We remember Mongo Santamaria (1917 – 2003)

Ramón “Mongo” Santamaría Rodríguez was born in Havana, Cuba on this day in 1917. He died in Miami in 2003. According to his obituary, he moved to New York City in 1950:

After establishing himself as a professional musician in his hometown of Havana, performing at the famous Tropicana Club with Conjunto Matamoros and Conjunto Azul, he toured Mexico with a dance team. In 1950 he arrived in New York and began working with Gilberto Valdés, playing charanga music, with its recognizable, courtly flutes-and-violin mixture in the frontline. Soon after, he worked with the popular bandleader Peréz Prado, and then for six years with Tito Puente, trading fireballs of percussion with the timbales-playing bandleader during the height of the mambo craze in New York City.

At the end of the 1950’s Mr. Santamaria left Puente’s band to join Cal Tjader, the San Francisco-based jazz vibraphonist, who was beginning to mix jazz and Latin music. With Tjader, Mr. Santamaria made the album ”Mas Caliente,” among others; it was a new, mellower Latin-jazz sound, popular among jazz audiences and another affirmation of the wide applicability of Cuban music.

In 1963, he put “Watermelon Man” in the Top 10 of Billboard USA. The rest is musical history and many of us danced to his recordings for a very long time.

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