Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Tizol, Juan (Juan Vincente Martinez)

Juan Tizol, one of the first prominent jazz musicians of Hispanic descent, brought his Puerto Rican heritage and excellent valve trombone technique into the Duke Ellington orchestra, where he helped plant the seeds of Latin jazz. Best known for composing the jazz standard "Caravan," Tizol was the most extensively-trained classical musician in Ellington's orchestra, and could execute a "legit" or "straight" melodic concept when called upon to do so.

Tizol was born on January 22, 1900 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where his uncle Manuel was one of the city's most prominent musicians. "Uncle Manolo" played cello, trombone and bassoon, directed the municipal band and conducted the symphony in San Juan at the time. Like fellow trombonist Miff Mole, Tizol began his musical studies on the violin, but also began playing valve trombone at a young age. Tizol claimed that he began playing in his uncle's orchestra at age eight.

In 1920, a group of Puerto Rican musicians that included Tizol was organized to work in Washington, D.C.. A ship's crew was paid to smuggle then into the country through New York City, and the musicians took up residence at the Howard Theater. This is where Duke Ellington, one of the regular pianists who played there, first heard Tizol play.

After a few months, Tizol left the Howard to work at the Republic Theater with Russell Wooding. He also worked occasionally with the White Brothers band alongside Arthur Whetsol, who collaborated frequently with Ellington. After a few years of playing with various East Coast bands, Tizol opened a delicatessen in Washington with his wife Rosebud. In 1929, Whetsol convinced Ellington to coax Tizol out of Washington to join his band at the Cotton Club. Tizol was probably recruited for his excellent sight-reading and classical technique, as the band was about to play a show with the Ziegfeld Follies that featured many new arrangements.

Tizol's addition to the ensemble created a five-piece brass section. Ellington recognized the new harmonic possiblities and adapted his writing to the new instrumentation. Tizol, working alongside Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton, also formed one of the first trombone sections in a jazz ensemble, allowing Ellington to occasionally feature the two playing in harmony separate from the trumpets.

Ellington also wrote occasionally for Tizol's more "legit" or classical valve-trombone style, in contrast to the improvised, plunger-inflected solos played by Nanton. Examples of Tizol's early years with Ellington include "St. James Infirmary," Mood Indigo," "Sing You Sinners," "Jungle Nights in Harlem," "Rockin' In Rhythm," "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" and "Diga Diga Doo."

Tizol's classical training also made him an indispensible behind-the-scenes operator for the Ellington orchestra. His ability to flawlessly transpose music into any key allowed him to occasionally fill in for any missing instrument's part. He was also the primary copyist for the band's music for most of his tenure with Ellington. That meant that he would spend hours proofreading Ellington's scores and writing out individual parts for each member in the band in what clarinetist Barney Bigard described as "such beautiful handwriting." He was also the best sight-reader in the band. Despite his limitations as an improviser, he was extremely well-respected by his bandmates and considered an indispensible part of the ensemble.

In addition to his importance as the band's copyist, Tizol also served an important social function in the group as its most ambitious practical joker. Tizol took great pride in many of his pranks, which spared nobody in the band - not even Ellington. His repertoire consisted of many common gags at the time, such as itching powder and firecrackers.

For many years, the light-skinned Tizol was the only member of the Ellington band to be considered, and who considered himself, "white." This led to a number of complicated racial encounters as, evidenced by the 1930 Amos and Andy movie Check and Double Check, in which Tizol was compelled to wear makeup to darken his skin to appear darker-skinned on screen.

Racial conflict also occasionally flared up within the band. In 1953, Tizol insulted bassist Charles Mingus with a racial epithet, mocking what he viewed as African-Americans' inability to sight-read. The incident led to an onstage confrontation between the two musicians, and led to Mingus's dismissal from the band.

In 1932, Ellington added Lawrence Brown to the band, creating one of the first three-trombone sections in jazz. Brown added another unique style to the trombone section, and was featured prominently as a soloist. This led to Tizol playing more as a part of the section and less as a soloist. Exceptions occurred when Ellington wrote passages that were too fast or awkward for the slide trombonists to execute effectively; in such cases, Tizol was voiced with the saxophones. Early examples of the three-trombone section occur on "Sophisticated Lady," a feature for Brown, "Daybreak Express" in 1933, and "Cocktails For Two" in 1934.

By this point, Tizol was also contributing his own compositions to the band's repertoire. His first work, "Admiration," was recorded in 1930, only months after he joined the band. Like most of his compositions for Ellington, it features a latin groove -- one of the early appearances of latin music in American jazz repertoire. Tizol occasionally played tambourine or maracas on these pieces. Other Latin-inspired compositions include "Moonlight Fiesta," "Pyramid," "Moon Over Cuba," and his most famous piece, "Caravan," first recorded in 1936 by a subgroup of the Ellington band, Barney Bigard and His Jazzopaters.

Not all of Tizol's compositions featured a Latin feel. He also wrote ballads such as "Lost In Meditation" and swing charts, of which "Perdido" is his best known, in part due to this version recorded by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in 1953.

Still, "Caravan" remains Tizol's most lasting contribution to the jazz repertoire. As jazz writer Dan Morgenstern put it, "Even if Juan Tizol had composed nothing else, he would doubtless remain immortal for having written 'Caravan'." The tune became a hit in 1937 after Ellington recorded it with the full band.

This 1937 performance also includes Tizol's solo rendition of the melody, his best-known feature with Ellington. His rendition features his characteristic clear, nuanced tone and rapid vibrato. The piece has become a jazz standard and been covered by hundreds of subsequent musicians, including Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Jorge Pardo, Bill Ware, Mulgrew Miller, and Oscar Peterson with Dizzy Gillespie.

Tizol left Ellington in 1944, marking the end of the trombone trio he helped make famous over twelve years together. One of Tizol's main reasons for leaving the band seems to have been his desire to spend more time with his wife, who lived in Los Angeles. Tizol signed a contract with Woody Herman, but was then offered a more lucrative offer by Harry James. Herman generously let Tizol out of the contract to be with James, who was based in Los Angeles at the time.

After seven years, Tizol decided to return to his old musical post in the Ellington band. This came at a critical time for Ellington, who had just suffered the loss of two important soloists in Lawrence Brown and Johnny Hodges as well as his longtime drummer Sonny Greer. Tizol brought his own solid playing back to the trombone section as well as alto saxophonist Willie Smith and drummer Louie Bellson from the James band. Tizol remained for three years, with occasional periods of time off to visit his wife in Los Angeles. "Harlem Suite," and "Skin Deep," were both recorded during Tizol's second run with Ellington.

Tizol returned to play with James in 1953, and played with him on and off until 1960. He also began playing occasionally with Nelson Riddle's orchestra as well as stints backing up Frank Sinatra, such as on "How About You,") Nat "King" Cole and Ella Fitzgerald on "Blue Skies." He eventually retired to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, where he passed away on April 23, 1984.

Tizol's extensive classical training and compositional excellence greatly influenced the Ellington orchestra's sound for many years. In addition to his contribution of "Caravan" to the standard jazz repertoire, as one of the first Latin American and foreign-born musicians to achieve excellence in jazz, he opened a door for many others to follow.

Contributor: Alex W. Rodriguez