Monday, September 24, 2018

Jack Costanzo - The Steven Harris Interview - November, 1994

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

"After I celebrated my one-year anniversary with the band, I had the courage to ask Stan for a raise.  He happily obliged, saying: 'You're in line for a raise, Jack, and you deserve it.' My next paycheck was $12 a week more."  
- Jack Costanzo, Latin Jazz percussionist

Jack Costanzo would have turned 99 on this date -Sept. 24th so the editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it would be appropriate to post the first of two interviews by Stan Kenton historian Steven Harris to coincide with this date.

The following taped dialogue took place on Nov. 20, 1994, during the writer’s visit to Jack Costanzo’s residence near San Diego, CA.  (Joining me for the extended car ride from L.A. was Jack’s pal and fellow percussionist, Mike Pacheco. At one point, the old friends took a break for an exciting bongo and conga drum duo). An edited version of this Q&A first appeared in print in The Kenton Kronicles (Dynaflow Publications, published by the author in 2000).
Jack casually chats in detail about his 1947-48 tenure on the Kenton band, followed by his four-year stint with superstar Nat Cole from 1949–53.  In the mix, Jack offers stimulating, personal reflections on the many entertainment greats he knew or worked with, such as Duke Ellington, Buddy Rich, June Christy, Tommy Dorsey and many others.

Steven D. Harris is the author of The Kenton Kronicles: A Biography of Modern America’s Man of Music, Stan Kenton. New and Used Hardcover and Paperback version are still available via online sellers such as Amazon, AbeBooks or at

Just a word in passing, you may come across some technical glitches involving spacing, et al and we ask you to accommodate them as they are the result of formatting using two, different platforms.

Jack's Jazz Memorial: a "Celebration of Life" will take place at the Music Box in San Diego, Monday, Oct. 1 from 6-11pm.
© 2000, 2018 by STEVEN D. HARRIS

The Brilliant Mr. Bongo:
Jazz historian Steven D. Harris chats with percussion
great Jack Costanzo on the Kenton Years and beyond.

Prior to your time with Kenton, can you talk briefly about what you had been doing with your career, up to that point?  I was originally a dancer along with my first wife, Marda.  In fact, we both taught dancing in Beverly Hills, CA. We traveled to New York and joined a Latin dance troupe, which were popular in those days.  I used to follow her footwork in the act playing bongos––that's how I came to play the instrument. There were very few bongo and conga drum players in Chicago in the early forties when I was learning my craft.  
Just how did Kenton come across your masterful percussion skills?  In July of 1947, I was working at a club in Los Angeles called the Masquerade.  I played with Rene Touzet's band and was also dancing with my wife in the act. That's when Kenton came in to see the show.  I had never seen his band before or was a fan in any way, but I certainly knew his name and how big he was. Stan was specifically looking for a bongo player after being enamored with Machito some months earlier.  I know he had auditioned some other guys in New York––Chino Pozo, Chano's less famous cousin, was one of them.
So you met Kenton on one of the intermission breaks?  Stan introduced himself to me.  He liked the way I played and asked if I would like to join the new band he was forming.  I quit the Masquerade Club immediately with no notice and joined Stan. From our initial conversation, I had the impression he wanted somebody more in tune with the American style of playing jazz.  But as it turned out, we didn't do anything like that.
We were doing more tonal effects and I was playing a style that I would later incorporate in movie soundtracks––bongo accents to create a mood.  It was surprising because, number one, nobody (including Stan) knew where we were going with this thing. The attitude of swing didn't project what he wanted.  Stan wanted to present horns wailing; anything soft was an insult to him.
The first Kenton rehearsals took place at L.A.’s Royal Palms Hotel that September with a batch of new music.  I didn't read a note of music.  Pete Rugolo walked in with a load of it and I thought, oh, good––he's passing it around to all the other guys.  All of a sudden, ten sheets of music fall in front of my face with notes on it and I panicked. I knew what quarter notes and half notes were, but I didn't know how to count meters and follow.  I have never been a good reader even to this day.
But I learned very quickly with the help of Eddie Safranski and Shelly Manne in the rhythm section.  They gave me directions and showed me the fundamentals. A lot of times, Rugolo would wave out the beat and point to me.  My fear was gone once Stan told me not to worry. He said, "Jack, if I wanted somebody who could read music, I would have gotten a studio musician––who would probably play bongos with mallets!"
Stan’s new band, soon to be dubbed the “Progressive Jazz” Orchestra, debuted where it all started for him at Balboa.  You must have been very excited, right? Opening night at the Rendezvous was nerving, but very exciting.  There was no room for anybody to dance, because everyone crowded around the bandstand.  The scheduled program always opened with Artistry Jumps followed by Stardust.  Stan gave the solo to Laurindo Almeida on guitar and then Stan looked at me and said, "Take it, Jack!"  The tempo was quite slow and I didn't know what to do. Shelly Manne yelled down, "Triple the tempo, Jack!"  So that's what I did––on my tack headed conga drum that you can't tune. After it was over an elated Stan shouted, "That's exactly what I want!"
Before “Mr. Bongo” became so attached to your identity, you were given another name within the Kenton band…what was it?  Right from the start, Buddy Childers laced me with the nickname "Bingo the Bongo."  I was given another nickname by Al Porcino [in 1948]. I was in an elevator with Stan, his mother, wife and six year-old daughter, Leslie (who was a brat, by the way).  His mother, Stella, had just heard the proofs of the 78 records to be released and Stan wanted her opinion of the new music. She said, "Oh, they were fine, but what was that woodpecker noise I heard in the background?"  She was referring to my bongos and from that point on, Porcino called me "The woodpecker."
You were an integral part of the original 1947 “head” of a hit in the making, The Peanut Vendor.  While it was not the first Latin-based chart in the Kenton book––Gene Roland’s Ecuador from 1946 and Rugolo’s Machito preceded it––the band hit pay dirt with this older tune.  Do you remember much about the date? The trumpet players would double on the cowbell, maracas, scratcher, claves and various Latin percussion devices.  They treasured the instruments like they were gold from Fort Knox! If anything was missing, you could always bet on hearing one of them say, "Who took my cowbell?"
They loved to play these things and thought they all had it down, but sometimes played them backwards.  I would never show them the proper way…they wouldn't hear of it. Years later, I asked Buddy Childers about the metered trumpet cadenza at the end of The Peanut Vendor.  He explained that it was originally used when they were experimenting on a Gene Roland tune with the Vido Musso All-Stars [a Kenton contingent] earlier that year.
How would you explain the right way of playing clave?  There are two ways…reverse or forward, played with five beats in two bars.  Three and two are forward clave, while two and three are backward clave. Any percussionist from Cuba, Puerto Rico or the States will tell you the most important thing is the band has to play in clave, not against it.  That's outrageous. The music might change the clave by adding or taking away a bar, but the rhythm shouldn't.
Let’s cover the Kenton band’s long run at the Century Room inside the Commodore Hotel in New York City; this was in the fall of ’47.   That engagement will be forever cemented in my mind.  It was an exclusive, ritzy, elite room where the most sophisticated people eat dinner and dressed formal all the time.  They were used to having soft trios or society bands where all instruments played lead. No band above a whisper ever played there.  Then the management took a chance and brought in the loudest, brassiest band in the history of the world...Stan Kenton!
According to reviews I’ve run across, some critics felt the band was ill-booked at this venue (the Commodore).  Would you call it a mistake? Well, I'm sure some of the patrons dining there thought so.  Our fans that came in to see us loved it, but the "steadies" were outraged because it was so loud.  One time I was sitting at a table with some of the musicians between sets [at the Commodore], when Benny Goodman walked over.  Benny ripped us up and down: "How dare a band play this kind of music in this kind of place, knowing what kind of establishment it is!  The band is just screaming; there's no melodic quality whatsoever."
He said it in front of the band and in front of customers, but not in the presence of Stan himself.  One of the guys confronted Benny––I wish it had been me––and said, "Kenton is known for playing this kind of music.  He's not going to change for you or anybody else just because he's at the Commodore…”  But then, Benny wasn't a fan of ours to begin with.  Stan did accommodate the clientele a little bit by playing quiet things.  But we still did our Prologue Suites and Machitos and Concertos To End All Concertos.
I thought that Benny was right in his assessment that we were too loud.  But it was also his bad judgment not to realize our goal was to create futuristic music…he could have at least said, "Well, I think it's great that Stan has the guts to do something fresh and new."  Benny pulled the same thing on Dizzy Gillespie. Hey, Benny's the last one to be telling people about responsibility.
Do tell about the earlier encounter in ’47 that you were around for; the infamous moment when Tommy Dorsey lost control on a movie set with Benny.  He did a Technicolor movie starring Danny Kaye…it was called "A Song Is Born" [with] Louis Armstrong, Charlie Barnet, Tommy Dorsey, Mel Powell and other playing themselves.  Benny played a college professor and would show up late on the set every day.

Dorsey had finally had enough and the next day when Benny arrived late, Tommy decked him...WOP!, with his fist.  Tommy said, "Who do you think you are? We're all waiting around and you hold us up every !?#* day!" I mean, Dorsey really cold-cocked Goodman.  It wasn't something that stayed behind the scenes either; it got a write-up in the newspapers the next day.
Let’s cover the famous Paramount Theatre, also in New York City, which you played twice, doing up to six draining shows in a day.  The first time was just after the Commodore run. Stan was the star on the bill, but Vic Damone was the rising teen singing idol who came in at close second.  He had a new hit record of an Italian song and this was his first big shot in show business. Vic did fabulous his first time at the Paramount.  So much so that he had as many autograph requests as we did in the Kenton band.
Another worthy mention would be Buddy Rich.  He was playing at the Paramount [1948] with his first big band, the one that Sinatra backed financially…We all got word that Buddy broke his right arm and were curious about who his replacement would be.  Shelly Manne and I went to the theatre expecting a temporary sub…
When the curtain rose, we heard the most spectacular sound––it was Buddy playing left handed!  Who would have guessed that anybody could play that many beats, that many accents, hitting all the right places with one hand––and the weak hand at that––which showed how ambidextrous he was.  Buddy would sit in with the Basie band through the years and swing that band until they were in bad health. He also sat in with us on a recording date. I should have been on that record, but for some reason I don't appear.  
You mean Pete Rugolo's Metronome Riff, which the Kenton band played on the road under its original title, Pete's Riff.  Yes, that single featured the winners of the 1947 Metronome poll, which I placed that year.  I think I placed because I was the most well known. Chano Pozo, one of the most fabulous players who ever lived, was far down on the list.
Did you ever meet or get to know Chano?  I understand that, like the tempestuous Tommy Dorsey, he was also an explosive guy that you didn’t want to cross.  I only met Chano Pozo once.  His real name was Luciano Gonzales.  I know that he was a very prolific composer and wrote some marvelous tunes that are still standards in Cuba.  He wa a great musician, dancer and showman...he had it all. But he was also a strong, tough man. I mean a street person.  While touring with Dizzy Gillespie, Chano got shot inside a bar and died a slow death [Dec. 2, 1948.] He had taken a leave of absence from Dizzy to borrow a set of conga drums for the band's Strand Theatre date, because somebody had stolen his on tour.
Dizzy hired another conga drummer, Sabu, to take his place.  Well, Sabu had no drum. Sabu had nothing! He was a free-spirited person.  Great personality and charming as could be. I'm sure his phone number changed every other week and you never knew exactly where he was.  Sabu came to see me to borrow a conga drum and assured me he would buy his own in a couple of days.
I had a beat up one that I was willing to spare, since Kenton rarely had me play them on the job––it was mostly bongos.  I gave it to Sabu and never heard back from him. Finally, I bump into him on the street about three weeks later and he hugs me like a long-lost friend.  "Sabu," I ask, "Where's my conga drum?" He says, "I burned it up." "You burned up my drum?" He told me he was heating it up and it caught on fire. I could see how the skin could split, but how did the wood catch on fire, for crying out loud!

During your 15 months with Kenton, the band made stops at your hometown three times to perform…any special memories from that period? Within a six-month period, Kenton played three times at the Civic Opera House in Chicago.  Needless to say, my whole family was there [laughs], filling half of the 1,500-seat auditorium.  Mom, dad, my brothers, grandparents, uncles. On one occasion they invited Kenton and Rugolo to my mother's house for dinner…Stan was eating my mother's spaghetti and she took a piece off of his plate.  I looked at her very puzzled when she said, "I want a souvenir from Stan." My mother was so proud of me, but I almost died, I was so embarrassed! The first time I appeared in a movie, which was a very insignificant part, mom would say to everyone, "My son, the movie actor."
At the Opera House, we performed Bob Graettinger's City of Glass for the first time [April, 1948].  He didn't know what to write for bongos, so I just played rolls––whole notes at every bar! [Laughs.]  Graettinger conducted and when the suite was over...not a sound, nobody clapped. The music was just too far out for anyone to comprehend.
Your one big feature number with Stan––another frenzied Rugolo creation––was titled Bongo Riff, a piece that I still love to this day.  My only criticism is, being only two minutes, it’s too short.  It was very difficult to play because––and this is nothing against Pete––it was not written by someone who understood clave or fills.  It was written for somebody that could read and hit a 3½ or four bar phrase and have continuity, which I didn't feel yet. I was never satisfied or comfortable playing that tune.  I've always had a lot of technique, I will say that, but [there were] horn parts to consider. It's funny…a lot of people like that record, but I've done many things I like better that take half the effort.
One incident happened with Bongo Riff at a concert.  In those days, we didn't have tunables, so I had to heat my bongos to tighten the skin.  I was into a wild solo and hitting these cracks on Bongo Riff when wop!  My bongo head split.  Once that happens, no sound will come out. I always traveled with two sets of bongos, so I rushed off stage and got my other pair.  But by the time I re-appeared, Stan had started the next number.
How would describe the overall attitude of the band, especially under the duress of traveling nightly?  I'm willing to say that I bet none of the later Kenton bands ever had the camaraderie that the 1947-48 band had.  Everybody was concerned with each other and we were all tight. True, sections hung out together. All except the Weidler brothers.  They were a different mix of musicians. George [then the 2ndhusband of Doris Day] was into Christian Science.  Their way of life was extremely conservative. So were Coop, Bob Gioga and Harry Forbes.  One who wasn't very conservative was Art Pepper…what a swinger he was.
I had tremendous respect for trumpeter Chico Alvarez, but we were always competitors when it came to women, since we both liked the same kind.  With the rest of the band, it was hands off if somebody was romancing a girl. But between Chico and I, forget it! If he started flirting with a woman, I would think that's definitely who I would want to be with, and vice versa.
As for [trumpeter] Buddy Childers, he couldn't resist going in any store and picking up something that wasn't going to be on the bus the next morning.  He was the first one in the band to get a wire recorder. Another time, Buddy was carrying a gigantic model airplane. He couldn't fit it into the elevator and when he came to the bus, he was trying to figure out how to slide it through the doors.  We would always wonder what Buddy's going to bring back…He was a possessive consumer buyer.
Kenton was often blasted for his rhythm sections, but the one with you, Shelly and Safranski––in spite of Stan's lack of jazz chops at the 88s––could really swing when it wanted to.  I roomed with Eddie Safranski and we drove in a car together for the last several months on the band.  Eddie was a maniac when it came to speed. We would go around turns at 80 mph and I would ask him if he felt uncomfortable.  He'd always remark, "Nah, this car takes it fine." Another thing about Eddie is that he had perfect pitch, which drove everyone mad.  He literally never went more than eight bars without tuning one of his strings and consequently would leave out beats. This would happen at least once per song, without a doubt.
Eddie's the one who introduced Ampec, the first electric pickup for a bass.  Evidently, with the pickup, he heard himself even louder because of the peg inside and was never satisfied that he was completely in tune.  Even Shelly Manne got on him many times, saying, "Eddie, can't you keep it straight so we have continuity for one tune?" But, man, could Safranski play.  He was a virtuoso on the bass.
I see in your scrapbooks several Kenton clippings with honorable mentions of the Costanzo sound.  Do any ones stand out? The first fabulous write-up I received was by columnist Ralph J. Gleason in Down Beat [Oct. 22, 1947] when the band was just a [month] old.  He plugged our three appearances at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in San Francisco. In his critique, he mentioned that, "The interplay between the rhythm section is very exciting to hear and really jumps like mad."  One negative write-up I got in the same magazine concerned June Christy and myself. It was a letter to the editor.
This guy never said anything about how good or bad I played, or how well June sang…[just] how he couldn't stand the fact that June and I were doodling with a pen on my bongos.  To quote Down Beat, the guy remarked: "The bongo man is just another chair on the stand. Most of the night he and a dragged-looking Christy amused themselves by drawing pictures on the bongo heads."  June laughed off the negative criticism, being the mother hen of the band, as young as she was.
What is your impression of the wonderful, weird tone poem adapted by Rugolo?  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to and studied that piece with June Christy who, rather than singing, recites the lyric while humming eerily throughout.  I do want to mention when we recorded This is My Theme in 1947.  The reason I remember this session more than any other is because June Christy broke down and cried.  She said, "Stan, this requires an actress, not me." As I recall, she did [many] takes and ended up very upset.
In 1963, Christy and I did a two-week benefit tour to promote people to vote for Proposition 17, a law that made equality legal and mandatory.  Some people were trying to overturn it and didn't think that it should be constitutional. The tour consisted of my Latin band, Christy, Junior Mance, comedian Dick Gregory, Joe Williams and the Count Basie Orchestra.  June rode with me in my car and it's the first time I became aware of her drinking––June was taking her sips here and there.
In January of '48, both The Billboard and Downbeat jumped on a rumor that percussionist Louis Miranda had already join Stan's band, playing alongside yourself.  However, this was never the case. Was this just a faulty headline?  Stan was indeed going to have Louis come on the band, but the Local 802 [musicians union in New York] wouldn't exempt him.  In those days, the law required you to be a member of the union for at least three months before you could take a steady job.
Just before the ’48 band broke up in December, Stan did indeed augment the rhythm section with a second percussionist.  I'm speaking of Carlos Vidal, who would return to tour with Stan's Innovations band in ’50. Can you cover this brief period?  Stan asked what I thought of the idea of hiring a conga drummer with the band.  I thought it would be great and suggested Carlos Vidal to Stan, who promptly hired him.  Stan gave us our notice at the Paramount before he disbanded…and that was the end of the Progressive Jazz Orchestra.
Enter the “king” of the jazz keyboard, Nat Cole, whom you joined just a few months ahead.  Please elaborate on just how you came to get hired by Nat. I joined the King Cole Trio at the Blue Note in Chicago at the beginning of February, 1949.  After the last set was over, Nat said, "I think everything will work out just fine, Jack." He had given me a salary over the phone and, naturally, I thought I was hired on the spot.  I didn't know it was just an audition. The sad thing is Carlos Vidal thought he had got the job, not me.
Really?  That I wasn’t aware of.  Originally Nat had put an ad in Down Beat looking for the bongo player with Stan.  Somebody who saw us at the Paramount put him in touch with Carlos, who was living in Canada.  Carlos expressed to Nat, "Yes, I'm the one you're looking for." In the meantime, my brother saw his trio at the Blue Note and said, "I understand you're looking for Jack Costanzo.  I'm his brother."
Nat was confused and told him he had already hired Kenton's bongo player––and paid for his flight to come out the next day.  My brother pulled out a picture of me..."Is this the guy you want?" Nat nodded yes. "Well," my brother told him; "You didn't hire Jack, because he's in California."  After that, Nat's business manager, Mort Ruby, sent a telegram to Carlos Vidal, asking for his money back.
There’s a rare acetate recording from 1951 that exists, at least in part, of a tour you did with Sarah Vaughan, plus Duke Ellington's was headlined "The Biggest Show of '51."  Do you have any remembrances or anecdotes from this period?   We had a lot of fun on that tour.  I remember a girl chasing Duke all through the train [laughs] and he was petrified she'd catch him.  She was not only young and Caucasian, but they happened to be in the South! This infatuated girl wanted to grab him and Duke was running through all the cars.  That was quite a sight.
Did you ever play or sit in with Stan’s band after your time in ’47 and ’48?  Just as I left Nat in 1953, Kenton offered me a job with the band again, which I declined.  That must have been when Stan came to hire Candido late that year; it was for a tour called the Festival of Modern American Jazz.  I gave him a very low bid, but still couldn't afford to go with the money he offered.  Stan told me he couldn't fit my asking price and I understood why, with 20 musicians in his band.  But I was doing so well by then, being called for soundtracks for most of the movie studios, not to mention all the TV shows––Red Skelton, Dinah Shore and the first Johnny Carson program, "Carson's Cellar."
I was working with Peggy Lee, Frances Faye and Jane Powell off and on.  So I was quite busy in the fifties making money. I joined Liberty Records in 1957.  Stan's former band vocalist, Gene Howard, was by then a very sought-after photographer.  He made pictures for album covers and was very good at it. He did most of the album covers for me at Liberty.
Did you get to see any of the later Kenton bands in his final decade, the 1970s, which I was fortunate to hear?  The last time I saw Kenton was about 1969.  It was a big banquet given in his honor at the Sportsman's Lodge in Hollywood…everyone was there.  All of his friends, people at Capitol Records and members of his band, past and present, along with an alumni band playing some of his familiar tunes.  I was very happy to see him. It brought back fond memories of when I first joined the band, when Stan told me, "Jack, in six weeks you'll be known around the world."  He was right. Being with the Kenton band was that strong. Unbelievable. [END)

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