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Juan Tizol

  • Born San Juan, Puerto Rico, 20 January 1900
  • Died Inglewood, California, 23 April 1984

Raised in San Juan, Juan Tizol moved to the United States in 1920. Trained as a valve trombonist, he joined the pit band in the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., and played with other bands in the area over the next few years. During the same period, Duke Ellington was getting his own band started, moving from dances to club engagements. Juan Tizol joined Ellington's orchestra in September, 1929, and remained with Ellington for the next 15 years.

Tizol was one of the exceptional instrumentalists who gave Ellington's band its remarkable range and virtuousity, particularly when combined with the Duke's genius for writing and arranging. Tizol was a mellifluous soloist, at times being criticized by jazz fans for sounding too "sweet" (as the term was applied to the tamer, softer swing bands). Among Ellington band members, he was considered a stronger musician than a soloist--but then, with the likes of Cootie Williams, Ben Webster, Jimmy Blanton, Johnny Hodges, and others, the standard in the Ellington band was about as high as it gets. Ellington took advantage of the fact that, as a valve trombonist, Tizol could move faster across a wide range than a slide trombonist, to explore new effects in his arrangements.

In 1944, Tizol moved over to the Harry James orchestra, mainly to be based in California, where his wife was living. The money was better, too--James was at the height of his commercial success--and he stayed there for seven years. In 1951, Ellington enticed Tizol, along with the drummer Louis Bellson and alto saxophonist Willie Smith, back to his band, in what became known as "The Great James Raid." Tizol left the Ellington band two years later and retired from regular touring. He stayed in Los Angeles and relied on studio work, particularly with Nelson Riddle and Frank Sinatra.

Tizol was renown among band members for his punctuality, usually arriving for engagements or rehearsals hours ahead of everyone else. Perhaps for this reason, Ellington often relied on Tizol to conduct at practice sessions in his place. At the same time, however, Tizol was also a practical joker, given to tricks like putting itching powder in the sleeves of Duke's jacket and letting off stink- bombs during performances.

Tizol wrote only a few tunes, most of them during his time with Ellington--and usually left the arrangements to Ellington. However, two of these songs have become standards in jazz and exotica: "Caravan" and "Perdido." "Caravan" was usually the second number played when the Ellington band performed. As with most of Ellington's own songs, Irving Mills provided the lyrics to "Caravan"--although the number of vocal performances of it can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. I haven't been able to determine if the lyrics were written at the same time or later. Tizol immediately sold the rights to the song to Irving Mills, Ellington's publisher and publicist, for $25, but Mills agreed to give the rights and royalties back to Tizol after the song became a success. Ervin Drake and H. J. Lengsfelder wrote the lyrics to "Perdido" in 1944, two years after Ellington first recorded it as an intrumental number. "Perdido" has been much more successful as a vocal--Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington both had minor hits with it--despite the ridiculousness of the lyrics.

Among Tizol's other compositions are "Bakiff," "Pyramid," "Moonlight Fiesta," "Conga Brava," "Sphinx," and "Keb-lah." All of these were recorded by one of Ellington's ensembles. Clearly from the titles, Tizol favored exotic themes. "Caravan" is considered by some to be the first real Latin jazz tune, although I personally think it owes as much to "Middle Eastern" melodies from songs like "In a Persian Garden" and scores to Hollywood desert epics.

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