Manteca: A Story of Afro Cuban Jazz

Jelly Roll Morton called it the “Latin tinge” in the thirties. He was referring to an African element that was prevalent in Cuban music, a key component in jazz. During the mid-forties, such musicians as Dizzy Gillespie wanted to put special emphasis on this African element, and he was able to do so with the help of two Cuban musicians.

One of these musicians was Mario Bauzá, a classically trained clarinet player who also played saxophone and trumpet. He was born and raised in Havana, but was working as a professional musician in New York City by 1930—he was 19 years old. At 21, he was playing lead trumpet in the Chick Webb Orchestra—one of Harlem’s mightiest swing bands. A young trumpet player named Dizzy Gillespie often sat in with the band when it played at the Savoy Ballroom where it had a residency. In 1938, Bauzá joined the ranks of the Cab Calloway Orchestra, and soon Gillespie was sitting next to him in the trumpet section.

Musicians like to talk about music. You just know Bauzá and Dizzy discussed Cuban music and its strong African influence. On March 8, 1940, the Calloway orchestra recorded “Pickin’ the Cabbage,” a Gillespie composition. On the surface, it sounds like a typical big band swing number of the era, however the baritone saxophonist Andrew Brown plays his horn like a percussion instrument, drummer Cozy Cole is tremendous throughout, and the melody has an exotic feel; evidence that Dizzy was listening to his friend.


Around the middle of 1940, Bauzá left Calloway. Bauzá ‘s brother-in-law Machito (Frank Grillo) had moved to New York and together they formed an orchestra devoted to the playing of Afro-Cuban jazz—according to legend, the first to do so, but very likely the best.

Dizzy also left Calloway in 1940. He freelanced around the city for a while, playing on stage and recording with various groups. It was during this time that he wrote another Afro-centric composition called “Night in Tunisia.” In 1943, he joined the Earl Hines Orchestra. Also in the band was alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. About a year later, many of the orchestra’s musicians, including Gillespie and Parker, left to form Billy Eckstine’s first big band, which also featured saxophonists Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, bassist Tommy Potter and drummer Art Blakey, each of whom would soon establish himself in the new bebop music.

This orchestra didn’t last very long—how could it with all the budding stars? By 1945, each of them was out making a name for his self. Gillespie and Parker, of course, went on to develop the bebop school of modern jazz, mostly in a small group format. However, Gillespie always had his heart in the big band. By 1946, he had enough clout to form his own.

In 1947, Mario Bauzá encouraged a Cuban percussionist named Chano Pozo to relocate to New York. Once there, Bauzá introduced him to Gillespie who added him to his orchestra.

Luciano Pozo y González was born in Havana in 1915. He was a juvenile delinquent who became a well-known dancer, drummer and percussionist. He was also a practitioner of Santaría and well versed in African traditions. Instantly, Dizzy’s music became more African.

Pozo made his debut with Dizzy Gillespie and His Orchestra on September 29, 1947—at Carnegie Hall. In December they made some very influential records for the RCA Victor label. Coupled together, “Cubana Be” and “Cubana Bop” represent a short suite of the new Afro Cuban bebop music, with its center section featuring Pozo banging his drum and leading the band in mysterious chants. One of the most magnificent examples of music ever recorded was taped on December 30, 1947: “Manteca.” The power and urgency of the melody is unmistakable and direct. Its rhythm is based on the clave, a rhythm pattern that is the core of most Afro Cuban music. “Manteca” was written by Gillespie and his arranger Gil Fuller but could not have happened without the influence and songwriting skills of Chano Pozo.

Early in 1948, Gillespie took his big band on the road. It spent February in Europe, where it excited audiences from Stockholm to Paris, spreading the Afro Cuban jazz message. Most of the rest of the year, the band was on tour, with a handful of live recordings to show for it. However, the work paid off in one way: The Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra was voted the best Big Band of the year by American disc jockeys.

Another key composition that Chano Pozo was involved with is “Guarachi Guaro.” However, when the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra recorded it on December 29, 1948, Pozo was unavailable to play on it. He had been killed in a bar room fight on December 3.

“Guarachi Guaro” became one of Dizzy and Chano’s most enduring compositions. In the mid-fifties it was recorded by vibraphonist Cal Tjader with four Cuban musicians but called “Wachi Wara.” It became one of Tjader’s most requested numbers. By 1965 it was so popular that lyrics were added and it became “Soul Sauce,” recorded by Shirley Scott, Hank Diamond and Vic Henderson. Cal Tjader’s re-recording of the song the same year was called “Soul Sauce (Guachi Guaro)” and it became a minor pop hit.

By the end of the forties, the big band era was over. Dizzy Gillespie found it difficult to maintain his band and make money. He tried a few novelty recordings, employed the Eckstine-like balladeer Johnny Hartman and even dabbled with R&B a bit. Ultimately, he had to settle for working in a small group setting. Gillespie continued his love affair with big band music whenever he could afford it. Usually on recordings he made for Norman Granz’s Clef, Norgran and/or Verve labels. He would also hire a Latin percussionist when the situation warranted, such as Jose Mangual, Candido Camero, Humberto Morales and Patato Valdes.

One of the best examples of this happened in 1954. With the arrangement and compositional skills of Chico O’Farrill, another talented Cuban musician, Gillespie’s sensational “Manteca” was turned into “The Manteca Suite”—sixteen minutes of Afro Cuban jazz bliss!

In June of 1975, Dizzy Gillespie was reunited with Chico O’Farrill and Mario Bauzá when they recorded Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods, an album by Machito y su Orquesta that featured O’Farrill’s modernistic, extended compositions that, instead of retreading the past, pushed the music forward in an original way.

On February 16, 1985, Dizzy Gillespie played a show in Havana at an international jazz festival, backed by Cuban musicians, including Arturo Sandoval and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. The last song of the show was “Manteca.”



  • Shipton, Alyn; Groovin’ High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie (Oxford University Press, 1999)
  • Salazar, Max; Cubop! The Life and Music of Maestor Mario Bouza (Caribbean Cultural Center, 1993)

Liner notes to LPs

  • Gillespie, Dizzy; Dizziest (RCA/Bluebird 5785-1-RB, 1987)
  • Gillespie, Dizzy; The Development of an American Artist (The Smithsonian Collection/Columbia Special Products R 004/P2 13455, 1976)
  • Various Artists; Afro-Cuban Jazz (Verve VE-2-2522, 1977)

Websites that were not linked above