Five Legends of Latin Jazz

Combining the propulsive rhythms and spirited melodies of Latin music with jazz harmonies and improvisation, these musicians helped forge a genre that continues to thrive and expand. Below are short profiles of five of the most important contributors to the development of Latin jazz.

of 05


Portrait of Machito, Jose Mangual, Carlos Vidal(?), and Graciella Grillo, Glen Island Casino, New York, N.Y., ca. July 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Frank "Machito" Grillo was a singer and maracas player from Cuba who moved to New York after traveling there while on tour with a Cuban ensemble. Soon he began leading his own band, the Afro-Cubans, who performed Cuban songs that were arranged by American jazz composers. The Afro-Cubans became one of the foremost Latin jazz ensembles in history and featured the top jazz artists of all time, including Dexter Gordon and Cannonball Adderley. Machito's large ensemble setting of Latin jazz is upheld by the Machito Orchestra, led by his son Mario, and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. Read my profile of Machito, one of the fathers of Latin jazz.

Photograph taken by Enrique Cervera in 1992 in my studio in Brooklyn, NY, USA
Enrique Cervera/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

Mario Bauzá developed his trumpet skills in Cuba and learned the subtleties of jazz in New York City. His collaborations with the great Latin musicians, including his brother-in-law Machito, as well as the top bebop musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, lit the fuse for an explosion of Latin jazz in the 1940s and 50s. Read my profile of Mario Bauzá. More »

of 05
Timbales used by Tito Puente in the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Olympics
RadioFan/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

Born in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, Tito Puente aspired to be a dancer until he injured his leg as a boy. Inspired by jazz drummer Gene Krupa, he began to study percussion and soon became the most famous timbales player on the scene. Puente's talent and charisma as a performer allowed his orchestra to become the preeminent Latin jazz group. Read Tito Puente's full profile. More »

of 05

Ray Barretto

Ray Barretto en concert à Deauville (Normandie, France) le 15 juillet 1991.
Roland Godefroy/Wikimedia Commons/GNU Free Documentation License

Ray Barretto learned to play percussion on the head of a banjo while stationed in Germany as a U.S. soldier. It was then that he decided to devote his life to music, and upon returning to New York, he became one of the most sought after conga players. As a bandleader he won the hearts of Latin music and jazz audiences. Read my full profile of Ray Barretto.

of 05

Eddie Palmieri

Eddie Palmieri
Image via Facebook Page

Eddie Palmieri began his music career as a drummer. When he switched to piano, he kept a percussive approach, and incorporated the harmonies of Thelonious Monk. This made his band, which famously included two trombones, one of the most hard-hitting and experimental Latin jazz small groups around. Read the profile of ​Eddie Palmieri.