamonds, Sally Blair and Della Reese. Another thrill for me was working the Catskill Mountains, especially Brickman’s Hotel in South Fallsburg, which was not too far from The Pines, where Joe Cuba could be heard leading his sextet. That whole area was then known as the borschtbelt, a group of hotels, bungalow colonies, summer campsand kuchaleyns (a Yiddish name that conjures up images of various families in boarding houses, cooking for themselves, a sort of self-sufficient community kitchen and dining room). During the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s the area was frequented by middle to upper class Jewish New Yorkers, mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe, their children and grandchildren. Because there was such a heavy influx by this group of immigrants, the area was nicknamed the “Jewish Alps” by many people who visited there.
CAP: Is that when you first got hip to Cuban music?
HA: For sure, I always liked it. My dad was a sewing machine operator in a ladies belt factory, surrounded by and friendly with newly arrived Puerto Rican immigrants. All day long he heard songs that were being sung in Spanish and would come home singing “Quiereme Mucho”, “Aquellos Ojos Verdes”, “Besame Mucho”, etc. He sang them beautifully around the house, all the time, in Spanish. I loved to hear those songs, but at the time I didn’t know how to play them. In the Catskills hotel circuit, they always had “American” dance and show bands. They would regularly bring on a “latin” band that would play mambos, tangos, boleros, merengues, fast paced boleros (known as rhumbas) and cha cha cha’s whenever the house band took their break. I had several latin songs that I would mix into my dance sets. Many great latin bands played the borschtbelt. Randy Carlos played the Nemerson and Larry Harlow played Schenk’s Paramount Hotel, where all the latin musicians and dancers would go to jam after their gigs. The Raleigh Hotel in South Fallsburg was the hot spot and Marty Arrett had the dance studio there. In those days every hotel and beach club had a dance team that doubled as instructors, giving dance lessons to mainly Jewish people, teaching them how to mambo, cha cha chá, etc. Some of the Raleigh’s latin bands were La Playa Sextet, La Plata Sextet and Eddie Palmieri, playing one summer each. During the week – for one night only appearances – they would bring up visiting Cuban bands like Aragón and José Fajardo who were booked in the city. Other big name bands were Tito Puente, José Curbelo, Machito and La Sonora Matancera with Celia Cruz on vocals. I would listen to these bands whenever I could, hypnotized by their fascinating rhythms. I was not yet versed on the rudiments, but was learning as I went along.
CAP: So when exactly did Cuban music come into your life?
HA: I think it was around 1951. I was playing a summer gig at the Jockey Country Club in Ellenville, NY, when I accidentally heard a hispanic dishwasher playing his guitar in the back yard of the kitchen. I think his name was Pedro. There he was, with his shiny gold tooth, strumming and singing “Me Lo Dijo Adela” and “Donde Estabas Tu?” I immediately fell in love with those songs and with their unique syncopation. I talked to the owner of the hotel – and Chico I swear I don’t know how I did it, because in those days the kitchen help were never allowed outside their work and lodging areas – but I talked him into letting Pedro go into the playhouse every night, so we could do some “real” latin music. We were an instant hit with Pedro (albeit unpaid but all dressed up) singing his two numbers every night and mingling with the guests. He taught me how to play the tunes properly on my accordion, and that was the first time I actually played Cuban music. The Nevele Hotel – also in Ellenville – was where I played my first away from home six-nites-a-week gig. It was open throughout the entire year, not just the summer season. I remember it as being approximately in the winter of 1956.
CAP: And Pedro?
HA: I never saw him again, sorry to say, but that man changed my life forever. After the Nevele I played just about every hotel in the Catskills, including the Pines, the President, the Concord, Grossingers, Young’s Gap and the Flagler, among others. The last hotel the Arvito band played was Laurels Country Club, a hot singles hotel where the Lecuona Cuban Boys had played for many years. We were booked in there for the summer of 1961. One of the best pianists on the circuit was Charles Fox, who came directly from Paris to play with us and met his beautiful wife Joan there (she was a counselor). To this day they remain one of the great love stories and show biz marriages.
CAP: But surely you didn’t remain just another hotel and club date band, right?
HA: No, not at all. In fact I was already looking toward new horizons. When I was nineteen I partnered with a latin music disc jockey and advertising man named Dick “Ricardo” Sugar. Together, we would promote dances every Sunday afternoon at The Manor in Bayside, Queens. My favorite group at the time was La Playa Sextet – man they were awesome! – they were in competition with Joe Cuba’s sextet for the best small group in the business. That’s when I started toying around with a similar type of group. Chico, believe me when I say that Tito Puente, Joe Cuba and La Playa were my main inspirations. I started a seven piece group, with a full Cuban rhythm section, two trumpets and myself on vibes. My dear friend Larry Harlow worked with me for a while until I fired him and told him to start his own band because he would never listen to me. He did, and the rest – as they say – is history. Now Chico, you have to envision this and it’s really very funny when you think of it. Everyone and their grandmother had a show name, and mine was “Harvito”. On my debut gig as a latin band leader at Brickmans, the hotel owner put my name up on the marquee as “Arvito”, without the H, and they also spelled it that way in the New York Post Resort Section advertisement. When I asked him why he spelled it that way, he replied; “no self-respecting latin band leader would have a name like Harvito, it simply does not sound ‘latin’. From now on you will be Arvito, it’s either that or you can take your band and play somewhere else”. So that’s how I said goodbye to the H and became Arvito. Dick became my personal manager, and through my business relations with him, mine was the first band to sign with his and José Curbelo’s agency “Alpha Artists”. In 1957 we were booked into the Palladium Ballroom.
CAP: I bet that must have been quite an experience for you.
HA: Was it ever! I played opposite Tito Puente. When I heard that he was on the bill, I panicked! The Arvito band was doing mostly Tito and La Playa Sextet covers. Harlow had copied the arrangements right off their recordings, note for note. Also, being a vibe player made it even more difficult for me to go on, what with Tito being such a vibe master and all. I approached Tito at the beginning of the night, introduced myself and explained my predicament to him. I was truthful and told him that while it was my dream to play at the world famous Palladium, he was not part of that dream, for all the obvious reasons. He smiled at me, pinched me on the cheek and said: “Don’t worry kid, I have plenty of numbers, just tell me which ones you are playing tonight, and I won’t repeat them”. In fact, he didn’t even play vibes that night, and I thank God for that! That was Tito for you. From that day forward he became my friend and mentor. Playing at the Palladium on the same bill as Tito really was a dream come true. He inspired me to keep on learning and playing Cuban music. Chico, I really miss him, even after all these years. After the summer of 1961 we played at several beach clubs on Long Island, mostly in Long Beach and Lido Beach, clubs like the Malibu, the Sands, the Shelbourne and the Tropicana. We were a hot little band, performing with all the top latin bands of the day, and without ever having made a record.
CAP: During those early years when you were still performing with your own band, did you play mostly instrumental dance music, or was there also an element of jazz in your book? I’m referring specifically to the fusionistic musical idiom known as “latin jazz”, which was also known for a while as “Cubop” and “Afro Cuban Jazz”.
HA: Truth be told, I was a monster jazz fan until around 1965 or ’66. I frequented every jazz club in the city to hear the likes of Monk, Horace Silver, Art Farmer, Art Blakey, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck and John Coltrane. So yes, there was definitely some jazz influence in my choice of material. I loved to hear three, four and five part harmony and lots of melodic lines. That’s what was so nice about the bossa nova, the melodies were so beautiful. All that crazy and way out Bebop stuff never really impressed me very much. I felt that if I wanted to see someone performing acrobatics, I could always go to the Olympics. I believed then as I do now that the song form is of the utmost importance, so before any really hard-blowing improvisations come into play, the tune should have a nicely constructed head. After you’ve clearly stated the melody and your audience is able to recognize it as such, then yeah, go ahead and blow. Knock yourself out, and while you are at it knock my socks off too! I mean it’s all yours from there on bro’. Once they feel comfortable with it, go ahead and construct that beautiful solo, but do it over an established set of the chord changes, in other words make some sense out of it. Create it so your audience can actually anticipate and appreciate where your solo is going. Sure – it’s your solo – and most likely you will feel that it is your music too, which it just might be. As we in the music world tend to feel and express after hearing someone seamlessly execute all of the above; “wow, he (she) really owns that song”.
CAP: I hear you man. And I recall having the exact same reaction when I first got turned on to jazz. I’d be lying if I said I understood all jazz music, but it appears to me that we musicians enter our own little world when we improvise, and sometimes we are oblivious to the people around us. We forget where we are because we are in our own little space and time. Ours is a world that can be likened to layers – layers of culture and musical history. Improvisation is a bona fide skill, but layered underneath all those free style riffs are sketches from our past, places, loved ones, friends, musical influences and endeavors that will ultimately applaud and document not only our efforts but the contributions of others as well. Jazz is a valid art form, with a lot of history, so why downplay the contributions and ideas of those who came first? If a musician starts to improvise on an existing melody and decides to take it too far out there – like in outer space maybe – then I think they’ve missed the point. For that they might as well create their own tune, from scratch. That way they don’t offend the composer or the aficionados who love the song as it was meant to be. Those soloists who deliberately distort the melody are subconsciously seeking to improve it in some way. Either that or they have no respect for it. Nuff said, right Harvey?
HA: Indeed Chico, and I couldn’t have stated it better myself. There is just so much you can say musically after you’ve played the melody. Let me end this train of thought by stating that if a musician – and it doesn’t matter what genre they are playing – if a musician attempts to enhance someone else’s work they could very easily end up subtracting from its beauty rather than embellishing or enhancing it. I also wish musicians would forget about all the poly-stylistic chaos that permeates in free-form jazz. They should proceed with caution when constructing their music, and they should keep it elegant. Actually, tasty is a better word. Jazz musicians – and non-jazz musicians for that matter – should always remember that not everyone feels the music the way they do and not everyone likes uninhibited madness.
CAP: So remember musicians, next time you go off on some crazy head trip, be very careful not to take Harvey and the rest of the audience on such a wild ride.
HA: Whoa! That’s heavy Chico! Wild ride is a pretty good description, especially when no one in the audience is wearing a seat belt (laughter).
CAP: By the way Harvey, now that we are on the subject of wild rides and head trips, where did you go to hear great jazz back then?
HA: My favorite place for jazz was a small club in the East Village, on 8th Street, right around where it merged onto St. Marks Place. It was a cozy type of a place, with wooden church pews for seats. I remember that Monk played there all the time, but for the life of me Chico I can’t remember the name of the joint right now. I heard some great jazz at that spot, as well as in The Village Gate, Birdland, The Village Vanguard and Basin St. East. I also dug listening to Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez, who were all heavily into the Afro-Cuban Jazz fusion. So I really did listen to both types of music, and in fact I still love to listen to both genres.
CAP:You could very well be referring to the Five Spot, which highlighted a long residency by pianist Thelonious Monk in 1957. Monk’s seven month stint there was a landmark for both artist and club. I read somewhere that it was the first time he had performed in a New York club since losing his cabaret license in 1951.
HA: Yeah, that’s the one all right! No doubt about it, the Five Spot played a major role in America’s recognition of Monk’s genius. Unless my memory fails me, he was backed by John Coltrane on tenor sax, although I think they played there a lot longer than just seven months. Their appearance made the Five Spot the East Village’s premier jazz club. Monk would return to the club for many engagements in subsequent years. I used to take my brother there quite often, because he was under age and had to be accompanied by an adult.
CAP: That was a bit before my time Harvey, but as I recall hearing some of the elders comment, jazz music flourished alongside the mambo and the cha cha chá, connecting diverse audiences at such places as The Palladium and Birdland. Yet, the mix rarely really traveled outside the confines of the midtown area, except perhaps in the San Francisco Bay area or amongst the Hollywood jet set. And possibly in Europe.
HA: Yes, that’s true. When Larry Harlow first came to me with the band, they weren’t working much and certainly weren’t playing any real jazz. It was really his band, but through my connections with Dick Sugar and Jose Curbelo we began to get regular work after I took the band over. As I mentioned before the Arvito Band did a lot of covers but there was also a guy named Joe Greenwald who wrote some original charts for us. As I recall there were at the time quite a few indie labels such as Mardi Gras, Rainbow, Fiesta etc., that specialized in recording instrumental music and conjunto bands, so there was a market for that kind of thing. We did not have a lead vocalist, so my band played stuff like “Mambo Mist”, “Caravan”, “Mambo Inn”, and other equally jazzy tunes. We also played a few pieces that featured the vibraphone, such as Tito Puente’s “Mambo Diablo”, “Picadillo” and “Philadelphia Mambo” etc. This was the kind of stuff that appealed mainly to young anglos, especially Italians and Jews who were primarily drawn to the heartbeat and danceability of the music, and not necessarily to its jazz overtones.
CAP: How about the young black dancers? Do you think that they related to your music because of its jazz element?
HA: Well naturally, whenever we would play the Cotton Club or any venue in Harlem there were always black dancers giving us the nod whenever we would play a tune like “Caravan”, etc, but from my perspective on the bandstand, it seemed that young black dancers were pretty happy with rhythm ‘n’ blues and later on with soul music. They felt comfortable with that music because it was closer to their southern roots. In contrast, white dancers gravitated more toward latin music than they did to rhythm ‘n’ blues – at the time. Don’t ask me why, I really don’t know the answer to that, but I will speculate that it was because latin music more closely resembled the music of the swing generation, the stuff that their parents danced and listened to. It somehow seeped into their subconscious. Latin American music, specifically the Cuban dances, were very exotic, and most Anglo-American women loved to dance those styles. With the mambo they could dress up and look real sexy like Ava Gardner and feel like Chita Rivera in West Side Story. For sure, there were some great black dancers who frequented the Palladium, but they didn’t do it so much because of the orchestrated jazz influences or the guest jazz soloists. Rather, because of the hard-driving and infectious Afro-Cuban beat. Another thing Chico, the latin bandleaders who played almost exclusively for the anglos would pick certain words for the coros that were easy for non-latinos to pronounce, memorize and sing along with. Tito Rodriguez on the other hand, because he was such a magnificent vocalist – and I can’t understand why we never hear Tito anymore on the radio, it’s like this guy never lived, he was arguably the greatest male singer of my time – surprisingly, Tito also managed to play some of the best instrumental latin jazz ever recorded. My all time instrumental favorite is “El Mundo De Las Locas”, which he recorded live at The Palladium. It’s also radio deejay Joe Gaines’ all time favorite. And this was coming from Tito Rodriguez, my own personal latin Johnny Mathis, a singer’s singer. If you were with a chick in your apartment and put on one of his sexy boleros – oh man – she was yours! God bless you Tito Rodriguez (laughter).
CAP: You know Harvey, I vividly remember a time when the likes of Mongo Santamaria and Cal Tjader – among so many others – all led excellent groups, and they each had their own signature style. This was roughly around 1964 or ’65. Each of these artists managed to work steadily all year round, not only coast to coast but also in Europe and Japan. Then suddenly we began to hear them doing more dance oriented stuff, more commercially tinged material, such as boogaloo and Memphis style soul music. It’s not that latin jazz wasn’t danceable before, ’cause it definitely was. What I’m getting at Harvey, is that it wasn’t at all like it is in the here and now, when the main focus of today’s latin jazz artists is on the concert hall circuit. We are now at a juncture where the audience is visibly non-latino. They are predominantly middle class Europeans, plus a few Asians and blanquitos who have no interest in real dancing. They view the music purely as art. Hispanics on the other hand – those who love to dance are conspicuously missing from that audience. Surely, at their peak during the sixties, the artists which I have just mentioned counted mainly on working class Americans, (ie Blacks, Jews, Italians and Hispanics) as their support group, right?
HA: Well then Chico, that’s really an about face, isn’t it? It’s interesting to note that during the period when the Arvito band was performing primarily at dances, at least 50% of the audience was non-latino. I mean, all you have to do is just look at the many historic pictures of the Palladium Ballroom – and there are many circulating around the internet right now.You can see a very healthy ethnic and racial mix. That club was the proverbial melting pot. If you were going out on the town in New York City circa 1955, one of the places you had to hit was the Palladium. As you said, today’s latin jazz crowd is not as diverse, and not so much into the dance element as we were.
CAP: That’s exactly my point, but let’s fast forward a bit, like maybe ten years or so. It’s also my recollection that those who frequented the jazz clubs in the post Palladium period were the same cross-section of fans who were buying Eddie Palmieri, La Lupe and Tito Puente albums. You know Harvey, I fit perfectly into that category, and I’m sure that you do too. It’s uncanny, but we were so tuned-in to both styles of music. It was hip to go to The Village Gate or some other well known jazz club and listen to your favorite latin artists playing instrumental dance music for a sit-down crowd. It was equally hip to go the ballrooms – they weren’t called discotheques yet – and swing around the dance floor to the sounds of Fajardo, La Sonora Matancera with Celia Cruz, Orchestra Broadway, Pacheco and so many others. And by the way Harvey, none of those dance bands savoured any jazz influences, none whatsoever. It is my contention that the latin jazz audience tends to change every ten years or so, while the dance crowd remains true to their dance masters. There are some older dancers who still follow Orquesta Broadway around, just as they did forty years ago.
HA: Chico, I agree, and come to think of it, there wasn’t a lot of latin jazz being played in the clubs during my time. You might’ve had a headliner such as Mongo Santamaria or a Cal Tjader at The Village Gate, Birdland or Basin St. East, monsters who would always pack them in. But where else could you go hear this music? Scattered around the city you might find a few smaller clubs that weren’t really jazz venues but which would feature jazz tinged music. For example, there was a club that was located on Broadway and 53rd, near Birdland, I can’t recall the club’s name right now, Joe Loco played there quite a lot. So did Charlie Palmieri, when he still had Johnny Pacheco playing flute with him, before they became Orchestra Duboney. I don’t think that they were even a charanga band yet, but were still a big influence on me. Irving Fields was playing American tunes set to Cuban rhythms at the Plaza Hotel, and I remember hearing Noro Morales with a small group of musicians nearby. Also around at the time was the team of Damiron y Chapuseaux, who played some of the better hotel lounges in the midtown area. George Shearing did it for while as well. The sad fact is that this circuit was not really lucrative for most latin musicians, nor was it available to bands that played uncompromising dance music vis-á-vis latin jazz. The bop purists favored listening to straight ahead jazz. In spite of all this, it was quite natural for young hip New Yorkers to seek these bands out, even if it was outside the dance hall ambience. Inevitably, the fans would endure some watered down music, as long as they managed to get a taste of the hot music they loved.
CAP: What do you think happened to change this duplexity? I’m sorry to say that the rift that occurred in the sixties ultimately altered our own rigorous schedules, segregating us into separate camps, and ultimately removing those progressive icons from the mainstream spotlight. In your opinion, did that core audience change – in terms of demographics – or was it merely their tastes in music that changed? Perhaps it was the emergence of a wholly new and different way of promoting that plurality, with a strong focus on a new generation whose social values were somewhat different than their parents. What do you think?
HA: I would say all of the above, but I think that it actually began to change right around the time rock ‘n’ roll entered the picture. Chico, everything changed after rock ‘n’ roll showed up. First of all, touch dancing disappeared. I mean, is that a big enough change for you? The “twist” came in and the mambo went out the window! Everything that followed was more of the same, people were now dancing by themselves, even when they were dancing together. In the pre-rock ‘n’ roll era, couples would be in constant touch with each other and that exotic Caribbean sensuality was ever-present, via the conquest. Dancers were so focused on the romantic element that there was nothing else around that could distract them or grab their attention. Country and Western music had its audience, and opera was for opera lovers, classical music for classical music lovers etc. The pre-baby boom generation had jazz and latin music. Period. Which was why so many American vocalists eventually tried their hand at singing latin tunes, albeit mostly in English but sometimes in Spanish (ie “Nat “King” Cole en Español, Eydie Gorme with Trio Los Panchos, etc). These were the two top selling albums of the day. And many of them, now and again were very successful. The baby boomers however, [they] came of age at the time of Elvis, they were mesmerized by what was then the latest form of American pop culture. Some, like yourself, outgrew that music. Now just rewind for a minute, back to the mambo generation, to a time when you could be sitting in a club very comfortably listening to latin music – which often had many of the same elements and components that were found in jazz – or you could just as easily be mamboing your ass off, then go down the street for a nightcap and hear a small combo playing latin jazz. Suddenly at once both worlds merged beautifully. Musicians could work under the all encompassing “latin” umbrella, doubling from club to club playing this amazing variety of music on the same night, working within many shades and colors, warm, cool and hot. Musicians today cannot find or experience work like that, not any more.
CAP: So you think that it was rock ‘n’ roll that destroyed latin music – or at least latin music as you knew it – right?
HA: Yeah, I think it did, but you know what? In a way I’m happier – in the long run – even though I think we all suffered financially. There was a period there when we really were hurting. I guess it was just time to move on, even though many of us weren’t ready for that kind of change.
CAP: Hold that thought for a minute Harvey, and ponder on this. If it had it not been for rock ‘n’ roll and soul music, then perhaps there wouldn’t have been anything resembling your first hit “My Dream”, Hector Rivera’s “At The Party” or Joe Cuba’s “Bang Bang”?
HA: I understand all that, and they say that change is growth. But listen Chico, when I started my company I didn’t record anything like that. I was in love head over heels with the really typical latin music, and all that other stuff was just business. I was compelled to go into that fusionistic field because a responsible artist must satisfy and accommodate a minimum of two requirements, and often times this can be extremely tricky stuff. Simply put, this is called the “music business”, and it is no different than any other business. So initially we have to be uncompromisingly true to ourselves while at the same time be cognizant of the demands of the market place – aka our audience. Whereas when I did my own thing I followed my heart. Prior to and including all that latin-rock-soul fusion stuff, I had very little contact with the latino public. We – that is the Arvito band – played mostly for the anglo crowd, unless of course some audacious and spirited latinos dared go to an American dance at some swanky hotel like the Statler Hilton, The Plaza, Vanderbilt, Riverside Plaza, Diplomat, Astor or the Roosevelt, etc. When they got there they would find us alternating with big name bands like Tito Rodriguez, Joe Cuba, Tito Puente, La Playa Sextet, etc. Listen Chico, these guys all made a lot of money catering to anglo tastes, which essentially was the same as the latino taste, at least until the advent of rock ‘n’ roll and soul music. To a certain degree, what separated the two audiences was economics, although it was also a matter of feeling “comfortable” with one’s own culture and people. Hispanics back then were more likely be going to the Caborojeño to hear Cortijo, Moncho Leña, etc. When we lost the anglo audience – and they were gone in a flash man, I never saw anything disappear so quickly in my life – we lost our main source of income. That’s when we began to toy around with all those new, up and coming fusionistic fads like latin boogaloo, etc. Typical latin music was becoming more lyrical too, taking more of a story-telling form, like what Motown was doing. No more simple lyrics that anglos could easily pronounce. Spanish was taking over once again, thank God! Now we had an authentically latin audience, the people for whom this music was originally created. Artists like Cortijo, Beny Moré, Fajardo and Orquesta Aragón never created music for anglos. They lived in Spanish speaking countries, so their songs were geared toward people who understood the message. That’s why instrumentals went over so big in the United States. Suddenly, we began catering to that same authentic latin music loving audience, and it was only natural that we do so.
CAP: What about the West Coast? Did the latin bands also cater to the anglos out there?
HA: No, not really. Whenever we got booked out there we found ourselves playing mostly for Mexicans who really loved Caribbean style salsa. When the hybrid music began to take hold, we found a receptive audience in the Chicano barrios. I’m talking specifically about those baby boomers who dug listening to Joe Bataan’s “Gypsy Woman”/”Subway Joe”, Harvey Averne’s “Accept Me”/”My Dream” or Ralphy Pagan’s “I Want To Make It With You”. It’s ironic but that song -which I produced and mixed- did as well out there as it did here in New York and the rest of the East Coast. In my opinion though, I think the West Coast never really caught up to New York in terms of playing latin music for a purely dance crowd. I mean you can hear it in their recordings. They lack a certain spark and their rhythm doesn’t revolve around the montuno as much, meaning that they are not “locked-in” to the clave. They just don’t have that soul sauce (salsa) like we do [here] in New York. Yes, there are exceptions, of that I’m sure.
CAP: Well yes, there were exceptions. There was a brief period in which pianists like Eddie Cano, Rene Touzet and even Cal Tjader were playing some very good latin jazz, albeit as dance music, and then it sort of fizzled, replaced by the harder edged rock style of Santana, Malo, Azteca and El Chicano. Was this a parody to what was occurring in New York?
HA: Sure, we went through our own period of Latin Rock. For example, the Harvey Averne Barrio Band, Toro and Seguida. But the reality is that the West Coast bands were much better at playing that style of music than we were. This was because our brains were hard-wired to real latin music. Our music had a much stronger Afro-Cuban foundation to it. Sure, we played around with other influences, but we always stayed true to our roots even if it was subconsciously. You couldn’t get our kind of groove to catch on out there, not by simply having a New York latin band go out there for a couple of days, maybe a week and then leave. Not back then anyway. You really needed a movement to spring up, like it did in Cali, Colombia. Even when some of our homegrown guys like Pete Bonet for example moved out there, it still didn’t happen. Now dig this Chico, one of New York’s finest – and I’m not talking police here – I mean Oscar Hernandez, the pianist and leader of the Grammy winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra has been living in L.A. for more than three years. If he can’t light a fire out there with that band, then as we say in Italian, “fugetaboutit!” All of our leading exponents were home-grown, born and bred here, second and third generation caribeños. And more importantly, the West Coast didn’t have the strong radio airplay that we did. Nor did they have home-based labels like Fania, Coco, Rico/Combo, etc. to push their artists to the max.
CAP: True, and we also had some really hip radio people as well.
HA: Right! Radio personalities like Dick “Ricardo” Sugar, Symphony Sid, Joe Gaines, Felipe Luciano and Roger Dawson always played the “salsa” hits of the moment, along with the “classics”. Even though there were some stations out there that played our music as well, airtime was limited to a small amount of hours a day, two or three times a week. A good guy to ask about that would be Bill Marin, who was a helluva radio promotion man for Fania and Coco. Bill was based in Los Angeles. I discovered him while I was running Fania and managing Ralphy Pagan. All of a sudden a small record store in downtown LA was ordering Fania releases way out of proportion for a small West Coast record store. I remember that we were scheduled to perform on “Soul Train” that week. After I had checked into the Chateau Marmont Hotel, I headed over to Doran’s record store. I nonchalantly walked in, without announcing myself and almost immediately I overheard this passionate young man talking us up to a couple of young ladies. Bill loved our music and was spreading the word, getting our records played and talking the local promoters into bringing us out to southern California. We didn’t know it at the time, but Bill was the reason Ralphy Pagan was playing the Hollywood Palladium. Afterwards, he helped hook us up with some additional work on the outskirts of Los Angeles, in small urban towns, mostly marginalized areas where the poorest working people lived. These were predominantly Mexicans and Chicanos (a term originally used by, and in reference to U.S. citizens of Mexican descent). That’s where we really found our core audience. We were playing in gymnasium type rooms, big catering halls, small night clubs and sometimes even in minor league baseball stadiums. When latin music moved into the seventies it all changed up on us again, especially in New York. By this time we here on the East Coast had our own 24-hour “hispanic” AM radio stations and disc jockeys like Polito Vega and Paco Navarro, speaking only in Spanish and playing our music to the hard-core latino audience. Our anglo-oriented world was radically changing, once again.