17 January 1915
La Habana, Cuba
2 December 1948 (aged 33)
Luciano Pozo González, better known as Chano Pozo (January 7, 1915 in Havana - December 3, 1948 in New York City) was an Afro-Cuban jazz percussionist, singer, dancer and composer who played a major role in the founding of Latin jazz.
Although he lived but 33 years, no discussion of Latin jazz is complete without mention of his name and no discussion of trumpet giant Dizzy Gillespie, the godfather of Latin jazz in the U.S., can begin without the name of Pozo, who was the first in a long line of Latin percussionists in Dizzy's various bands. Dizzy's dozens of Latin-flavored compositions, including the hit song "Manteca" and "Tin Tin Deo" (both co-written by Pozo), "Fiesta Mojo" and others - have Afro-Cuban drumming derived from the ritual rhythms of West Africa as their rhythmic backbones. Despite a short stint in Dizzy's band abbreviated by Chano's early death, Pozo's influence could be felt in Dizzy's playing and compositions for decades, which Dizzy acknowledged without hesitation.
Luciano "Chano" Pozo Gonzales was born in Havana to Cecelio Gonzales and Carnación Pozo. Chano's family (three sisters and a brother, as well as his older half brother, Felix Chapotin who became one of the great Cuban soneros) struggled with poverty throughout his youth. His mother died when Chano was eleven, and Cecelio took his family to live with his long-time mistress, Natalia, who was Felix's mother.
Chano showed an early interest in playing drums, and performed ably in Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies in which drumming was a key element. The family lived for many years at El Africa solar (Africa Basement), a former slave quarters, by all accounts a foul and dangerous place, where it was said even the police were afraid to venture. In this environment criminal activities flourished, and Chano learned the ways of the street as means of survival. He dropped out of school after the third grade and earned a solid reputation as a rowdy tough guy, big for his age and exceptionally fit. He spent his days playing drums, fighting, drinking, and engaging in petty criminal activities, the latter of which would land him a sentence in a youth reformatory. There are no official records documenting the crime for which he was sentenced, though at least one account has him causing the accidental death of a foreign tourist, adding to a record of thievery, assault, and truancy. At the age of 13, Chano was sent to the reformatory in Guanajay, where he learned reading and writing, auto body repair, and honed his already exceptional skills playing a variety of drums.
During this time he became a devotee of Santería. Also known as "La Regla de Ocha", this is an Afro-Caribbean religion derived from traditional beliefs of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Developed among Afro-Cuban slaves, the religion began as a blending of these West African spiritual beliefs and Catholic doctrine. Yoruba deities were identified with Catholic saints to fool the slave owners, as the Spanish colonialists had forbidden the practice of African religions. Chano pledged allegiance to the Catholic Saint Barbara, identified widely with Shango, the Yoruba god of fire and thunder, and took him as his personal protector. Both Shango and St. Barbara had associations with the color red, and for the rest of his life Chano would often carry a red scarf signifying his allegiance.
Upon his release from Guanajay, Chano returned to his father's house in Havana. Cecelio persuaded his son to practice his trade of bootblack, but Chano's temperament was not suited for this occupation and he quit after less than a year. In 1929 he took a job selling newspapers for El Pais, Havana's most influential publication, hawking papers on a number of street corners. His forceful nature and success in selling brought him to the attention of newspaper owner and influential businessman Alfredo Suarez, who hired Chano as his personal driver and bodyguard. He was rumored to have performed duties as debt collector or "leg breaker" for Suarez. Chano spent his free time dancing, singing, fighting, chasing women and playing his drums. He also began to compose music.
Chano's reputation grew among the people each year, not only because of his physical prowess as a dancer, drummer, and success with women, but for the compositions he wrote for Carnival, during the nightly celebrations of which neighborhoods formed highly competitive comparsas, or street troupes. They consisted of singers, dancers, musicians, and the ever-present rumberos. Mostly young, street-toughened drummers, rumberos were integral to each comparsa (something like a 'jam club'), since rumberos provided throbbing, sensuous rhythms regarded as the base for all Afro-Cuban music. In a few years Pozo was the most well-known and sought after rumbero in Cuba, with the most talented comparsas (local groups) vying for his services, and was regularly winning top cash prizes for his compositions. Chano elevated the status and reputation of rumbero to near mythic proportions with his swaggering attitude as he led his own comparsa through the streets and with increasing successes became a hero to Havana's poor people. Pozo and some of his fellow musicians wrote a conga music composition that earned them first prize in the city of Santiago de Cuba's carnival of 1940: "La Comparsa de los Dandys," a composition that is considered by some to be the unofficial theme song of Santiago de Cuba, and a familiar standard played at many Latin American carnivals.
Cuba was by this time a popular tourist destination, with the biggest hotels, The Sevilla Biltmore, the Nacional, and El Presidente catering to rich Americans and Europeans, and Chano was determined to break the color barrier which restricted employment for those of dark skin. He began to court musicians and others who might help him by auditioning in unusual places, most notedly in front of the Cuban-owned radio station Azul, which broadcast popular recordings as well as live Cuban folk music. Chano befriended many of the musicians who worked there, playing his drum on the street to catch their attention as they arrived for work. Although admired for his prodigious talent, dark skinned blacks were prohibited from working most venues outside of the slums, and Chano searched for opportunities. He would find that opportunity in the person of Armando Trinidad, owner of the radio station. Armando persuaded Chano to work for him, albeit only as the bouncer for Azul, where his imposing size and reputation kept rowdy crowds in check.
To survive the racial marginalization he faced in Cuba, he began work cleaning shoes and selling newspapers. His made his first performances as a dancer in a Havana troupe known as "The Dandy". His brother was the famous Cuban trumpeter Felix Chapotín.
He worked as a partner at the radio station Cadena Azul, where he met Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and the latter was involved with helping him launch "Manteca," a hit with the Cuban population. He became the first musician to incorporate Afro-Cuban rhythms into American jazz and is considered to have been one of the founders of Latin jazz.
Once Pozo became famous he also became renowned by his sense of fashion: his all-white top hat and tuxedo look predated that of Flavor Flav by at least 45 years.
In 1942 he emigrated to the USA in search of a better life. In Chicago he joined the "Jack Cole Dancers," and later went to New York, where Mario Bauza named a club in the Palladium Ballroom after Pozo's hit song, Blen Blen.
Chano Pozo is one of a handful of Cuban percussionists who came to the United States in the 1940s and 50s. Other notable congueros who came to the U.S. during that time include Mongo Santamaria, Armando Peraza, Francisco Aguabella, Julito Collazo, Carlos Vidal Bolado, Desi Arnaz and Modesto Duran. Pozo moved to New York City in early 1947 with the encouragement of Miguelito Valdés, and participated in a recording session with Valdés, the legendary band leader Arsenio Rodríguez, Carlos Vidal Bolado and José Mangual. In September 1947, after Mario Bauzá introduced the two, he was featured in Dizzy Gillespie's Big Band at Carnegie Hall and subsequently on a European tour. Their notable material includes "Cubana Be, Cubana Bop" (written by George Russell), and "Tin Tin Deo" and Manteca, both co-written by Pozo.
Chano Pozo was shot and killed on December 2, 1948 in the Rio Bar at 111th St and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. The Rio Bar no longer exists. In fact the very small triangular block on which it was built has been removed. Pozo's killer was a local bookie who went by the name Cabito. Pozo had accused Cabito of selling him poor quality dope and Cabito retaliated to save face.
Pozo is buried in the Colon Cemetery, Havana.
His grandson Joaquín Pozo, who was living in Cuba as of 2006, is also a famous conguero.
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