Jack Costanzo is an overlooked hipster saint who thrived everywhere he went throughout an amazing and still-going-strong 55-plus-year career, and herewith follows the case for his canonization in the Big Book of Jazz Hipsterology.
Sometime around 1947, renowned big-band leader Stan Kenton was inspired by Cuban legend Machito to bring a bongo player into his orchestra. But Kenton wanted the bongos primarily for an exotic tonal-percussive effect, not necessarily for Latin rhythms (though there were a few rhumba-rooted numbers in the set), and he decided on Jack Costanzo, a young Chicago-born conguero of Italian descent.
Meanwhile, at precisely the same moment, Dizzy Gillespie was looking for exactly what Kenton wasn’t: ultrasophisticated Latin rhythms all the way. Enter Chano Pozo, the reigning Cubano bongo king, the beloved larger-than-life performer-musician who, many Latin-jazz historians have concurred, first brought the clave to the U.S., thus birthing “Afro-Cuban American” jazz in collaboration with Gillespie. But it was Costanzo who first brought the bongos into American jazz.
“Literally within weeks of Kenton hiring me, Diz brought Chano over from Cuba, but it wasn’t a competitive thing,” says Costanzo on the phone from his home in San Diego. “Our employers wanted different things. Chano was, of course, awesome, and his showmanship inspired me. I thought he was fabulous.”
The original Afro-Cuban-U.S. Latin-jazz connection was a huge, largely unsung influence in the hippest New York bop circles of the ’50s. But while Diz & Co. played for strict boptologists in ultracool supper clubs with this daring double-hybrid of both African-Cuban and modern African-American jazz idioms, Costanzo and the Kenton crew, the “straighter” but still extremely hip white-bread “pop” version, gigged at larger venues like Carnegie Hall (four times).
“Once, at Carnegie, there were no seats left,” says Costanzo, “and there were about 100 people crowded onto the stage. It was so crowded, there was nowhere else for them to sit or stand.”
Stan’s Hot Four during Costanzo’s tenure: “Peanut Vendor,” “Bongo Riff,” “Cuban Carnival,” “Abstruction.”
After Kenton broke the band up in December 1948, Jack was kicking it in Miami when Nat Cole ran an ad in Downbeat asking Kenton’s bongo player to call him. A self-taught hand percussionist who emphasized bongos over congas, Costanzo had played both since the age of 13, when he first made his own drums from wooden butter tubs.
“Man, when my brother told me about the ad in Downbeat, that was one vacation I cut short, pronto,” he says. “I grabbed my drum cases and headed to the Blue Note in Chicago, where I thought for sure the gig was mine because of how the ad was worded. But Nat made me audition anyway. I got the job and spent almost five wonderful years billed as ‘The Nat King Cole Trio featuring J.C.’ Nat was a fine artist, a gentleman, an elegant scholar whose art enriched people’s lives everywhere he went, and he honored me by letting me be his friend on the road. He never made me feel like some disposable employee.
“It was painful to watch the sickening racism Nat Cole endured for being a major black artist in a confused white-pop world. One day I saw him literally having to run away from a white girl in the South who was chasing him down. This was no joke. This was still a time when there was the real fear of a black man being lynched just for looking in the direction of a white girl. In parts of the South, I could’ve traveled first-class and stayed at five-star hotels where artists of the stature of Nat and Ellington still couldn’t be admitted. It was impossible for me to even think of doing that, so I went to the ‘Negro’ hotels with Nat, and we enjoyed the best comfort and hospitality in the world.”
Even back in L.A., some white folks were assholes to Nat. “When he got his house on South Muirfield in Hancock Park, neighbors began petitioning for ‘no Negroes.’ One group approached Nat saying they just didn’t want any undesirables, and Nat said, ‘I couldn’t agree more.’”
Not only did Costanzo tour with Cole, he also recorded an album with him titled Bop Kick. Bop Kick? Could anything be cooler than having a musician credit on a record named Bop Kick? What could be hipper than playing on sessions for the Touch of Evil soundtrack in the morning and moonlighting as personal coach to James Dean and his circle of reefer-smoking, Kerouac-reading, bonguero-aspiring buddies in the afternoon? Or jamming with Marlon Brando (“He was a pretty accomplished bongo player on his own”)? Enough hepcat activity for one day? Nah, just warming up — Jack would take a little break before heading out to the clubs at night to play with the likes of bop-noir artists such as Art Pepper and Shorty Rogers.
During three visits to Havana in the ’50s to learn Afro-Cuban rhythms from musicians who’d never even seen a white American before, Costanzo had jammed in various practice sessions for comparsas (street parades) and was so enthralled by the experience that he returned recently in ’97, ’98 and ’99. Jack also gigged regularly with various Latin bands prior to Kenton’s call, bands led by Bobby Ramos, Rene Touzet, Desi Arnaz and a revived version of the Lecuona Cuban Boys. At different times along the way, Costanzo also played with Bird, Miles, Powell, Prez, Roach, Rich, Zoot Sims, Cal Tjader, and even Sinatra, for cryin’ out loud. Then there were the 11 movie scores during the ’60s, when he was recording for all the hip jazz and Latin boogaloo labels: Verve, GNP, Liberty, Sunset and Tico. It just don’t stop.
All of which makes Jack Costanzo the most in-demand session bongo player in the history of recorded popular music, whose work is heard on thousands of discs and movie soundtracks. Leonard Feather called him “Mr. Bongo”; somebody once said he was like the Earl Palmer or the Hal Blaine (both ubiquitous session drummers) of hand percussion — you’ve heard his playing a thousand times without even knowing it. He’s also been cited as an influence by a new generation of stellar hand percussionists like Ray Barretto, Poncho Sanchez, Giovanni Hidalgo and José “Papo” Rodriguez, and this Chicagoan is already up there in the Afro-Cuban Latin Jazz Hall of Fame with Chano Pozo, Mongo Santamaria, Tata Guines, Sabu Martinez, Patato Valdez, Candido Camero, Armando Peraza and Tito Puente.
And the beat goes on. Costanzo has just released a brand-new CD, Back From Havana on Cubop/Ubiquity (www.ubiquityrecords.com), the San Francisco–based Latin-jazz and rare-groove specialist. The set contains 15 solid dance tunes played by San Diego’s finest musicians.
One more thing: Jack Costanzo has inserted a personal Mr. Bongo soundbite into the collective pop-culture psyche of the entire Western Hemisphere and beyond — that’s Jack’s rapid-fire 16th-note high bongo trill at the top of the Mission: Impossible theme.
Jack Costanzo and his 14-piece orchestra play at the Conga Room on Friday, February 9.