The Night Latin Jazz Was Born

The Night Latin Jazz Was Born

By Keith Murphy


Because trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and percussionist Chano Pozo helped invent Latin jazz.

By Keith Murphy

The perplexed looks on concertgoers’ faces said it all at New York’s Carnegie Hall on the evening of Sept. 29, 1947. When music critic and patron Leonard Feather invited trumpeter and modern jazz emissary John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie to bring his big band to the revered stage — a high-water mark for any musician — the audience was expecting a bebop showcase from the genre’s co-creator. But Gillespie had something more innovative in mind.

Savvy jazz fans had only to check out the new recruit in the percussion section to see that Gillespie might be lighting out for yet another new musical territory. It was Chano Pozo, a handsome, athletic-looking conga drummer with callused and exceptionally large hands. Just a few days earlier, Gillespie had asked the Afro-Cuban percussionist to join his orchestra after coming up with the inspired idea to combine Latin rhythms with the bebop style he had developed alongside friend and tortured genius saxophonist Charlie Parker.

That night, the band premiered a song by Gillespie, Pozo and arranger Gil Fuller — “Manteca” — that went on to become a Latin jazz classic.  Carnegie Hall had never heard or seen anything like it. “It was similar to a nuclear weapon,” Gillespie once said of the impact created by the bombastic composition. In the Latin-inflected setting of “Manteca,” Pozo’s driving conga playing opened the song and never let go. And the horns didn’t just swing — they bobbed, weaved and punched at an aggressive, polyrhythmic pace. A shirtless and barefoot Pozo strutted around the stage, chanting in the Yoruba that drew from West African rituals of his Cuban lucumi, or Santería, faith. Audience members may not have lost their bewildered looks — but they did go wild.

In the Latin-inflected setting of “Manteca,” Pozo’s driving conga playing opened the song and never let go.

A few months later, on Dec. 22, Gillespie took his band into the studio to record the Carnegie Hall sensation, along with other material that set the stage for the Latin jazz explosion of the ’50s and ’60s and also influenced New York’s ’70s salsa movement and other musical genres, from pop to rock. “Manteca” was the first high-profile jazz record to utilize the clave, an infectious rhythm pattern at the heart of most Afro-Cuban music. “They’d never seen a marriage of Cuban music and American music like this before,” Gillespie said years later.


As in any good marriage, Gillespie needed a strong partner, and he found one in Pozo, one of Latin music’s most infamous and colorful characters. Born Luciano Pozo y González in Havana in 1915, the lovable rogue grew up to become a juvenile delinquent but then found his calling in music before immigrating to New York City in 1946. Pozo’s instruments of choice were the conga and bongo drums, but he was also a composer and dancer.

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Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Jordan perform at the Bern International Jazz Festival in 1988.

Source Herb Snitzer/Getty

Gillespie, a native of South Carolina, had hit town in 1937 and later struck up a friendship with Cuban trumpet player Mario Bauzá. Gillespie was interested in experimenting with the Black Latin sounds he had first heard from bands fronted by Bauzá and Albert Socarras. “I was looking for someone to put into that spot,” he said in his biography Groovin’ High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie. “And Mario Bauzá cut me into Chano Pozo … ‘I got the guy for you if you want the real stuff.’”

Gillespie certainly had the building blocks to make such an unlikely collaboration work. He was aware that New Orleans ragtime pianist Jelly Roll Morton (1890–1941) had spiced up some of his influential compositions with what the jazz pioneer called the “Spanish tinge.” And Gillespie flirted with Afro-Latin rhythms on such classics as “Pickin’ the Cabbage” and “A Night in Tunisia.”

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Gillespie in 1956.

Source Bettmann/Getty

But “Manteca” was an altogether different bag. “Dizzy was a very intellectual man who enjoyed learning from other cultures,” says Carlos Henriquez, bassist for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. “He understood very well the aspects of African culture in music. It was no surprise that he reached out to Chano.”

“Manteca” became Gillespie’s biggest-selling song up to that point in his storied career. Sadly, Pozo would not live long enough to enjoy his newfound stardom. He was shot and killed in 1948, in a Harlem bar. But the impact of the Afro-Cuban musician cemented his legacy as well as Gillespie’s adventurous musical reach. The infectious push-and-pull rhythms of “Manteca” can be heard in such songs as the Champs’ “Tequila” (1958), Bobby Parker’s “Watch Your Step” (1961), the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” (1964) and the Allman Brothers’ “One Way Out” (1972). “‘Manteca’ was also the symbol of what was to come, like the mambo and Tito Puente,” says Henriquez. ”And then there’s the added jazz element. That’s why ‘Manteca’ was so special.”

But for Gillespie, “Manteca” took on even greater meaning. It was yet more affirmation that African rhythms, whether from America or from Latin countries, were at the core of all music. Fourteen years later, he kicked off his classic 1961 Carnegie Hall Concert album with arguably the most realized version of “Manteca.” In 1989, at age 72, Gillespie was still preaching his inclusive, humanistic gospel of world music as he led his United Nations Orchestra. He died four years later. At heart, Dizzy Gillespie was jazz music’s greatest salesman.

John Birks Gillespie 

  • Nicknames: Dizzy, High Priest of Bebop, Ambassador of Jazz
  • Vitals: b. Oct. 21, 1917, Cheraw, S.C. – d. Jan. 6, 1993, Englewood, N.J.
  • Instrument: Trumpet
  • Standards: “A Night in Tunisia” (1942), “Groovin’ High” (1945), “Manteca” (1947)
  • Quirks: Played an instrument with the bell pointing up at 45 degrees (instead of straight ahead); his cheeks and neck puffed out like a bullfrog’s when he blew into the mouthpiece.
  • Another take: To Bop or Not to Be: A Jazz Life, directed by Jan Horne (1990)