First I want to take a moment to mourn the June 3 passing of Willie Sotelo. Condolences to his family, friends, bandmates, and fans.
Willie Sotelo, the pianist and musical director of iconic Puerto Rican salsa band El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, died on Friday (June 3) in Puerto Rico. The musician, who was 61 years old, died of “health complications.”
The news of Sotelo’s passing was announced in a press release sent to media and posted on El Gran Combo’s Instagram account.
Maestro Willie Sotelo, musical director of El Gran Combo, has died due to health complications at 61 years old. His wife Jannette Navarro, his daughter Wilmalie Sotelo, his other relatives and maestro Rafael Ithier and his orchestra companions ask for space to deal with this difficult process and thank all your demonstrations of support and prayers, ”read the statement.
Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Dia (translated):
Sotelo joined [El Gran Combo] In 2006, when director and founder Rafael Ithier decided it was time to reduce his workload.
[I]nitially the musician held the role of pianist of the group and eventually, Ithier gave him the role of musical director. Among his functions, Sotelo coordinated the hiring, contracts and presentations of the orchestra.
[After graduating] from the Interamerican University in San German, [majoring] in music education with a concentration in piano, he founded his first group at age 19, Willie Sotelo’s Music Center.
The Mayagüez musician and arranger played with orchestras such as La Soluciones, Ismael Miranda, Elías Lopés, Willie Rosario and Lalo Rodríguez, among others. He was musical director for Frankie Ruiz, Luis Enrique, Amílcar Boscan, David Pabón and … Roberto Roena and his Apollo Sound.
The members of El Gran Combo were designated “Kings of the Parade” in 2011.
Later in the day, the band takes to the stage to sing “Sin Salsa No Hay Paraíso,“Which means” without salsa, there is no paradise. “
We’ve visited salsa before, and Latin jazz as well — in case you missed them, check out “Jazz Appreciation Month: Celebrating the birth of Latin jazz,” “Put on those dancing shoes and celebrate the Afro-Boricua soul of salsa, “And” A salute to salsa, soul, and the late great Johnny Pacheco for Black History Month. “
There were many venues in New York City dedicated to Latin dance and music — from the early days of The Palladium, The Corso, The Hunts Point Palace, The Tropicoro, The Chez Jose, and the St. George Hotel, just to name a few. What drew me to The Village Gate was that there, I could satisfy my love of jazz and also my love of salsa dancing, all depending on what night I went. I should also confess that I also knew one of the bouncers and could often get in free.
The club was described in owner Art D’Lugoff’s 2009 obituary, by Lee Mergner in Jazz Times:
After producing concerts around New York City for several years, D’Lugoff and his brother Burt opened the Gate, as it was informally called, in 1958. He booked many of the greatest names in jazz, such as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious. Monk, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. Located in the heart of the Village near the corner of Bleecker and Thompson Streets, the club also featured comedy and among the famous comedians who performed there, way before they became famous, were Bill Cosby, Woody Allen and Mort Sahl. Among the nearly apocryphal stories told about D’Lugoff were that he turned away Bob Dylan and that he fired Dustin Hoffman (as a waiter). Of course, many clubs and promoters rejected Dylan in his early years in New York City, but the story speaks as much about D’Lugoff’s unique combination of self-confidence and humility.
All his life D’Lugoff was passionate about Latin music, which he booked and promoted at the club, most famously in a weekly series he called Salsa Meets Jazz. That series helped to popularize Latin music to the downtown scene and strengthen the connection between the jazz and Latin music communities. D’Lugoff was also proud that the series brought together different audiences who shared a common love of the music and dancing.
Political science professor and Latin music aficionado Dr. José E. Cruz has written extensively about the “Salsa Meets Jazz” events at the Village Gate for the Jazz Latino website.
From “Salsa Meets Jazz, Part I ”:
In 2004 I spent close to seven hours glued to a microfilm reader at the New York Public Library looking at old copies of the Village Voice published between January 7 through December 30, 1980. I was searching for an answer to a very simple question: when did Salsa Meets Jazz begin at the Village Gate? Salsa Meets Jazz was the name of a series conceived and organized by the late promoter Jack Hooke and the owner of the Village Gate, Art D’Lugoff. It was held on Monday nights to showcase Latin orchestras and jazz soloists. D’Lugoff organized the series out of his love of dancing. Mondays were selected because they were “slow nights.”
Salsa Meets Jazz did not bring D’Lugoff huge amounts of money but it certainly made Mondays more lively at the Gate. During the seven years I lived in New York City, on Monday nights the Village Gate was my church and Salsa Meets Jazz was my religion. Nowhere else in the city could one dance (or listen) for hours to the music of Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri for a mere $ 10. On any given Monday one could see Dizzy Gillespie or McCoy Tyner playing alongside Luis “Perico” Ortiz and Charlie Palmieri, respectively, while Ray Barretto or Johnny Pacheco hung out at the bar.
Let’s pause a moment to define descarga.
A descarga (literally discharge in Spanish) is an improvised jam session consisting of variations on Cuban music themes, primarily son montuno, but also guajira, bolero, guaracha and rumba. The genre is strongly influenced by jazz and it was developed in Havana during the 1950s.
Now let’s move on to Dr. Cruz’s “Salsa Meets Jazz, Part II: ¡A Descargar!”:
Before Salsa Meets jazz became officially a series, the Village Gate hosted a descarga session that was recorded live and released in three volumes titled Descargas at the Village Gate. According to famous disc jockey Symphony Sid (whose given name was Sid Torin), the 1966 Descargas at the Village Gate project began with his phone call to Morris Levy, president of Tico Records. Tico was the company that hosted the most prominent performers of music from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean in New York during the 1950s and 1960s. “Let’s make a Latin jam session to end all descargas,” Sid told Levy, and all it took for the proposal to get off the ground was a gruff response at the other end of the line. “Crazy !,” Levy said. Levy then phoned the other Morris — Morris Perlman, aka Pancho Cristal: “Call Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, and Joe Cuba.” Soon after, a small army of movers and shakers went on a mad dash to the descarga. “Se Fueron a la Lucha” is how Puerto Rico’s premier horse race narrator, Rivera Monge, would put it had he been a witness to the preliminaries for the event.
Read more about the genesis of Tico Records here.
Here’s a cut from that first descargas album:
I’m always amazed when I see the lineup. It’s a who’s who of Latin music!
Tenor Saxophone: Al Abreu, Trumpet: Pedro Bouloung, Conga: Joe Cuba, Conga: Candido Camero, Trumpet: Vincent Frisaura, Piano: Eddie Palmieri, Trumpet: Victor Paz, Saxophone: Bobby Porcelli, Vibraphone, Timbales: Tito Puente, Bass Guitar : Bobby Rodriguez, Trombone: Barry Rogers, Timbales: Jimmy Sabater, Trombone: José Rodriguez, Trumpet: Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, Conga: Ray Barretto, Bass Guitar: Israel Lopez, Piano: Ricardo “Richie” Ray, Flute: Johnny Pacheco Piano: Charlie Palmieri, Bells: Chino Pozo, Bells, Bongos: John Rodríguez, Vocals: Santos Colón, Vocals: Chivirico Davila, Cheo Feliciano, Monguito “El Único” Santamaría
I highly recommend the rest of the series from Dr. Cruz: “Salsa Meets Jazz, Part III: A Series is Born”And“Salsa Meets Jazz, Part IV: 1980 and Beyond. ”
The first Descargas The album was followed by two more volumes.
Here’s a jam from the second one:
And from the third:
If you really want to get a sense of what Latin nights were like, and the amazing energy that took place on stage, here’s a clip that always gives me the chills. On a Monday night in August 1986, Tito Puente invited Nicky Marrero and Kako to a timbales duel.
Puente would be back at The Gate in 1992, to record his Golden Jazz All Stars. This clip shows the dancing crowd.
An album I wore out back in the day was Mongo Santamaria Explodes at The Village Gate. The album title is very apt, since Santamaria was an explosive conguero (conga drum player). Mongo was Cuban, not Puerto Rican, but he was one of the major influencers in the development of New York’s Latin jazz rhythms.
Ramón “Mongo” Santamaría Rodríguez was born in Havana, Cuba, in a family that valued music and their African heritage. At a young age, Santamaría picked up the violin, but the popularity and familial affinity for rumba music led him to a musical career in percussion. Santamaría dropped out of middle school and taught himself maracas, bongos, conga, and timbales. In 1937, alongside Septeto Beloña and the house band, he began performing at the renowned Tropicana Club in Havana.
Santamaría released solo albums, many of which featured Cuban percussion and chanting derived from West African sounds and rhythms. His 1959 composition, “Afro-Blue,” is a jazz standard, recorded by John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie, among many others.
Over his career Santamaría recorded countless records for a variety of labels and worked with top artists, all while incorporating his Latin sounds into jazz and R&B. He performed on the congas and other percussion instruments at clubs and festivals around the world, including against Ray Barretto as a member of the famed Fania All-Stars. Santamaría passed away at the age of 85 in Miami after suffering a stroke.
Here’s Santamaria performing his “Afro-Blue.”
Memories of The Gate and its “Salsa Meets Jazz” series were awakened in 2017, when artists gathered at what used to be The Gate after Hurricane Maria to raise money for musicians on the island.
On Oct. 23, (Le) Poison Rouge will host a benefit concert titled Salsa Meets Jazz for Puerto Rico! The venue is located at 158 Bleecker Street, the former site of the legendary jazz venue The Village Gate.
The title of the benefit nods to The Village Gate’s storied Monday night Salsa Meets Jazz series. Bandleader / percussionist Bobby Sanabria will host this star-studded concert, which will raise money and provide support for musicians in Puerto Rico through the efforts of the Jazz Foundation of America.
Daily Kos Community member and Nuyorican poet lapoetamariposa was one of the performers!
As stated above, The Gate also produced a long list of live jazz albums; it would take more than a month to play them all.
Here’s a Twitter photographic sample of the performers instead:
I hope those pics will whet your appetite for even more tunes, which I’ll be serving up in the comments. I’ll close things up here with a performance I attended at The Gate in 1970.
I got the chance to see her live quite a few times, though you never knew if she was going to show up, or if, when she did, she’d have an issue with someone in the audience (which I witnessed). She was, and is, however, probably my most favorite female vocalist of all time.
The late, great, Nina Simone, live at The Gate.