In a career spanning forty years, trombonist, composer and bandleader Ángel “Papo” Vázquez has played a broad range of musical genres under a variety of directors in an array of settings. “My favorite leaders when I’ve worked as a sideman, the ones from whom I learned how to be a leader, were the guys who wrote the music,” says Vázquez, who was a member of orchestras led by figures such as Tito Puente, Chico O’Farrill, Mario Bauzá, Dizzy Gillespie, Slide Hampton, Eddie Palmieri and Arturo O´Farrill. “Those guys who put pencil to paper, they were always a pleasure to work for.”
“When someone like Chico got up to conduct the orchestra it put you at ease,” he says. “Because you knew that he knew what he was doing. All those black dots on the page, he put them there.”
Vázquez, a former member of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, is one of the indispensable but largely unknown musicians who have helped shape the sound of contemporary Latin Jazz. He will be honored by Arturo O’Farrill & the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra in their concert, Tribute to the Great Sidemen of Latin Jazz, alongside Sonny Bravo, Reynaldo Jorge, José Madera, Joe González, Johnny “Dandy” Rodríguez Jr. and Bobby Porcelli, at Symphony Space, in New York City, on January 29th & 30th, 2016.
Born in Philadelphia, Vázquez spend his early years in Puerto Rico before returning to the mainland, growing up in North Philadelphia. He moved to New York in 1975, he was just 17, “to play with the top Latin jazz guys of that era, the whole Fania thing. That was my main purpose,” he says. He did that and more. Vázquez not only worked with top names such as The Fania All-Stars, Ray Barretto, Willie Colón, Larry Harlow and Hector Lavoe but also became involved with the Latin music’s avant-garde, musicians “who were rebelling against the establishment.” He was an active player in the scene around Eddie Figueroa’s New Rican Village and became a charter member of landmark groups such as Libre, The Fort Apache Band (“Andy and Jerry González became like my big brothers and influenced me a lot.”) and, later on, back in Puerto Rico, the brilliant Batacumbele.
Those experiences led to his own experimenting blending jazz and indigenous Puerto Rican styles such as bomba and, in 1984, to his organizing his own group Bomba Jazz. The project evolved into his current group the Pirates Troubadours, an Afro-Puerto Rican jazz band.
Now as a leader, he remains especially grateful for the lessons learned with bosses such as O’Farrill, Bauzá and Puente.
“Those guys were the supreme leaders of the realm and they didn’t suffer fools,” he says with an expansive laugh. “What I admire most about those guys was that you couldn’t go there and play around or play the wrong notes because they knew what was on the paper. And that keeps you on your toes and makes you a better musician and a better person.” As for the players on those bands, many of them unknown to the public at large, and the tribute on Jan 30th, Vázquez says he’s “so happy and appreciative for this concert. It is so good to give this recognition.”
But while grateful, he also adds that he sees himself and his fellow honorees as a small representation of many others. “There is a long list of musicians who deserve this honor. There are so many musicians who participated in some capacity to make this music great, we all owe them a debt of gratitude for what they did.”
This piece was first posted on The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance blog, Jan, 21st,2016