There Is a Mensch in Spanish Harlem

Thirty years after popularizing salsa, piano great Larry Harlow is still Latin music's undiplomatic gringo ambassador

"What if Lincoln freed the slaves, but then let the South secede anyway?" It was one of those questions you ask your roommate when you're putting off going to bed.

"Well, then you wouldn't have rock 'n' roll," my roomie offered, his eyes yawning.

"But that's not true," I persisted. "Borders don't mean anything anymore. Look at Cuba. All those decades of embargo, and now they're taking over our music."

Hooked on Spanish girls: Latin pianist Larry Harlow
Hooked on Spanish girls: Latin pianist Larry Harlow

Forgive my broad strokes--it was late, and I was, like I said, putting off going to bed. In the harsh light of historical rigor, I'll admit that the long fuse of our current Latin Explosion was lit well before Castro's men rolled into Havana, back when some borders meant a lot less. Yet the tough, Cuban-derived dance music of Sixties East Harlem thrived not just in spite of its isolation from the mother island but perhaps also because of it. Derived from rural son rhythms stirred for decades in Cuba and embraced by New York's burgeoning Puerto Rican community at the peak of Brown Power, salsa was as American as rock 'n' roll. And in a classic American wrinkle, one of its principal architects was a Jewish piano virtuoso from Brooklyn: "El Judío Maravilloso"--the Marvelous Jew--Larry Harlow.

"I belong to the Salsa Party," Harlow says, speaking over the phone from New York, when I ask about his politics. A straight talker who has learned to cha-cha-cha around certain issues, Harlow has observed the wrath of the Miami Cubans who view the Buena Vista Social codgers as dangerous stooges, and he has refrained from playing in Cuba itself, though he says he plans to "soon." Having watched his friend Celia Cruz weep after being booed in Puerto Rico (she supported fellow ex-Cubans who pulled Puerto Rican singer Andy Montañez from a Miami festival for having ventured to Cuba) Harlow now merely jokes that he "loves everybody."

It's an uncharacteristically diplomatic stance for a man who has acted, largely behind the scenes, as Latin music's pushy gringo ambassador for more than 30 years. Harlow earned the esteem of Latino music fans worldwide as an arranger, bandleader, and remarkably fluid soloist. The band he brings to the State Fair this week, the Latin Legends (featuring cuatro master Yomo Toro and others) represents something of a supergroup for older fans. And if Salsa is his party, Harlow wrote much of its original platform, helping establish the music's Cuban instrumental template. "I dreamt of this new sound that nobody had, of the trumpets and trombones together," he says, emphasizing the idea's initial unpopularity. "I really wanted to be very Cuban."

Along with Dominican-born charanga star Johnny Pacheco and many others, Harlow maintained and tweaked Cuban music styles at a time when Cubans themselves couldn't travel here. "We kept that tradition alive by stretching it a little," he says. And his life points to a cultural interface most Americans don't take much notice of--the Jewish love and nourishment of Latin music and dance. Many might be surprised to learn that it was "the Marvelous Jew" (so dubbed by Cuban jazz giant Arsenio Rodriguez) who aggressively and successfully lobbied the Grammys to establish a Latin music category (there are five now). He also wrote the first salsa opera, Hommy, thus bringing the Latin music of upper Manhattan to Carnegie Hall. In the early Seventies, he played to sellout throngs in Yankee Stadium, Madison Square Garden, and in a 1974 concert in Zaire--the Ali-Forman Rumble in the Jungle. To his surprise, African teens on the street knew him by name, and sang his songs phonetically.

So it's entirely fitting that a gringo inducted a few months ago into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame should be part of the traditionally whitebread Minnesota State Fair's first attempt to include Latino acts. (Blacks, apparently, will have to wait another year).


As a teen in the 1950s, Harlow was gunning to become a bop man, not a Latin Legend. But the goateed teen beatnik quickly fell in love with the intricate mambos emanating from Spanish Harlem record shops and bodegas between his subway stop and the High School of Music and Arts. (Harlow took classes there a mere block from the Apollo Theater.) Remarkably, he found the field more open to white players than jazz was. "In the Fifties, either you were black or a junkie, or you couldn't be accepted in the jazz circles," he asserts--on the East Coast, at least. "So the next closest thing, where I could improvise and play solos, was Latin music."

All the same, the first Latin music band he joined--the Hugo Dickens Band--was also African American. Reared in a musical family and tutored in classical piano, Harlow could easily skim the Cuban "stocks" (sample title: "Mambo No. 5"), but was a hopelessly inept improviser. "I bought some records and memorized some solos and came back. They said, 'Wow, how'd you learn that overnight?' They didn't know I was playing somebody else's solo."

Soon, Harlow was hitting the legendary Paladium in dancing shoes. "I got hooked on the Spanish girls--you know, these beautiful, hot-blooded tropical women. And that's really what drew me there first." Before too long, he was also standing in awe under Tito Puente's timbals, collecting the broken drumsticks.

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