© Donald Clarke 1989, 2005
(b Luciano Pozo y González, 7 January 1915, Havana, Cuba; d 2 December 1948, NYC) Conga drummer; dancer, singer, composer of almost mythical stature. Steeped in West African rhythms from childhood, he belonged to an Afro-Cuban religious cult. Spent teens in reform school; developed a tough-guy reputation, frequently involved in street fights; spent days drumming, chanting and composing; drank heavily, but worked out daily to stay in condition. Performed with street dancers in various parts of Havana; became renowned choreographer of hotel revues and composer of prize-winning carnival songs late '30s; attained fame playing conga in the show Congo Pantera '40 at the Sans-Souci night club; appearances on RHC Cadena Azul radio station further advanced his career. He and his brother Miguel co-wrote the prize-winning carnival tune 'Los Dandies de Belén' to promote the sextet Carabina de Ases, led by third brother, trumpeter/composer Félix Chappottín (1909-82). Pozo co-led Conjunto Azul with Chappottín '40-43; met famed singer Rita Montaner (1900-58), who further boosted his career; became bodyguard for Amado Trinidad (owner of RHC Cadena Azul). His songs were recorded by Orquesta Casino de la Playa, Cuarteto Caney, Machito and his Afro-Cubans, Xavier Cugat, Miguelito Valdés, others (sides collected on various albums on Tumbao '89-92). He was shot twice in the stomach '43 in fight with a publisher's bodyguard over non-payment of royalties; recovered in expensive Havana hospital courtesy of Trinidad, though he continued to experience pain because surgery was unable to remove a bullet at the base of his spine.
He met Mario Bauzá in Havana '45 (on an eight-day visit with Machito), who offered his and Miguelito Valdés's help to promote Pozo's career in NYC; he relocated there May '46. On the night of his arrival, Valdés invited him on to the La Conga club stage, and soon enlisted Bauzá's help in promoting him; Bauzá introduced him to Dizzy Gillespie and the history of jazz was altered. Gillespie was seeking the addition of a 'tom tom player' to his band: 'I didn't know it was called a conga drum,' he told Max Salazar, '...when Chano joined my band, that is when the Latin innovation in jazz began.' Pozo made his US recording debut July '46 as a Gillespie sideman on a session for Musicraft. Disappointed with Pozo's continued low profile, Valdés again intervened and persuaded Coda label boss Gabriel Oller to record Pozo; three sessions ensued in Feb. '47 incl. Machito's orchestra, Arsenio Rodríguez, Tito Rodríguez, others; some of this material collected on Legendary Sessions '92 on Tumbao. Pozo played in Gillespie's Carnegie Hall concert of September '47, on eight Gillespie studio tracks for RCA in December included 'Cubana Be', 'Cubana Bop', and the co-written 'Manteca', which became a much-covered Latin jazz standard; toured Europe with Dizzy early '48, playing on concert recordings including at the Salle Pleyel in February (reissued on French Vogue '93 and BMG '95), featuring eight-minute co-written 'Afro-Cuban Suite'. A concert at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium '48 was reissued as Dizzy Gillespie And His Big Band -- Featuring Chano Pozo '93 on GNP/Crescendo. He recorded four tracks with James Moody late '48 (on Blue Note, including a Pozo vocal on 'Tin Tin Deo', co-written with Gil Fuller). Began tour of Southern USA with Gillespie, quit mid-way because of theft of his conga in Raleigh NC late Nov. '48; returned to NYC to purchase two congas, intending to rejoin the tour, but told Machito that he had decided to stay in NYC because of the discrimination he experienced in the South.
Pozo was shot to death in El Rio Bar and Grill by ex-US Army Corporal Eusebio 'El Cabito' Muñoz (a decorated WWII veteran), who worked as a numbers runner and marijuana dealer; the most likely motive was Cabito's machismo-driven revenge for public humiliation after Pozo physically assaulted him, claiming to have been sold weak dope. Cabito was jailed for five years, the mild sentence due to his war record and testimony of character witnesses; Pozo was buried in Cuba.
Pozo could play in one rhythm, sing in another, dance in a third: 'I never knew how he could do that,' said Gillespie. 'Three people wrote ['Cubana Be, Cubana Bop'], not only that but three people wrote it as one person. George Russell wrote the introduction; I wrote the middle part; and Chano and I did that montuno thing. It was just perfect...' 'You'd better believe everyone received the proper credit for these compositions because none of us was a pushover. Chano personally was a roughneck.' He taught the band multi-rhythms: 'On the bus, he'd give me a drum, Al McKibbon a drum, and he'd take a drum. Another guy would have a cowbell, and he'd give everybody a rhythm ... we'd sing and play all down the highway' (Dizzy's quotes from Ira Gitler's Swing To Bop '85, autobiography To Be Or Not To Bop '80). See also entries for Bauzá, Gillespie, Cubop, Afro-Cuban Music. The tradition of tribute songs and albums includes Tribute To Chano Pozo '77 (two volumes) on True Ventures by percussionist, singer, composer, bandleader, producer José Mangual Jr (b Jan.'48, NYC; oldest son of José Mangual, who was Machito's percussionist '42-59, played in Willie Colón's band '69--74 and Héctor Lavoe's '74-9; leader of Sarabanda from '87), and David Amram's Havana/New York '78 (reissued '90s) on Flying Fish (with extended 'En Memoria de Chano Pozo' recorded live in Havana, 18 May '77, featuring Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D'Rivera). Finally in 2002 came Chano Pozo: El Tambor de Cuba on Tumbao Cuban Classics, a 3-CD set: one disc of recordings of Pozo's tunes by others; one of Pozo's Cuban recordings from 1940 onwards, plus those from 1947 under Pozo's name; and one compiling the later recordings with Gillespie and Moody; plus an excellent booklet.