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Armando Peraza

The year was 1949, and the American landscape was awash with possibilities. Samba was all the rage on the dance floor. Rogers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" opened on Broadway. Be-bop was at its apogee. Jersey Joe Walcott won the heavyweight title. "Ghost Riders In The Sky", "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" and "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" topped the pop charts. And a young Cuban drummer named Armando Peraza first came to this country. Within months he landed a house gig at Bop City--the San Francisco club where everybody who was anybody played when they hit the coast. Before the year was out he took the stage with the greatest names in jazz, from Billie Holiday to Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon to Dizzy Gillespie. He also managed to find time for his first recording session-with Charlie Parker. How did someone who didn't even take music seriously till he was in his thirties hit the heights so quickly?

Born May 30, 1924, Armando Peraza grew up on an island that might as well have been on the other side of the world, rather than just "a Sammy Sosa homer" off the coast of Florida. Despite its close proximity to the USA, Cuba was a country still largely defined by its colonial past. Once you got away from Havana, only the big sugar plantations broke the sleepy rhythms of a rural nation surrounded by the sea. In the 1940's, when Armando was a young man, baseball and music were the island's passions. In fact, they were so intertwined that you often saw the same faces running scales as running bases. Things have changed in the years since then, but ballfields and bandstands are still emblematic of Cuba.

Baseball was his first love. Music was good, it was fun and it came easy to him. But it also came late. He dreamed of Yankee Stadium not Carnegie Hall, and didn't envision himself as a serious musician. Then a friend with a good breaking pitch and a band needed a drummer.

"I was waiting for the bus one day with another ballplayer named Alberto Ruiz. He said his band was losing its conga player and he asks me to keep my eyes open for a replacement. And I said, I am the replacement".

He got Ruiz to buy him a drum for $6 and soon began making a name for himself as a percussionist. Things were wide open in Cuba back then and he played as much as he could. But he was still working odd jobs-construction worker, field hand-to survive. He developed his style in a succession of bands. Among them was the influential Kubavana featuring Carlos "Patato" Valdez, who would go on to fame with Tito Puente. Armando also became friends with Mongo Santa Maria. They worked in several of the same bands but not at the same time. It wasn't until Mongo offered him a spot in the band Cuban Diamond that they worked together. In a classic case of good timing he joined the group just before they left Mexico for the USA in 1949.

Federico Pagani, the "godfather of Latin music", arranged for the band to work in New York. The owner of the club that booked them also managed Kid Gavilan, one of the era's most colorful fighters. Armando and Mongo were a potent combination-"the cheetah and the lion", as one critic would later describe them-and they caught the attention of Slim Gaillard, a fixture on the jazz scene at the time. He offered to take them out to the West Coast. But owing to the vicissitudes of the Immigration Service, Mongo had to return to Cuba for some paperwork and it was just Armando who made the trip west. He had only been in the United States for a short while but already his career was moving at light speed. From then on his prints would be all over the early Latin jazz scene.

He stayed with Gaillard just a few months, leaving after a salary dispute to take the gig at Bop City. Then he accepted an offer to join George Shearing's group. Looking back it's easy to see this as a defining moment in his life. He would spend the next 11 years with Shearing's ensemble, whose influence at moving Latin jazz into the mainstream is hard to overestimate.

Armando remembers those days vividly:

"When George Shearing played Cuban music, you'd close your eyes and think it's a Cuban guy playing keyboards. He gave me the greatest opportunity of my life, and together we composed a number of songs like "This Is Africa" and "Mambo In Miami".

Listening to their first album, Latin Escapades, you hear the foundation of Latin jazz in a small group. This album and others featuring Armando with Shearing are now on CD and still selling in the marketplace "because it was a unique sound with beautiful melodies, beautiful harmonies, and beautiful interpretation."

In the Sixties, he began moving away from jazz and into rock and pop music. It was a creative and fertile period for Armando and he was drawn by the kaleidoscope nature of the San Francisco scene. He toured and recorded with Sly & The Family Stone, The Grateful Dead, and the pioneering jazz/rock guitarist Harvey Mandel. Then he joined the Carlos Santana Band. It would prove to be the best fit of his career.

"Santana and the people in the Mission District created something completely different. They took all the resources that were available and adapted them to their own mentality. It was a very creative time."

This seemingly effortless movement between styles of music comes from his unique perspective:

"You have to find a way to adapt who you are, your culture, to the music. Then your individuality can make something new and the music evolves, you evolve."

Adapt and evolve.

It's what's made it possible to sustain a career that astonishingly, after more than fifty years, is still going strong.

Armando is almost as well known for his humanitarian instincts as he is for his playing.. He was an early and fierce proponent of human rights, believing that dignity and respect should not be tied to race or economics.

"I have a strong attitude. If don't like something, I'll tell you to your face. If I think you're mistreating me, I'll tell you to your face. Because I'm from the street, I know where the struggle is."

He is the first to admit that being outspoken and unwillingly to look away from injustice has caused trouble throughout his life.

There's a story that illustrates Armando's passion for doing the right thing. At a show at the Great American Music Hall, the bassist's camera disappeared from backstage. Armando was sure he knew who had done it so he went where he knew the suspect hung out. When the man showed up Armando confronted him, got him to confess and then return the camera, proving that some people just "talk the talk," Armando "walks the walk."

Raul Rekow and Armando Peraza

Armando has also taken the time to be a mentor to younger players coming up. Someone asked him how he felt seeing all these players he encouraged grow up and find their place in the scheme of things.

"I feel good you know. I feel like I fulfilled my role as a human being. I feel very happy."

There are many luminaries in the history of Latin percussion, but few people would argue if they found Armando Peraza's name at the top. But then, he has always been an innovator, never afraid to change, to learn.

His style of playing was against the grain and outside the lines of traditional interpretation. The criticism he drew for his playing in Cuba and at hardcore Latin venues nudged him into the jazz world. Here he had more room, more freedom. He could get loose with the rhythm, deconstruct it, find and apply his own vocabulary. He could parse how Funk came from the Samba, he could play it for you, how you change the accent a little and you can travel all the way from Jobim to Marvin Gaye.

His work with Santana introduced him to a whole generation of new players who marveled at his technique. Raul Rekow, after working with him for 22 years, is still impressed by Armando's "secret hand" style of playing.

"There's a way of playing called the mano secreto style. It's playing doubles with the left hand, getting double tones, two open tones with the left hand. And I think Armando was the innovator of this. I think Armando was the first person on the face of this earth to be able to do it. That was the key that opened the door for all these new styles. I really believe that's the proper lineage--it all started with Armando."

As Armando himself observed:

"There is a lot more freedom now in the way people play. It wasn't like that earlier in my lifetime. Today there are more styles and more instruments in use".

More styles, more instruments, used in ways and combinations that wouldn't have been acceptable before. And much of the credit for the evolution of instruments and applications owes to Armando.

His house itself is a veritable museum of percussion-word is he still has every instrument he ever acquired-but his main drums are LP Valje Bongos and Congas. He has had a long association with LP instruments and prefers them to all others. His hands are not large but his drum sound, the hugeness and variety of his tone, his "slap", is legendary. This may have something to do with using the best quality instruments he can find, but it is his ferocious skill and exuberance that elevated his playing to a level few others attain.

Armando again:

"When you play with someone you're having a conversation. And in a conversation you don't talk at the same time. You hear what somebody plays and you create something else. That way you never clash. One song is being played: but what you hear is two different foundations rhythmically, two different ideas. You have to learn to listen to have a conversation".<

Adapt and evolve.

From smoky little nightclubs with George Shearing, to a Santana concert before 100,000 fans in Santiago, Chile, Armando Peraza's career has been quite a conversation.

Story by: Jim McSweeney

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