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."

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.

The teen spent his summers playing hotels in the Catskills, where most of his Jewish friends found work as waiters, busboys, and bellhops. Legendary West Coast promoter and Santana manager Bill Graham ran craps games at the Concord, Harlow remembers, and everyone was doing the mambo. "We played dance music. And there were dance teachers--the Arthur Murrays and the Tony Lucilles--the Dirty Dancing kind of thing. You know that movie? Dirty Dancing was one second in my life. And of course the husbands used to go back to New York during the week and we used to party with all the wives."

He laughs at the memory, but is quick to point out the musicology of it all. "That's how it snowballed," he says. "They used to take mambo and cha-cha lessons. The Jewish people were affluent enough in the Fifties to go to Cuba and bring the dances back. And they kept the cha-cha and the rhumba and the mambo alive. And then, with the influx of Puerto Ricans and Cubans to New York, it just enhanced all of that."

With a few friends from the Catskills (they called themselves mambo-niks) Harlow used a ten-day Christmas recess from college to make his first trip to pre-revolution Cuba. "There were bands playing on every corner, in every plaza, in every coffee shop. And every day, free, on TV, was Benny Moré." He later returned to study music at the University of Havana, where a New York lawyer named Jerry Massucci was studying business administration. "There was a little coffee shop about a block away from the music school that was called Fania. They had a piano. They had an upright bass. They had congas. They had bongos. And everybody used to jam. I got to meet the musicians, and I got friendly with them; I was allowed to go on the band buses and go to shows. And they would always say, 'Hey gringo, you want to sit in?' And I would shake my head no, because I was 17--too nervous."

While Massucci went on to cop that café's name for his founding salsa label, Fania Records, Harlow soon backed out of music. He had taken the first plane out of Havana when the bombs just outside of town grew louder, and subsequently spent his twenties as a teacher. "My wife didn't want me to become a musician," he says. "And so, away with the wife, away with the family, away with the teaching career, and in '65 I went into it full time."

Meanwhile, Manhattan's complexion had changed. "There were so many Hispanics in New York at that time, and they were just looking for something that was theirs," he says. "And once they gave it the name salsa, which means sauce, they said, 'Ah, salsa music, that's ours.'" Naturally, Orchestra Harlow met with some initial resistance to a gringo bandleader. "It was kind of like a reverse Uncle Tom," he remembers. "The only reason I got work was that I had the same management as Tito Puente, so I used to sneak in on his coattails."

Still, there were abundant white audiences for Cuban-influenced music. On Wednesdays, before the venue closed, Italians and Jews flooded the Palladium. Puerto Ricans took over Fridays, Cubans Saturdays, and African Americans Sundays. And Harlow slowly found acceptance, particularly after recruiting a 15-year-old dry cleaner named Ismael Miranda on vocals. "He was a hot-looking, good-looking kid," remembers Harlow of the future Puerto Rican singing star. "And we had a contingent of a hundred dames that followed us around everywhere we played, because we were all single guys and we were bopping everybody. And when you have a hundred girls following you, you have 300 guys following the hundred girls.

"We used to get onstage and try to kill each other; it was a real cutting session, no holds barred. We were out for blood. That's where we gained our experience, from trying to play against each other and chop each other up all the time...

"Now it went the opposite way; there's no place to play in New York. There used to be a hundred [salsa] clubs in New York; there's two now. People just can't afford it anymore--it's a hundred dollars a head."

As Fania Records' second signee, Harlow went on to become the piano backbone (though not the leader) of the seminal Fania All-Stars, widely considered the first band to popularize salsa as both a term and a feel. And yet his relationship to the Latino culture he's championed is still complicated.

"I've been accepted. Once I learned how to speak Spanish, it was a lot easier--and it took a while. I married a couple Hispanic girls, and that helped." Harlow has been married seven times and claims he learned Spanish in bed in Cuba: "I learned all the dirty words first."

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