Mongo Santamaria

b. Ramón Santamaría, 7 April 1927, Jesús María district, Havana, Cuba. ‘Mongo stands for integrity, both personal and musical, throughout almost half a century in a mad, bad and dangerous to blow business. He, as much as any other individual, is responsible for whatever wider familiarity with the music exists today. Mambo, charanga, salsafunk, jazzlatino—he has brought taste, swing and sass to them all, his modesty alone denying the widest acclaim’ (Tomek). Santamaría arrived in New York at the end of the '40s. There he performed with the first charanga (flute, violins, rhythm section and voices band) to be organized in the city, led by Gilberto Valdés (b. Matanzas Province, Cuba; multi-instrumentalist/composer), Pérez Prado (for a brief stint) and Tito Puente (between 1951-57). In 1955 Mongo recorded CHANGÓ (aka DRUMS AND CHANTS), an album of roots Afro Cuban music featuring the Cuban percussionists Silvestre Méndez (b. Jesús María district, Havana, Cuba; bongo/composer), Carlos "Patato" Valdez and Julito Collazo. In 1991, Mongo commented: ‘ CHANGÓ is the best album recorded in the USA, within that genre, and much better than YAMBÚ and other albums which I recorded later for Fantasy Records’ (quote from an interview with Luis Tamargo published in Latin Beat magazine). As Puente's conguero, Santamaría enjoyed celebrity status in the Latino community. However, in 1957 he and two other Puente sidemen, percussionist Willie Bobo and bassist Bobby Rodríguez, provoked the bandleader's wrath when they were credited as performers on MÁS RITMO CALIENTE by Latin jazz vibes player Cal Tjader. Hurt by Puente's response, Mongo and Bobo informed Cal Tjader of their intention to leave. Cal could not believe his luck, and offered to hire them. Early the following year, they both joined him in San Francisco. During their three-year tenure, Santamaría and Bobo contributed significantly to Tjader's sound on a string of classic albums recorded for Fantasy Records, and through their association with Cal, they attained more widespread fame.
Santamaría was still with Tjader when he recorded the Afro Cuban sets YAMBÚ and MONGO on Fantasy. The second contained his hit composition Afro Blue, which became a much covered jazz standard. In 1960, Mongo and Willie took time out to visit Cuba, where they recorded the progressive típico album OUR MAN IN HAVANA with local musicians, including the legendary tres guitarist/arranger/composer Niño Rivera and teenage pianist Paquito Echavarría. The latter relocated to Miami and worked there with bassist Israel ‘Cachao’ López. In 1961, Santamaría left Tjader (taking Bobo with him) to inherit former personnel from Armando Sánchez's Chicago-based charanga Orquesta Nuevo Ritmo (whose only album was 1960's THE HEART OF CUBA), including violinist/composer Pupi Legarreta, flautist/composer Rolando Lozano, pianist René "El Flaco" Hernández, vocalist/composer Rudy Calzado and bassist Victor Venegas (a good friend of Mongo who remained with him until the late '60s). Santamaría added the incredible violinist/tenor saxophonist José "Chombo" Silva and others to form his own charanga, which debuted on the excellent SABROSO!. On this and his other charanga releases on Fantasy, including one with pianist Joe Loco, Mongo successfully managed to infuse the traditional Cuban flute and strings framework with jazz idioms.
In 1962, Santamaría returned to New York, leaving Bobo in San Francicso (however Willie rejoined him later on for a brief spell). Mongo put together a Latin fusion (although this nomenclature did not exist then) group with a view to securing a contract with Riverside Records. He succeeded and debuted on the label with GO, MONGO!. At the end of 1962, Santamaría recorded the crowd-pleaser Watermelon Man, written by keyboardist Herbie Hancock, who performed with Mongo's group that year. With negligible promotion, the single became a Top 10 hit in 1963. The song's R&B/jazz/Latin cocktail pretty much set Santamaría's stylistic compass for the rest of his career. After a few more albums on Riverside, he continued in the Latin fusion vein into the '90s with a string of releases on the Columbia, Atlantic, Vaya, Pablo, Roulette, Tropical Budda and Concord Picante labels. 1977's DAWN (AMANECER), his sixth release on Vaya, won a Grammy Award, becoming the first album from the Fania Records stable to receive the accolade. From the mid-'60s, Santamaría only rarely diverted from his fusion path to record typical Latin albums such as EL BRAVO and the Justo Betancourt collaboration UBANE. During his career as a bandleader, Mongo hired and developed such notable artists as Chick Corea, La Lupe, Herbert Laws, Marty Sheller and others. Sheller began his long association with Santamaría as a trumpeter on 1963's WATERMELON MAN. He switched to percussion because of a problem with his lower lip, then increasingly concentrated on arranging, composing, musical direction and production. Marty worked with various salsa names, including Willie Colón, Tito Puente, Conjunto Libre, Louie Ramírez, Roberto Torres and Conjunto Clásico.

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