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The King of Afro-Cuban jazz. Although his father ran a restaurant, his was a musical family, and Machito grew up singing and playing with many of the leading musicians of Cuba. After playing with a few groups in Havana, he moved to New York City in 1937, following the lead of his friend (and later, brother-in-law), Mario Bauza.
Bauza, a classical musician by training, and Machito were life-long collaborators. Machito scraped around for a few years, working mostly as a singer, with Noro Morales and Xavier Cugat among other, while Bauza served as musical director for Cab Calloway and Chick Webb.
In 1940, they decided to form a group and try out a style that combined Cuban rhythms and melodies and orchestrations derived from swing. Their timing was fortuitous, since there a temporary dearth of new songs due to a strike by members of ASCAP (Bauza and Machito were members of the new syndicate, BMI). Billed as the Afro-Cubans, the group was soon signed to Decca Records and had a few minor hits with numbers like "Sopa de Pichon [Pigeon Soup]" and Bauza's composition, "Tanga" (which later became Machito's theme song).
Machito's sister, Graciela, came to the U.S. to sing with and lead the band with Bauza after Machito was drafted into the Army in 1942. Discharged due to an injury in 1943, he resumed performing and became a regular act featured in weekly radio broadcasts from the La Conga Club. Machito's Latin rhythms began to influence many of New York's jazz musicians, most notably Dizzy Gillespie, who had worked with Bauza in Cab Calloway's band and was now pioneering a new style that would eventually be called, "bebop."
Another jazz artist influenced by Machito was Stan Kenton, whose new band was beginning to enjoy huge popularity. Kenton called Machito the "greatest exponent of Afro-Cuban jazz" and even recorded a Latin-flavored number titled, "Machito." He and Machito shared the bill in a historic concert at Manhattan's Town Hall on January 24,1947.
Producer Norman Granz then got the idea of pairing the great bebop alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and tenor Flip Phillips with Machito in for a series of recordings in December 1948 that have since been cited for establishing "the Latin-jazz connection for all time." With compositions and arrangements by Bauza and Chico O'Farrill, Machito's recordings from this period (reissued on Mucho Macho) are considered his band's finest work.
Machito's band was also a stepping stone for numerous jazz musicians getting a start then, including Johnny Griffin, Cannonball Adderley, and Herbie Mann. Machito also earned his billing as "the Mambo King" at this time, appearing with Joe Loco on a nationwide "Mambo U.S.A." tour. Although the popularity of the mambo faded in the late 1950s, Machito continued to perform both in the U.S. and abroad until his death. One of his last recordings, Machito and His Salsa Big Band, won the Grammy for best Latin album in 1982 and Machito was waiting to go on stage at Ronny Scott's nightclub in London when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1984.
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