This year, Jazz Appreciation Month explores the crosspollination of Afro-Caribbean music and jazz leading into the formation of Latin jazz. One of the iconic figures recognized in the Afro-Caribbean music tradition was bassist, bandleader, composer, and co-creator of mambo Israel “Cachao” López. This year’s JAM poster featuring Cachao is from Duke Ellington School of the Arts senior visual arts student Francis Henry Cuadro.
In the pantheon of Latino contributions to Jazz, one name that continues to stand out is Israel “Cachao” López. The Cuban bass player helped invent the mambo style in the late 1930s, speeding up the traditional Cuban dance music danzón by inserting a swing to it. The springy bass lines Cachao played, alongside his brother, pianist/cellist Orestes López, became a foundation of modern Cuban music, later influencing salsa, Latin-infused rock ‘n’ roll, and R&B.
Born in Havana in 1918, López came from a family of musicians. He studied classical music, was playing bongos in a children’s group at 8, and played upright bass with the Havana Philharmonic at the age of 13. Cachao later played with dance orchestras, joining the Orquesta Arcaño y sus Maravillas in 1937. The danzón was a very popular style in Cuba during the early 1900s, but it gradually moved away from its roots as a European, military-style march sound and more towards an Africanized sound with syncopated percussion, almost a mirror image of ragtime’s transition to early jazz. López integrated the popular Cuban musical tradition with the pulsating conga, resulting in the beginnings of the soon-to-be preeminent Latin musical genre: mambo.
In addition to pioneering mambo, López also was instrumental in the development of descargas: late-night jam sessions that combined Afro-Cuban rhythms, Cuban melodies, and elements of jazz. Cachao left Cuba in 1962, his departure brought on by the Castro government’s strict policy re American-influenced culture. Cachao spent two years in Spain, and living for a time in New York City. In the 1970s, he headlined at famous Las Vegas hotels, and ultimately settled in Miami in 1978. Cachao’s career took a slight dip in the 1980s— he only recorded three albums as a leader between 1970 and 1990—but Cuban-born actor Andy Garcia helped revitalize the musician, organizing recording sessions with leading Cuban musicians and putting together a tribute concert in Cachao’s adopted hometown in 1992. Cachao enjoyed a major resurgence in his career, winning a Grammy and recording a series of successful albums.
Cachao died of kidney failure in 2008 at the age of 89 in Coral Gables, Florida.
About Jazz Appreciation Month
Jazz Appreciation Month (fondly known as “JAM”) was created right here at the museum in 2001 to recognize and celebrate the extraordinary heritage and history of jazz for the entire month of April.
JAM is intended to stimulate and encourage people of all ages to participate in jazz – to study the music, attend concerts, listen to jazz on radio and recordings, read books about jazz, and more.
Source: Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
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