THE INTERVIEW – Part III – August, 2008 – April, 2009:
Conversations Between CHICO ALVAREZ PERAZA and HARVEY AVERNE
CAP: I have noticed that today’s latin jazz is so much more diverse than it was back then. Of course, we could say that the musicians in New York picked up where the Cubans had left off, but that would be speculating. It’s my contention that the Cubans were not alone in their endeavor, and that various ethnic groups were also responsible for the development of this hybrid music. For example, I have recently been enlightened as to just how much American Jews have contributed to the dissemination of what we latinos stubbornly refer to as “our music”. Virtually no credit is given to them (nor to Afro-Americans for that matter). The borscht belt is but one piece of the puzzle, I suppose. And no one has yet to examine the South American influences. Still, the genesis of it all can be found in the Havana-New Orleans connection. Having said that – and with a bit of indignation – I can’t help but wonder what brilliant elitist-wanna-be-genius-authority-on-latin-music mind has now come up with the idea that “El Barrio” is the birthplace of “latin jazz”. This kind of irresponsible writing only serves to create more confusion and propagate certain myths, not to mention that it totally misinforms the very gullible younger generation. I am quite sure that “regionalism” will once again rear its ugly head on this matter.
HA: Chico, this is deep. Let me just say that without Cuban music and American jazz we would not have anything resembling latin jazz, but I have to say that Harlem did play a major role in its development. For me, that’s where it all came together. Up until this day if you walk down the streets of El Barrio on a nice day and listen to the music coming from the cars, apartments and shops you will notice that it is not the sounds of latin jazz that you hear (for the most part anyway). Do the same walk in Harlem and you will find that the Afro-Cuban Jazz influence there is much stronger.
CAP: Harvey, when it comes to Afro-Cuban Jazz, we both know that it’s not just about the Cubans, but the revisionists are nonetheless working overtime to “set the record straight” as they say. They want to prove that everything comes out of New York, and that Spanish Harlem is the epicenter of everything “latino”. What these self-proclaimed musicologists fail to see is that this music had already gone through its own cultural metamorphosis – long before they even heard of it. Fernando Ortiz coined the phrase “transculturation” and he traced the seeds of that process to places like New Orleans, Havana, Veracruz, Cartagena, Caracas, Paris etc. Perez Prado may have produced his jazzed-up version of the “mambo” while in Mexico and the Harlemites may have given the music a new name – “Cubop” – but by that time it was thoroughly documented (through films and recordings) as Cuba’s “popular” music. The earliest forms have been preserved for posterity, available as we speak on youtube.com and illustrated in academically well-edited books. And I’m not talking about your local Mickey Mouse cub reporter types either, I’m referring to all those eyewitnesses who “lived” the experience and who are a lot more knowledgeable than the sabelotodos who are just beginning to get their feet wet. There are a few writers who are really trying to get it right, no doubt. But they only scratch the surface. Back in the day – I’m talking pre-Fania here – we had some real scholars. They did their homework, putting in long hours of research, meeting with and interviewing the progenitors. So you see, there is indeed a consensus of opinion among educators that we had visionaries in both countries (USA and Cuba) who had been merging these two musical worlds since the early part of the twentieth century. The problem is that the main focus has (always) been on the Chano Pozo/Dizzy Gillespie/Mario Bauza/Machito collaborations. Sadly, after the 1962 trade embargo the cultural interplay between the two countries was no longer available. The late Louie Ramirez and I spoke at length about this. As you know, his uncle was the great pianist Joe Loco. I don’t know, is it just me, or did you also notice that after they shut down Cuba, latin jazz began to diminish in popularity.
HA: You are correct Chico. And I do see where you’re coming from. Your dislike for the “authoritarian” know-it-all types is only equal to my utter disdain for “traditionalists” (not to be confused with “tradition”, which I deeply respect). After the embargo, latin jazz was sort of relegated to maybe a handful of artists who really pushed it to the max. It was hip music, and mostly stayed within the realm of dance rhythms, so it’s appeal was far more universal than straight ahead traditional and very improvisational jazz. And it wasn’t ethnically restricted, I would say it was actually inclusive. On the other hand, straight ahead jazz got way too elitist. Jazz fans, for the most part are really an elitist and closed minded bunch. Yeah, they love the music, but rather than nurture it, they stiffle it. They have evolved into the sabelotodo/anti-change/anti-growth/anti/experimentation “traditionalist” group (if I stated this before, screw it, let them hear it again, it deserves repeating, because repetition is their mantra and their way of life any damned way).
CAP: Pretty strong words, Harvey. Looks like it’s you who are starting to go deep now.
HA: I know, but it’s true. Look, any time that a jazz artist deviated from traditional jazz and experimented, as was the case in Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” album for example, they were brutally attacked by the whole entire “traditionalist” jazz establishment, including their so-called “jazz fans”. Some are in a way like the elitist Upper West Side New York Times loving type book crowd (only certain books and writing styles are acceptable, everything else is looked down and frowned upon). The “Holier Than Thou”, high and mighty intellectual set. The bullshit is even worse in the art field, those poor bastards had to starve, cut off their ears, die and be buried in the ground -for God knows how long- before their art became fashionable, sold in the auction houses and galleries and later displayed in the museums of the world. The upper echelon snobbish assholes who made the artist’s lives a living hell wound up earning multi-millions of dollars buying, selling, and (finally) appreciating the artist’s work. In turn, the real artists leave our world penniless, feeling insecure and insignificant. They die wondering if their life’s work was valid or had some meaning, or whether it was of less than minor importance. I’m sure Vincent Van Gogh (wherever he is) must be grateful for the adoration and love bestowed on him now, even if it is just a little late, don’t you think? At least he had the interest, love, encouragement and support from his brother Theo. Some never even get that.
CAP: Well Mr. Averne, you are as they say “pulling no punches” today.
HA: Chico, I’m going for the TKO on this one. Allow me to personally thank the “traditionalist establishment” of the various art forms on behalf of all the dead composers, artists, musicians, playwrights, authors, etc. who lived miserable sub-standard lives waiting for that much delayed societal approval. The way that our new talent is treated, encouraged and nurtured is inane and completely unforgivable as far as I’m concerned. History proves that from the beginning of time our society has had an innate fear of any new or different ideas in regards to science, philosophy, religion, basic freedoms etc. Remember Columbus and the world is flat scenario? And Freud’s theories of the human subconscious and the sexual instincts of man? Old Sigmund really shook up western civilization, and for this he paid dearly. And, if my memory serves me correctly Galileo lived out his final years under house arrest for the invention of the telescope. How fucked up is that Chico?
CAP: It’s as bad as it gets, I guess.
HA: Having said that, allow me to once again cite the Miles Davis “Bitches Brew” album as the perfect example. My brother is a worshipper of all things traditional. Period. He is an “only traditional jazz will do” type jazz lover and a former saxophonist. As a “traditionalist” he still hasn’t forgiven Miles for going electric on that album. All Miles did was plug some electric cords into a socket and experiment with some new sounds that he was hearing in that genius brain of his. Mind you, it was all about the instruments, albeit electric, played by great musicians requiring no less expertise or talent than on the acoustic instruments. God forbid we should allow that fact into the equation. Simply put, no new instruments or sounds would be permitted. The innovators were put on notice.
CAP: The “audacity of change” – to borrow a line from president Obama.
HA: Yes, and for that Sir Miles Davis was vilified and crucified. That’s right, I’m talking about Mr. Miles Davis, the ultimate non-comformist. “How dare he betray us”! Was he also expected to die frustrated, driven mad by conformity? I highly recomend reading a short piece by Maya Angelou entitled “Haters”.
CAP: I happen to think that “Bitches Brew” is a perfect example of what you’re talking about Harvey, although every one of Miles’ albums was a “first”.
HA: Of course they were. But to the best of my knowledge that was Miles’ biggest album ever. Even more importantly, “Bitches Brew” brought so many new fans to jazz music, which it desperately needed then, needs now and will always need. It was that same “traditionalist” elitist mentality that loved the Buena Vista Social Club to the exclusion of all the other Cuban and Latin bands. The same crowd that couldn’t see past Buena Vista and appreciate the great bands from New York, Cuba and the Caribbean. It was musicians like Eddie Palmieri, Adalberto Alvarez, Papo Lucca, Eddie Zervigon, Larry Harlow, etc. who brought something fresh into the traditional Cuban repertoire. They built upon that traditional foundation, and never lost site of its roots. Their respect for the old masters such as Arsenio Rodriguez, Fajardo, Lilí Martinez, Aragón, etc. came through in every record they ever made. What Buenavista did was a complete about face, that is to say that they actually took it way back in time, to the roots, which was beautiful in its own right. No one ever knocked what they did, on the contrary we all respect them greatly for giving us that foundation. But we must also acknowledge that there are many new artists who continue to build upon that foundation, thereby enhancing our traditional values. I think that it is an affront to those values to create a musical time freeze within which all refinement or experimentation cannot be respectfully encouraged or analyzed with an open mind. That which cannot be permitted to evolve will surely decay over time. To block the most creative minds in our talent pool is to sentence them (and us) to a life of repetition in an ever changing world. Granted, every new and different idea throughout man’s history began its journey crudely, rough around the edges, much like we all do at the beginning of our lives. Hopefully, with proper education and encouragement we can become valuable contributing members of society. This is something that the”traditionalists” can’t seem to get straight!
CAP: I see what you mean Harvey, but still, these so called “elitists” were not then and are certainly not now in the majority, they are and always will be a minority.
HA: Yes, but they have amazing power and are very influential in political and economic circles. Also with the media as well. I think Buena Vista’s debut album did approximately a million units. It was that elitist minority who initially supported Buenavista and who eventually pulled the latino audience into it, but that was way later. Let me point something out to you and the readers. Initially, Buena Vista Social Club was a very interesting promotional concept that began to snowball beautifully according to plan. Long before the movie ever came out it was a home run. People (and they know who they are) who never called me to discuss any specific musical work were now calling to tell me about this fabulous Cuban group and this great new album that they had purchased at Barnes & Noble or Borders. The album was beautifully executed, but musically speaking there was absolutely nothing new about it except the addition of American pop artist Ry Cooder and his twangy Hawaiian guitar sound. To me the most remarkable achievement was that some 1000 plus years of Cuban historical talent was still able to perform in the studio and on stage so well. More than fifty years ago Harlow and I were learning our craft listening to the same music and loving it while growing up in Brooklyn. Buenavista was a resurgence that turned into a grass roots word of mouth movement and a promotion campaign of the highest degree. First of all, the word was out that Buenavista would never get any airplay because the stateside Cuban owned radio stations and the Spanish media would boycott them as they did every other artist from Cuba. Therefore, Nonesuch Records didn’t waste any money on traditional promotional methods, not a dime was spent on radio promotion or TV. Instead, they spent their initial promotional budget at Barnes & Noble, Borders book stores, Starbucks, etc., places where the intellectual bunch go to read, buy books and music or just drink coffee. That was exactly how they started to promote this group’s album. Secondly, there was a political angle to it as well, which helped sell the concept. Can you imagine this? Here we have a group of senior Cuban artists who had long been discarded and forgotten in their own homeland and who were not being formally recognized in the USA because of the dreaded embargo! It seemed to be the politically correct thing to write about then, and would be even more appropriate now. Their story received a lot of ink, in the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, etc. It was a great story, very romantic. The musicians themselves were very good, and then you had an icon like Ry Cooder promoting them as well. Cooder was the brains behind the whole thing and I’m not surprised that a non-latino had the vision and was responsible for the success of the project. Often times it takes an outsider to see something that those who are in the middle of it all cannot. Kind of like the old “you can’t see the forest for the trees” syndrome. Initially and for a good while, the CD sold mostly in book stores, etc. and very little in record stores and other outlets. Little by little it mushroomed into a monster seller. Of course, when the record and big box stores saw how well it was selling, they picked up on it and immediately stocked it.
CAP: I can understand the analogy here, but this was long after the demise of latin jazz. It seems odd to me that you would cite the jazz purists exclusively, as I do recall that it was those same purists who fell head over heels in love with Machito’s Roulette recording of “Kenya”, which remains to this day a classic piece of music and a prime example of how well fusion can work. In contrast to what you have said, the “latino music purists” of that era (for lack of a better word) rejected that album totally (at that time). The rejection worked in reverse. In regards to that type of purism, they were no better than the jazz elitists that you have mentioned here Harvey. And there were other factors involved. First and foremost, I think, the “salsa” boom overshadowed latin jazz, even though many salsa bands still played it somewhat. Subsequently we had all these other modalities which came later, such as merengue house, funk, disco, reggaeton, etc., and even the newly arrived timba, which is nothing more than old school funk with a lot of Afro-Cuban percussion and jazz/rap vocals added on top. Each one of these fads has taken their toll, and has invariably swayed the listener’s attention away from latin jazz. While we baby boomers still remember it fondly, the now generation does not seem to care much about it. Let’s look at some of the causes for that, from your perspective that is.
HA: Okay. Initially, Jerry Massucci was one of the main causes, at least I have to think so.You see, Fania was like Motown in many ways. Motown started out black, then it changed its focus and its image within the genre. Fania on the other hand created an image. In its own way, it was a movement, even stronger I think in latin music than Motown was in r&b/soul, where you still had Atlantic, Stax/Volt and all the other labels competing within that market and genre. Even so, it is the Motown sound that to this day remains the most powerful force ever from the genre of black American music, as evidenced by how much Motown material we hear every day in movies, TV radio, commercials, compilation albums etc. And so it is with Fania – only to a lesser degree – because it is a musical and ethnic niche that could never captivate the anglo mainstream.
CAP: Why so?
HA: Too much prejudice still abounds in our country. Yet “Our Latin Thing” remains so amazingly resilient and powerful in the “latin” world and beyond. Motown and Fania were very similar in that they both signed younger artists and had more of a street sound. Even with the established artists like Pacheco, Harlow and Barretto, it was a very young Willie Colon with Hector Lavoe, Ruben Blades and later on Ismael Miranda who sold the most units.To have been on Fania was and remains a prestigious thing. People would go into a record store and ask: “what’s new on Fania?” and still do because of all the excellent compilations that are being released every month.
CAP: A very popular and influential label indeed, but there were two other latin labels who were competing strongly with Fania as well, weren’t there? Caytronics and your own label, Coco.
HA: Yes, and I’ve been told that collectors, audiophiles and hard-core latin music lovers did something similar with my label. They would go into a record store and buy almost everything new that came out on Coco. I think that this was because the quality of Coco’s productions and our much smaller carefully chosen artist roster. We had built a trusting relationship with our audience and the radio. The expectation was that if it was on Coco it had to be good. My label had to go to tremendous extremes to be different than Fania, which we did intentionally and I thank God to a great degree it worked.
CAP: And Caytronics?
HA: Truthfully, Caytronics never really got that big with the young crowd anyway. Joe Cayre was a brilliant business man, and he made out like a bandit by licensing product from RCA, Columbia, Ariola, and other companies from abroad as well, displaying and selling his product in large big box retail outlets and chain stores around the USA and Puerto Rico. But he didn’t have the passion for the music in the same way Jerry and I did. You pretty much had to produce your own music to get “into it” the way we did. Don’t get me wrong, Joe Cayre did put out some great music on the label’s two subsidiaries, Mericana and Salsoul (ie Cachao, Roberto Torres, Chocolate and Grupo Folklorico y Experimental). His licensed product included Vicky Carr, Roberto Carlos, Camilo Sesto and the icon Julio Iglesias, who was a very big seller. The big labels at that time, RCA, Columbia, Ariola, etc. were not licensing or releasing music that their own subsidiaries were recording in all the Latin American countries and Mexico. Yes, there were three labels that were manufacturing large amounts of records, but they were all different. I was the only one who was competing with Fania big time. Caytronics had no competition at the time, amazing but true. There were other labels that popped up later on, when Coco was no longer around, but they never produced the quality of music that Coco did. I never viewed myself as a “salsa producer only”, as I produced all types of latin music. Nor did I view Coco as just a “salsa” record company. From the beginning, Coco was conceived as a full service Spanish record company, period. Even before the Eddie Palmieri fiasco, I had started to branch out. I could never understand why Morris Levy and Jerry Massucci didn’t want to encompass the full spectrum of latin music. You went into these countries and it was always the same distribution set-up, maybe some different radio stations or formats, maybe a few deejays would be mixing different genres, but the potential for sales was always there. If it was in Spanish, and it was very good, then there was no reason for me not to put it out, promote and sell it. So you see Coco was different than Fania from the gitgo, and I wanted us to be different. I could never have competed with Jerry’s beloved Fania label by releasing only “salsa” records and imitating his business model. Also important in Coco’s development was my love for all the different styles and flavors of “la musica latina”. I could never be that one dimensional. Coco had monster hits in balada (Spanish rock ballad) pop, musica folklorica and of course my beloved “salsa”.The bar that Coco set musically with “The Sun Of Latin Music” for salsa was also set for latin jazz via Cortijo’s “La Maquina Del Tiempo” (Time Machine). In latin pop the standard bearer was “Muy Amigos” featuring “Para Decir Adios”. Among the New York style charanga bands it was Orchestra Broadway’s “Pasaporte” featuring “Isla Del Encanto” that broke the mold. In Puerto Rican folkloric music it was Danny Rivera’s “Alborada”, an album that was way ahead of its time.
CAP: Seems to me that neither you nor Jerry Massucci were interested in latin jazz, am I correct?
HA: Look Chico, personally I loved it, but as a businessman I could not afford to invest time and money in such a small market, not back then, and certainly not now either. The TropiJazz label drove Ralph Mercado into bankruptcy, or at the very least it was the beginning of his problems. At one point in time I asked him: “why are you wasting your money and energy on this music that is selling so poorly?” You see we had that kind of relationship. I could talk to him, and he had respect for my opinion. I was the record man and he was the promoter. He was selling aproximately six thousand units of his top TropiJazz artists like Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri and even less on releases by Giovanni Hidalgo, etc. He showed me some numbers that made me gasp. The artwork alone on one of Giovanni’s CD’s cost him six big ones, because he had to do the cover art twice! It seems that Giovanni did not like the way the cover came out, a cover which he himself had commissioned. I said: “Ralphy, this is a losing proposition, there are very few outlets to expose this music to the public”. I mean there was only one major jazz station that was playing his artists. He told me that he always wanted to be number one in some category of the record business, and that could only happen in the latin jazz category. Maybe he loved the music enough to take the risks he was taking. I just don’t know. The reality was that these records were not selling well, and TropiJazz was consistently bleeding money. Now you might be thinking, well then, what were the reasons? Was it lack of exposure? Lack of outlets? Or simply lack of demand? When we venture into such a territory we have to be able to control these things. We have to be in control of the marketing, the distribution and the promotion in order to create the demand. You can take that any way you want to, but that’s the name of the game in the record business. So then, if we assume that he did have those things under control, what else could have resulted such low sales figures? For me, lack of demand is the only logical answer.
CAP: Are you saying then that it was the music that did itself in?
HA: Let me put it this way Chico. I think that the latin jazz of the fifties and sixties was better music, and today’s musicians are partly to blame for the lack of demand. I’m going to use this as a point of reference, when a jazz player first comes to New York, their initial work probably is going to be with the latin bands, specially if they’re horn players, but this goes for other instrumentalists also. You usually break into the New York scene by playing latin music, because there is or at least there was a lot of work in that field. That was the case in my time. Back then most of the good bands were doing doubles and triples. If you were a new guy in town and the musicians liked the way you played they would recommend you to the latin bandleaders they knew. Anyway, Chick Corea was around at that time, and I needed a piano player for a gig. Marty Sheller was playing with me and he brought Chick to play with the Arvito band a few times. Chick is a great all around player, and has had a beautiful career as a jazzman, but since those early days, he has not really done a lot of latin music, possibly none at all I would say. So, what’s been happening for too long a time is that for some reason – and I’m no expert on this – but maybe, once the artists get back into the jazz circuit they get a little too high falootin’ and never again visit their latin roots. I have always wondered about that. Certainly, Eddie Palmieri has never forsaken those roots – and remember – I haven’t heard an awful lot of latin jazz in the last few years. There aren’t a lot of places to hear it either, unless you buy a recording. I also often wonder how Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval’s jazz records are doing – sales wise that is. I know that Dave Valentin has made a bunch of records and Poncho Sanchez also records quite often. I wonder how they are really selling. That’s always in the back of my mind, because I like all that stuff, it’s really good music and I wish it would make a comeback and find an audience. But it has to be more commercial for me to get back into it, most of it just doesn’t stand up to the more melodic classic latin jazz of my era. Also Chico, you know how I hate making good musical productions that basically don’t get heard and never see the light of day.
CAP: I know, I know, and in my early days I too had my share of “tax shelters”. As far as TropiJazz is concerned though, I won’t dispute what you say Harvey, because I haven’t seen the figures. But I can say (from experience) that latin jazz is definitely a musician’s genre, and that they do support it, among themselves. You know, musicians actually buy CD’s these days. But the general public? Well that’s another story. I personally don’t think that they do, otherwise you would see and hear a lot more bands playing latin jazz and record companies recording it.
HA: Well Chico, it’s not a business then, is it? If the musicians are not hard-wired enough to incorporate both styles with recognizable elements into their repertoire and the public is not attracted to what they are playing, like the bands used to do in the old days, or like the case of the well promoted Buenavista Social Club, then maybe they deserve what is happening to them. I just don’t know. It’s hard enough for latino musicians to get their own typical music played, much less getting any of their more jazzy stuff to cross into the mainstream. Anyway, I feel the music which I produced for Coco was also very well received and respected by musicians and critics alike, even if it wasn’t all that jazz tinged. If the bands that I produced and worked with back then could do it, why can’t the bands of today do it?
CAP: Personally, I try to separate the two different musical categories. Whenever the gig calls for latin jazz, then that’s what I play, sans the vocals. If it calls for a more dance oriented music, with strong vocals then that’s what I give them, with more emphasis on the montuno and less free-blowing. Some audiences are comfortable with both styles. For the most part, the music falls into separate categories, and even the radio stations divide it up this way. It’s not like in the Palladium era, when both styles were incorporated into the repertoire, fifty-fifty, and when the radio stations featured both styles within their playlists. On my radio show of course, I do just the opposite, I mix them all up, because there are no restrictions on me, in terms of what I can or cannot play. That’s the beauty of non-commercial radio, you are not being tagged as this thing or that. At least I’m not.
HA: That was also the case in my early experiences as a bandleader. No one could pigeon-hole me. Remember that I had Marty Sheller working with my band, and he was very well versed in both styles, which meant that we had a healthy balance of both jazz and latin. Marty really knows how to get a nice blend and he incorporated that fusionistic approach again during his time with Mongo. The same thing happened with Eddie’s first band “La Perfecta”, when he had Barry Rogers playing with him. In retrospect I think that most latin bands had that kind of integrated sound, although not all of them to the same degree. But to me, the consumate latin jazz recording of my time was done by Sabu Martinez, and that was another project in which Marty was involved. It was a black cover with an illustration on the cover, I think it was a bongosero or a conga player.
CAP: You must mean “Sabu’s Jazz Espagnole”, which by the way was a commercial flop for Al Santiago’s Alegre label. Yet, it still remains a helluva recording, a classic among classics.
HA: That’s the one Chico. And I still love it, even though I haven’t heard it in thirty years. It’s my favorite latin jazz album from that time period. I think it was recorded live at Birdland, with Marty Sheller playing trumpet solos and doing some of the killer charts. I even think Frank Malabe and Bobby Porcelli were in the band, and Symphony Sid had something to do with it as the announcer on the recording. It’s been a long time since, but I know that both Marty and Frankie were in the Arvito band at a very young age prior to that recording, so I guess my ability to spot young up and coming talent has always been an important element in my career. My active search for new talent continued long after my performing days were over and still continues. It always gives me great pleasure to discover new and talented artists. Believe me when I say that I can appreciate both Al Santiago’s and Ralph Mercado’s willingness to record this music and these artists, despite taking a financial beating by doing so. We all loved this music, and we all made some records that didn’t sell well, but made us feel warm inside. That’s the nature of the beast. But we must always try to remember that we are in the music and record business and we have the same problems, responsibilities and obligations as every other business.
CAP: I take it then that the TropiJazz label was not successful in its endeavor, correct?
HA: Correct. But don’t take my word for it, I would ask Eddie Rodriguez if I were you, he practically ran that label. He knows the figures, but I can tell you right now that very few of those albums ever sold six thousand units, if they ever got that high and most sold a lot less. All those albums cost way too much to produce, considering the soft sales potential, there was just no profit coming in. The lesser known artists sold even less copies. What they did was create a resurgence among the musicians who loved to play that music. The reality is that latin jazz was something that Ralphy liked and he wanted to do right by it. If the major labels would have decided to invest in that music then he would have never been number one in latin jazz. He cornered the market so to speak, but the market betrayed him, and it was only good to a handful of artists, those who had the big names made their money on the gigs. What happened to Ralph Mercado was not unique, other latin jazz labels met the same fate.
CAP: In your opinion, what would bring back latin jazz to the point where it was in the sixties? Please sum up this whole phenomenon for us, if you will. (Harvey pauses for a long moment)
HA: Maybe some good songs, by this I mean “hit” songs. Material that is really musically sound to begin with – not necessarily original – but hey, enough with the standards already. Something that has the attraction of a “Watermelon Man” or a “Mas Que Nada”, something with a really good commercial hook. You know, everything doesn’t have to be instrumental. A lot of these artists are really just showing off their chops, and they don’t take into consideration that the audience may not want to hear a fifteen minute solo. Why not make the solos shorter, and don’t start blowin’ right away. Constructing a good performance is like romancing a woman. The first thing to come out of your mouth should not be “hey baby, let’s jump into bed”, even if that’s what you both want to happen. No, you take her out, you have some nice conversation, you wine, you dine, you make her feel comfortable, a strong communication must be established, and then you hope that what you show her, (who you really are) creates some interest on her part. You do the same thing with an audience, and it doesn’t matter whether they are a jazz audience or not. You first have to find your audience and then meet them at their level. Then you take them step by step on a musical journey with you. Don’t just play for your own enjoyment or to impress other musicians, play to the audience and to the guys in the band. If you do your best to please them, then hopefully they will feel your good vibes and follow your lead. By the way, this holds true for any kind of music. You can’t just hit ’em on the head and say “dig this, I’m bad”! The last thing you want to do is act like an arrogant putz– (that’s Jewish for jerk) – and don’t disrespect them afterwards by implying “wow, this was a great album and nobody bought it – it was way over their heads and that’s why it didn’t sell”. It’s so easy to blame the audience for everything. “People don’t know shit” is a phrase that I’ve heard come out of musicians mouths a hundred or more times. In my own case, I messed up big time with “La Maquina Del Tiempo” (Time Machine), because I didn’t think about the audience. Chico, I was in musical lala land, totally enchanted by the music and the charts, in fact I was so into it that I forgot about the audience. I still have mixed emotions about it, because even though everyone always compliments me on the album (including my production and mixing), in addition to the wonderful job that the musicians did, I know that I could have done more to widen its appeal. In fact I met this week with Tony Moreno and Juan Hidalgo of MP/JN about fixing UP that album.
CAP: You once said to me that no one could dance to Cortijo’s “Time Machine” because it was too fast. So then isn’t that an equally important element, if not the main element in latin jazz, the not-so-secret ingredient that made the latin jazz of the sixties so popular?
HA: True, it appears to be a very important element, but I’m not so sure that it’s the main element. Take a great artist like Dave Valentin for example, he probably won’t appeal to a strictly dance crowd. You see, if Dave is constructing his music specifically for a concert jazz audience, remember he is first and foremost a great flautist and primarily a jazz artist. As such I think he would tend to downplay the danceability part of it. The latin undercurrent is there, because no latino ever forsakes his or her roots completely, but it doesn’t play a dominant role. Straight ahead “salsa” artists on the other hand use a minimal amount of jazz elements on top (mainly in the harmonies and phrasing) but keep the basic clave foundation intact. With “Watermelon Man”, “Soul Sauce”, “Cuban Nightmare”, “Mambo Inn”, “Manteca”, “El Mundo De Las Locas”, etc. you had a more even kind of mix. Mongo, Cal, Machito, Mario, Dizzy and both Titos were geniuses at perfectly blending the two worlds, so their music was more of a fifty-fifty proposition. And while I still think fondly of the Sabu album, it’s been so long since I’ve actually heard it that, well who knows, maybe I might not even include it among my favorites today. So much has transpired since then, decades of jazz tinged music has been recorded, plus I’ve grown musically as well. I’d like to listen to it again and re-evaluate it. Hey, Bobby Marin or somebody out there, please send me a copy (laughter).
CAP: While we are on the subject of geniuses Harvey, mustn’t leave out those two bulwarks of the musical score sheet, Mr. Rene Hernandez and Mr. Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill.
HA: No way would I leave them out. They were both giants in their own right. Even though I never had the opportunity to work with Chico O’Farrill I loved the work he did with other artists. Unfortunately, he did not live in New York at that time, although I’m sure that his genius would have eventually wound up on the Coco label, in one way or another, had not the label gone under. I did however, have an ongoing artistic andpersonal relationship with Rene Hernandez. I bumped into him while he was living in Puerto Rico, right after his television gig in San Juan with Tito Rodriguez had ended. Both Eddie and I instinctively knew that Rene was the man we needed for our next project together. I must tell you, watching Rene Hernandez and Eddie Palmieri collaborate on an arrangement was really something to behold. It was an honor for me to be present in the same room [and] working with these guys. They would play off each others ideas, [and] it was more than just a give and take situation. It was like an exquisite meeting of the minds. Rene was a master arranger, quite experienced, with a proven track record[,] and a very humble man indeed. He was a keen observer who patiently “listened” to you and understood exactly what you needed. I don’t think any other arranger ever understood Eddie Palmieri the way Rene did, he was amazingly respectful of Eddie’s input. An unorthodox chord here, a few notes added there, a break that was originally not even supposed to happen, and so forth and so on. Often, a particular idea by one of them would spark the other’s imagination, igniting each other’s creativity and before you knew it –voilá!– it was like witnessing music at its inception, in its purest form. The music they created was so magical. Together, they constructed many a masterpiece. I’m very happy that you brought him up Chico. Neither Eddie, Coco nor I have ever completely recovered from the blow of Rene’s demise. The only real big hit that Eddie had after Coco was “El Dia Que Me Quieras” (on Fania), sung by the great Cheo Feliciano. Not surprisingly, that too was a Rene Hernandez arrangement, and one that Eddie had been holding onto for a long time. Rene’s legacy is preserved not only on that classic tango/salsa number, but on many of Coco’s Grammy winning recordings, as well as hundreds of other albums, for posterity.
CAP: Besides “Unfinished Masterpiece”, were there any other incidents that would go down as unsavory or unusual, in your opinion?
HA: There was this one night of negotiation with Ismael Rivera in a bar in La Perla, Puerto Rico. I was preparing to produce Cortijo y Su Combo Original’s “Juntos Otra Vez”. It would be a live concert and album recorded at Roberto Clemente Coliseo in PR. Ismael got mad at me because I wouldn’t give in to his insane money demands and he left me stranded, alone in a part of town that no gringo should ever be in by himself. I looked around and as my heart began to race, I knew I had to think fast. I started playing music on the juke box – Cortijo, Harlow, El Gran Combo, La Lupe, Danny Rivera, Celia Cruz, Eddie Palmieri, Hector Lavoe, Willy, Andy, Pellin, Miranda, etc. – all the people that I had worked with or knew in the past. My knowledge of the music, the lyrics, my bar top conga drumming (breaks and all) and my coro singing probably saved my ass. Buying a few rounds for everyone probably didn’t hurt either (laughter). When Ismael came back a couple of hours later he expected to find a desperate record executive who was ready to give in to his outrageous demands. Instead we all welcomed him to the party! He laughed and said: “Harvey, you sanamambíche”. The negotiations were over right there, without another word being spoken. I thanked him, we shook hands and I handed him the bar tab. Chico, the look on Ismael’s face, I know you can see this picture in your mind’s eye, because you have to know him to appreciate this. His smile turned to a look of amazed disbelief and then as his anger was about to explode, I started laughing and told him that I had already paid it. This is not just another one of your everyday “Salsa Saves A Jew” stories, this is a part of latin music history.
CAP: So then it wasn’t all that bad, right? Fun was surely had by all who knew and loved this music. What happened then? To stifle the growth of such an up and coming label?
HA: Chico, no one knows the real behind the scenes stories like I do. I will simply state here for the record, in my own quotable words that there had to have been a deal cut between my dishonest scheming partner (who was in charge of administration and distribution) and a certain crooked shoe salesman turned 10th Avenue distributer, probably using an east coast manufacturing plant’s back door to rip off Coco at it’s peak moment of success (we had the biggest receivables due for a 4th quarter during the 1977 Christmas season or any 12 week period in our history). There were, for example, altered check alerts from my bank, and bookeeper and accountant discrepancies. I still don’t know how I got caught up in it, I was an idiot to let my artists and myself down. We all got screwed and I blame myself for not seeing the handwriting on the wall and for not looking over my shoulder. Too busy I guess. Just as disco music was putting a stranglehold on “salsa”, Coco Records went belly up – Chapter Eleven. I was just beginning to take off and go full speed ahead with Coco, and it was over in a flash. Puff! What a terrible waste and an unnecessary tragedy. In the final stages of the conspiracy, Audio Fidelity Enterprises bought Coco out of bankruptcy for only $70,000, my ex-partner stayed on with them and ran the label into the ground for the second time. Audio Fidelity owner Danny Pugliese met me once at the Casino in Cannes and informed me that he had been hoodwinked, and that he had no idea that I was the whole show at Coco and that my partner didn’t know which end was up.
CAP: And after that?
HA: I hung in there, doing Euro/Disco productions while living in Paris and Belgium, I even had a few international disco hits as producer and mixer. I worked with Regine and Patrick Hernandez of “Born To Be Alive” fame, etc. But my heart was always in my latin music. My accumulative experience as President and/or General Manager running labels such as Fania, Vaya, UA Latino, Coco, Graffitti, Gala and Prism gave me an edge that most producers or executives today can’t comprehend. In my way of thinking the music is always first and foremost. If you worry about the music, it will automatically take care of everyone and everything, includingthe bottom line (as long as the money people are honest). As producers, we take credit when the record is a hit, but should also take full responsibility when it flops.
CAP: Who were some of your contemporaries in the business, those whom you viewed as “real” producers, who cared about the music and the bottom line, groundbreakers whom you admired or liked their work? Your favorites, if you will.
HA: Before I answer let me just say this, a real producer should never think about the bottom line, because it’s not really ours. We should only think about the music, and making hit records that will ultimately create dollars, never forgetting for a moment that it’s the fans that we are trying to seduce with our humble efforts. I don’t equate the two. Do you?
CAP: No, but that doesn’t mean that I like to throw away my money, just for the sake of art. It is after all, a business.
HA: Chico you are so right. Ultimately, it has to be about the bottom line, but it’s not the main reason that we go into the music business. We do it to produce music that the public loves, and they in turn show us some love by buying our records. This is our life’s work and the way we reap the rewards. Everything takes care of itself if you sell product, a producer doesn’t worry about the bottom line anymore than Joe Torre worried about the Yankees’ bottom line. Ball players worry about banging out homers, striking out the other players and winning games. We producers worry about producing hit records and that ultimately benefits everyone involved. Let Universal, Sony, BMG, EMI, Warners, etc. worry about the bottom line, it’s never been talent’s problem. We just want to do great music and get paid well for our work. Yeah, that’s the ticket, to make some money, and of course keep the music real. If I may Chico, I’d like to describe to you and your readers what ecstacy is to Harvey Averne. It’s turning on the radio, flipping the dial to three or four stations to find that they are all playing the same song, my song. My friend, that’s even better than sex.
CAP: I can really relate to that Harvey, except maybe about the sex part (laughter). But all kidding aside, who are your favorite producers?
HA: There were some producers who really took chances and tried to do something different. My list includes Sergio George, Ramon Sanchez, Al Santiago, George Goldner, Willie Colón, Barry Rogers, Don Costa, David Foster, Quincy Jones, Manuel Alejandro, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Joe Cuba, Larry Harlow, Marco Antonio Solis, Rudy Perez, Gustavo Santaolalla, Cuto Soto, Isidro Infante and of course Ray Barretto. There are many producers who do very good work that are not on this list, but I have only listed the ones who I believe tried to bring the music to the next level. If I have forgotten anyone (and I’m sure that I did) I apologize in advance. It’s hard, uncertain and even scary work to break new ground. It’s so easy to fail and even if it’s good, what will the media think about this new music? Will the public like it? What about the “don’t change a note for me, not if you care for me, stay, funny valentine, stay” crowd? Scary stuff Chico, it’s way easier to stick with tried and proven formulas. Here’s something else. You can’t worry about false deadlines – deadlines killed more productions than Al Qaeda killed people. It takes nine months to have a baby and believe me my babies are my productions. Even if you are in a hurry you can’t rush it, the baby comes out when its ready and not a moment before. The illusive pursuit of perfection is maddening. I’m sure that’s what drove Ray and it’s what drives me as well. My early work as freelance producer helped shape the way I listen to a production and how I view the business end of it. Even more important to my development was my early experience as a working musician, dating back to those first summer resort gigs. I think I see the business from every perspective and it all seems so simple. It goes something like this; until an artist makes the cash register ring, they are not important to the business. The suits can live without you, they will give you such a hard time, they won’t even return your calls. Then, when you become a star (God willing) and are creating sales and dollars, it’s your turn. It’s payback time and now you have the leverage to get even. It’s just like in the real world, only now it’s probably you who won’t return the calls. Most successful producers and artists understand exactly what I mean. I hate that about the business, but that’s the way it is.
CAP: Where does Coco stand today? I mean the catalogue that is. Certainly you’ve been out of the Coco picture since the late seventies, and the material which has been reissued just doesn’t seem to meet the standards of the original releases.
HA: Chico, your observations are on the mark. Coco was bought from AFE by Tony Moreno of MP Records in 1989, and a lot of changes were made. Tony is one of my dearest friends, and knows better than anyone the amazing care that I put into every one of my productions. When I mentioned to him that some things did not sound like the final approved masters and mixes, he told me that some album covers and masters were not necessarily the final takes and that this was what AFE ultimately delivered to him. I guess Tony did the best he could with what he received, hence the different sound and covers on some of the recordings. I feel the changes that were ultimately made distorted the historical significance of these recordings, thereby altering a musical legacy which should have never been tampered with in the first place.
CAP: Any regrets?
HA: My only regret is that I didn’t stay and fight back when things got bad. I’m not bitter, but it did get ugly and I was so angry and heartbroken that all this historic material had been screwed around with from company to company. Most of what we’ve been talking about here, my work as producer for Coco, was done in a mere five year period between 1972-1977. I was getting so much better and learning with every production. Aside from Coco, another album that deserves special mention is “Naci Para Cantar” by Lalo Rodriguez, which I produced for the EMI Latino label. It went platinum – in case you didn’t know. This was done at the height of the “salsa sensual” period, when no other type of salsa was selling. My concept was as follows, and my instructions to Ramon Sanchez and the other arrangers before charts were written – was that Lalo, like myself, were graduates of the Eddie Palmieri School of Music. I wanted hard driving dance music – “salsa dura” that would not compromise who Lalo was in any way. The results I needed had to highlight extremely melodic sweet horn fills in all the right places, melodic vocals, inspiraciones and coros, all floating like an umbrella of sweetness above the uncompromising killer rhythms that Lalo was known for. Thus, giving the illusion and feeling of being in the “salsa sensual” mode, but in reality without holding back on the swing. Lalo’s voice was good, but not in top form for this album. In spite of this, it remains for me some of my best work and certainly some of my best mixes.
CAP: That’s it?
HA: No, I got more! I regret not having been on better terms with Ralph Mercado in the end. Jerry Massucci had this vision way back in the late sixties, and no one before him ever had that kind of vision or nerve. There were some great labels before ours, fine producers and artists, but no one else had ever come up with the idea of promoting latin music/salsa on a global scale. Ralphy and I were part of that vision, and we spent a lot of time and energy planning the campaign to spread “Our Latin Thing” around the world. Jerry was more of a doer, and a gambler. This man not only had vision, he had cojones like none other. The solid foundation that Jerry built was the primary reasons for me getting into the record business. We were all together on this, albeit each in our way, contributing our own particular expertise to the “salsa” recipe. Our musical differences of opinion were many, we disagreed on moral grounds and we differed in our business practices as well, but in the end we respected what the other had contributed to the campaign, whether individually or in unison. Deep down inside, I think we knew it was going to be more exciting and fun on the way up, maybe it always is. If you put aside the millions, the Grammy’s and all the awards and the sold-out concerts, if you put aside the egos and all the trimmings of fame and fortune, the bottom line is that the three of us were major fans of the music. We each loved this music, and it gave us all so much. For each of us latin music was numero uno, the thing we lived for. The day it became “the business of music” and more than just about the music, that’s the day the fun began to die. Now that Jerry and Ralph are both gone – and they will never be replaced – of this I am sure. I know that whenever I am asked a question in regards to the beginning of the “golden era of salsa”, the kind of question that only the three of us could answer, these two giants will be in my mind and in my heart. Chico, that was the best time of my life and no matter what I’ll always be glad that I was around to enjoy it. Also, I feel blessed to have been a part of Eddie Palmieri’s success as well. It wasn’t all negative you see. He was a great inspiration to me, I loved hanging out with the man and I learned so much about latin music from him.
CAP: Kinda reminds me of that old Bob Hope song….”thanks for the memories”. You’re not going to cry are you?
HA: No, Chico I’m not. But I do want to thank them all for the memories. More than fifty years worth of great memories my man. And I can’t wait to see what the next fifty is like.
CAP: Memories notwithstanding, what does the future hold for Harvey Averne?
HA: Well, I can’t foresee the future, but at present I have a great desire to combat the problems of the record business the way I always have, with commercial concepts and musical solutions. I like all the popular music of today, but my heart’s desire would be for Tony and Juan to bring me in to work on restoring the original Coco catalogue. I believe that if they were reissued again on Coco (distributed of course by MP/J&N Sony), restoring, preserving the original mixes and keeping the original covers intact, these masterpieces would sell all over again. That would make me, along with thousands of salsa music lovers and latin music historians very happy. I bet Juan and Tony would even be ecstatic about that (Harvey smiles). Coco aside, I would welcome the opportunity to work with the right company and explore some of my new ideas and concepts. The Harvey Averne of today wants to produce great hits with exciting new artists and make albums that no music lover can live without. Just like I always did. Anyway, no matter what the future holds for me Chico, looking back at all this with you, I sure had one helluva ride.
CAP: Well, Harvey, you know what they say, it ain’t over until the bearded guy sings…or something like that… (laughter)
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