Boricua Jazz Pioneer Joseph Estevez Jr. aka Joe Loco (1921-1988)
How did the pianist JOE LOCO (Crazy Joe) acquire the nickname? Theories abound. According to Jose Mangual, Sr., “The ‘loco’ tag was hung on him around the mid-1940s after Verne Records recorded his tune, ‘Cada Loco Con Su Tema.'” Loco’s wife, Irma, begs to differ: “Joe suffered a head injury after being hit by a bus. Shortly after that, his friends began calling him ‘Loco.'” Another source suggests it was Tito Puente, who, for reasons unknown, gave him the name. Perhaps we will never know for sure, but, without question, Joe Loco was one of Latin music’s most talented and revered artists.
He was born Joseph Estevez Jr. on March 26, 1921, to Puerto Rican parents José and Frances Estevez in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. At eight, he began violin and dance lessons and participated in the Stars of the Future project run by Spanish Harlem’s La Milagrosa Church. In 1934, he left school and went on the road. According to jazz historian John Storm Roberts, “Loco started as a dancer at the Apollo Theater and appeared with the Chick Webb Orchestra (featuring Ella Fitzgerald) in the 1930s.”
In 1937 a truant officer caught up with Loco and compelled him to attend Harren High School, where he befriended the music teacher, Charles Pickells, who taught him the rudiments of the piano and trombone (multiple sources indicate Loco started out as a trombonist before switching to the piano).
Loco began his career as a pianist with the Montecino Happy Boys (1938) when the band performed in Spanish Harlem. In 1943, at the height of World War II, Frank Machito Grillo’s pianist, Frank Gilberto Ayala, was drafted and replaced by Luis Varona. Shortly after that, Varona was drafted, and Loco replaced him. According to José Mangual, “Immediately after Loco joined Machito, the band sounded different because of his solo’s. They were hot! The dancers started calling us the Latin Count Basie Orchestra.”
Two years later (1945), it was Loco’s turn to serve. While in the Air Force, he taught himself the art of arranging and wrote charts for Vincent López, Noro Morales, and Xavier Cugat among others. After his discharge, Loco and Tito Puente worked as sidemen in Fernando Álvarez’s Copacabana Samba Band. Also, the same year Loco joined Jack López’s band.
According to Max Salazar, “One evening Loco substituted for (Pupi) Campo’s pianist Al Escobar and the event turned into a spur-of-the-moment event. Loco’s piano was searing hot, Tito Puente’s timbal and Johnny ‘La Vaca’ Rodriguez’s cascara made for an exciting, exotic sound that created delirium.” Fortunately, someone had the wherewithal to record the performance for posterity. The result is the rare album, Pupi Campo’s Latin Dance Party (Seeco, 1948).
Loco took part in another historical event at the Park Palace on 110th Street and Fifth Avenue when he composed twenty original tunes, directed Julio Andino’s Orchestra, and challenged the Machito Orchestra to a duel. “It was a David and Goliath battle,” says Salazar, “except Machito was not slain.” In spite of the loss, Andino’s orchestra made a good showing.
In 1951, Loco’s trio made his first recordings for Tico Records. Shortly after that, George Goldner scheduled a recording session for Tito Rodríguez. When Rodríguez came down with laryngitis, Goldner salvaged the session by recording Loco’s trio. The song “Tenderly” was a hit, and Goldner offered him a recording contract.
Loco also worked in jazz clubs such as the Blue Note, Denver’s Melody Lounge, the Apollo Theater, and Birdland, which transmitted Loco’s live performances via radio. Moreover, he participated in the Mambo USA Tour, which sold-out Carnegie Hall and traveled to 56 cities.
At one point, unhappy with royalties, Loco confronted Goldner, who wisely granted him permission to record for Columbia Records in exchange for a percentage of record sales.
In 1959, Loco and his family relocated to Los Angeles. The same year, The Pete Terrace Quintet released the album Going Loco. Also, to satisfy the Pachanga craze, Fantasy released Pachanga with Loco. Over the years Loco also recorded for the labels GNP (Gene Norman Presents) and Orfeon.
By 1967, it was evident Loco was losing his edge. “This was painfully evident on the album Puerto Rico 67,” says Salazar, “where it seemed that Loco’s fiery piano solos were a thing of the past.” Around the same time, Loco separated from his wife and partnered with Charlie Palmieri and Tito Puente, and formed the music-arranging company, Bandaide.
In 1968, Loco moved to Puerto Rico and took advantage of San Juan’s booming hotel scene. Also, he founded The Loco Recording and Publishing Companies and performed at a variety of nightclubs in San Juan.
Joe Loco succumbed to diabetes on February 18, 1988. A veteran of World War II, Loco’s grave is located in Bayamón’s military cemetery, where his tombstone reads: “U.S. Army Corporal, Joseph Esteves Vargas.”
Boricua Jazz Pioneer Joe Loco was a consummate musician, showman, and a significant figure in the development of Latin music, jazz, and Latin jazz. Thankfully, his body of work is available on a broad variety of digital platforms and YouTube.
• discogs.com – Joe Loco discography
• Roberts, John Storm – Latin Jazz – The First Fusions, the 1880s to Today (Schirmer Books, 1999)
• Salazar, Max – Mambo Kingdom – Latin Music in New York (Schirmer Trade Books, 2002)
• Serrano, Basilio – Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz – 1900-1939 – Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz (iUniverse, 2015)
© 2020 Tomas Peña
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Tribute to the Masters: Mario Rivera
Mario Rivera was a gifted musician, composer and arranger that played more than 15 instruments, which included piano, vibraphone, drums, trumpet, timbales, congas, flute, and piccolo. But Rivera was known for how he kissed and caressed the tenor, soprano, alto and baritone saxophones. He could play all of the family of saxophones on a virtuosic level as a soloist and section player and was one of the very few saxophonists who also mastered of the flute in the Cuban charanga style. Unlike most musicians, Rivera played all these instruments at an exceedingly high level of musicianship. Rivera dominated the “straight- ahead” jazz and Latin Jazz, Salsa and many other genres.
Mario was born July 22, 1939 in Santo Domingo, The Dominican Republic. After he arrived in NYC in 1961, he worked with Puerto Rican vocalist Joe Valle. His most significant musical associations through the years include Tito Rodríguez (1963-65), The Machito Orchestra, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Palmieri, Eddie Palmieri, Típica 73, The George Coleman Octet, Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nation Orchestra, Slide Hampton’s Jazz Masters, the Afro Blue Band, Giovanni Hidalgo, Chico O’Farrill’s Orchestra and especially Tito Puente’s Orchestra and Latin Jazz Ensemble with whom he worked for on and off for decades.
Even though Rivera was one of the hardest working sidemen in the jazz and Latin music business he also led two groups of his own Salsa Refugees and The Mario Rivera Sextet. Although having appeared on virtually hundreds of recording, Mario recorded only one disc as a leader named after his sobriquet, “El Comandante.” It has fine examples of combinations of the native rhythm of his homeland, merengue from the Dominican Republic and jazz improvisation. Indeed it can be considered not only a tribute to his homeland and his mastery of jazz harmony but an homage also to one of his inspirations and yet another unsung hero, fellow Dominican saxophone master, Tavito Vásquez.
Rivera’s passing has been felt very hard in the Latin music and jazz community and he is sorely missed. But we have his stories, music recordings, photos, and videos to remember this grand musician because what he left us makes him truly immortal.
We leave the readers with these final thoughts from Mario himself: “In my case, the day becomes the night and the night becomes the day. There are no vehicles on the street; there are no sirens at night. There is nothing that could block the inspiration. My home is like a musical laboratory because I have to accomplish so many things, I have to learn to play so many instruments. I spend all of my free time at home, practicing like a maniac, refining my chops. This is why I play 24 instruments. When it comes to music, one must be actively militant. Music demands your entire attention and dedication. If a musician is not willing to make that commitment, he will end up floating on a sea of turds, along with the other idle and mediocre characters.”
Mario Rivera passed in August, 2007, may he play on.
Content source: James Nadal
Photos from the Facebook Tribute Page: Mario Rivera “el Comandante”
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