Sunday, January 10, 2016

Joe Castro - On Sunnyside

© -  Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Joe Castro Box Set Tells Fascinating Story

“Jazz fans who have never heard of Joe Castro might wonder why Sunnyside Records is releasing a six-CD box set of the late pianist's music. It's a valid question, acknowledges Daniel Richard, the veteran producer who assembled Lush Life: A Musical Journey after shepherding  similar  collections  for  Abbey Lincoln, Charlie Haden and Chet Baker.

It's not as if Castro is an undiscovered Bud Powell or Horace Silver, but he was a likable pianist who made some fascinating recordings with the likes of Zoot Sims, Chico Hamilton, Billy Higgins and Teddy Edwards. Those tapes are released for the first time on the new box set.

A working-class, Mexican-American kid, Castro was a Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton fan who made his living playing in pop-swing bands around the Bay Area. In 1951, at age 23, his band 3 Bees and a Queen was hired to play the Fireman's Carnival in Honolulu. Attending one of his shows was Doris Duke, then a 38-year-old tobacco heiress described in the gossip columns of the day as "the richest girl in the world."

Duke was smitten by the good-looking Castro and they soon became an item. Despite a few breakups, they were together for the next 15 years. Duke, a jazz fan who had taken piano lessons from Teddy Wilson, set up recording studios stocked with Steinway pianos and fine wines at her mansions in Hawaii, California and New Jersey. The facilities and Duke's clout attracted many famous musicians for jam sessions with Castro at the keys. Some of the best of those sessions make up the first four discs on the new box set.

Sometimes Castro was just the engineer, recording sessions such as the wonderful 1955 tracks by Wilson with an especially lyrical Stan Getz. More often Castro was the house pianist, jamming in 1956 with Zoot Sims, Lucky Thompson and Oscar Pettiford, or rehearsing a new quartet in 1959 with tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards, bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Billy Higgins.

It would be inaccurate to say that Castro dominated these sessions, but he certainly wasn't out of place. He was grounded in swing-era rudiments, but he was also interested in bebop and even free-jazz.

Duke also funded a record label, Clover Records, for Castro to run. The fledgling company recorded the Joe Castro Big Band, the Joe Castro Trio (with Paul Motian), the Teddy Edwards Tentet and singers Anita O'Day and Kitty White. Despite Duke's millions, however, the label folded, releasing only the first of two big-band records and the first of two albums recorded by White. The second big-band project and Edwards' three-trombone Tentet make up the fifth and sixth discs in the new box.

"Joe was in a tough position," Richard said. "Doris' money opened a lot of doors for him, but when jazz musicians talked about him, they didn't talk about him as a jazz musician but as Doris Duke's friend."

Castro and Duke broke up for good in 1966. Castro married singer Loretta Haddad and went on to live a quiet life in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Just before he died in 2009, he approached Sunnyside about releasing his private tapes. His son James helped Richard reassemble the pieces of a forgotten story. Richard is constructing a musical chronology online at

As reported by Geoffrey Himes
January 2016

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