1964, Bob Dylan and a host of other folk/rock
troubadours were down in New York's East Village
revolutionizing popular music with voices of protest
and defiance. Over in the Bronx, Johnny
Rodriguez Jr. was learning to play music that
was just as revolutionary in an altogether different
"Dandy", as Johnny is known to his friends,
was still in high school in 1964. After testing
positive for rhythm on a school aptitude test,
he became a drummer. He tried playing a
traditional drum kit but it didn't hold
his interest. Percussion, timbales, bongos,
father was the respected Latin musician, Johnny Rodriguez. At that time the New
York scene was the heart and soul of Latin jazz
in this country. The music was percussive and
poly rhythmic when most everything
on commercial radio was beat simple. It was a
relatively small world, out of the mainstream,
below the radar of the national charts, with its
own Top Ten , its own record labels, distribution
network, and stars. It was also a family
affair, players and audience from the same neighborhoods,
the same heritage, creating a musical continuity
from generation to generation, very much an insiders
world of cousins, uncles, brothers, friends.
So when Dandy began developing as a player he
got to go to work with his dad so to speak.
Because of his family's friendship with Tito
Puente, the 16 year old high-school
student got a tryout and subsequently earned a
spot playing bongos in the Puente band.
That was the beginning not only of his musical
career, but a lifelong association with the man
acknowledged as the king of Latin music.
Dandy's first recording was on the band's
album, Excitante Ritmo. As he recalled
in an interview with MPR,(Martin's Percussion
wasn't bad for someone who'd only been playing
a year. I can listen to it and not be embarrassed.
People said nice things about what I did on the
record, to me, to my family. And that felt
album was a classic with tunes such as Ay Cariño
and Mi Bomba Sono. He'd now made a record
with the master., playing bongos, and on one song,
when Tito switched to vibes, timbales. He
was not yet seventeen.
spent the next 3 years with the Puente band, learning,
growing , becoming comfortable with the life.
Meanwhile the band had swelled to 16 pieces and
needed to be trimmed. It was a good time for a
change, and Dandy accepted an offer to play for
was a great band, a great band. And when I came
in I was playing the Puente style. Which was very
different from what they'd been doing. But they
never said anything about it and from then on
I kept playing that way. And I kind of loosened
up the rhythm.
made several records with the group.
Among the best were Tito No. 1 and Esta
es Orquesta. But after Tito's health failed
the band broke up.
started the 70's playing with Ray Barretto and
they quickly had a hit with Cocinando.
Despite the success, Dandy left the group
in 1972 when, for the first time, he got
the chance to put a band of his own together.
"My dad was playing at a club called
And Vinny's and one day he tells me the owner
is interested in doing a bigger Latin night, maybe
Mondays. So I talk to him and he offers
me the night. I. hire a few guys including, Sonny
Bravo, Leopoldo Pineda, and Nelson Gonzalez and
we just try to do different things, different
weeks. And it's real successful crowd wise and
got offered a second night. Then a third.
The group didn't even have a name (they would
eventually settle on Tipica), but it was a band
with a buzz , drawing a good looking crowd of
hip young dancers, fielding a number of styles
including a growing Cuban influence. They
were working all the time now. They were co-leaders,
stretching out musically , but conscious of keeping
it accessible, danceable. And they loved to play
that cubano music. So when things were going really
well, they were doing 8, 9, 10 gigs a week.
Then they made a sort of musical pilgrimage to
Cuba. As it turned out it was not a great
going to Cuba turned a lot of people off. They
saw the trip politically, we saw it musically.
Even in New York they were turned off. It was
hard. We started getting less and less work. A
couple of guys left looking for other gigs.
And little by little it just fell apart."
fate made an appearance in the form of a friend
of his father's Dandy had known since high school.
Cohen was the founder and president of Latin Percussion
Inc., maker of the world's finest rhythm instruments.
But more than that, he was an ardent fan and a
fixture on the scene. Everybody knew Martin, and
Martin knew everybody. He loved the music, its
energy and color, the people, the vibe, and he
did everything he could to promote it. So
as the 70's closed out, he made a series of cutting
edge recordings, the kind of music musicians like
to play, featuring Tito Puente, Dandy, and
others. Cohen then put together a European
tour for the group in 1979. These turned out to
be seminal events whose full importance would
take a few years to recognize. The tour opened
in Copenhagen and closed out at Montreaux.
And this band just blew the audiences away.
All of a sudden Latin Jazz was front and center
on the world stage.
Palmieri is always telling me, 'Johnny, give
Martin and yourself credit. You guys started that
thing in '79 and that's what's made it possible
for all of us to go to Europe like we do'.
Because until that time Mongo [Santamaria] was
the only one who'd do European trips every once
in a while. But ever since we went over the door's
the twenty years since then Dandy has covered
the globe (mostly with Tito Puente) including
gigs in places most people have never heard of.
His amazing work with , and his commitment to,
Tito Puente's organization. continues In
addition to his playing, Dandy had become
the group's de facto road manager. Over the course
of the more than 30 years Johnny Rodriguez Jr.
has been one of Latin music's greatest players
and innovators. So it was only fitting, given
his stature and the history he has helped make,
that at the end of the MPR interview he was asked
what he saw for the future. Where was the
music heading and what were some of the things
that had changed in the last couple of decades?
there used to be this competition between rhythm
guys. Like, you knew that so-and-so was playing
down the street, so you had to burn. Or so-and-so
is going to play tomorrow night night so you had
to be really hot. That used to be talked about
like, `Hey, did you hear what so-and-so played
yesterday'. But you don't hear that so much
today. Everybody's playing for themselves,
doing their own thing instead of being in competition.
And what's happening now is that there's so much
Cuban influence that nobody's doing that old,
sophisticated style of timbale playing anymore.
To play that way today would not be enough, you
wouldn't be playing enough.
did he see his own evolution taking him?
been some interest in reviving Tipica.
The time is really better for what we were doing
now. Things that we played that would never have
gotten on the radio then, fits within the format
now. But I don't see it becoming a full time thing.
Everybody is too busy with other projects."
given Tito's age of 76, what were his thoughts
about a post-Puente world?
far as what happens when Tito is no longer with
us, his wife or someone will continue the music
and I'll probably be one of the people who'll
have the job of keeping it all togetheróthere's
too much Puente out there to just put it away,
learn more about Johnny Rodriguez, Jr.. please