It is rare, and ever increasingly so, that a musician would spend a lifetime in a band. But percussionist Johnny “Dandy” Rodríguez Jr. who was a teenager when he was allowed to sit in with the Tito Puente Orchestra and be an apprentice for a few months before earning a place in its rhythm section, was also there at the end, playing alongside Puente until his death, after a concert on May 31st, 2000.
“I went from being a kid, coming into the band as a 16 year old to being the man running the band at the end,” said Rodríguez, 70, in a conversation from his home in Las Vegas.
Between that beginning and end, Rodríguez also contributed, in prolonged stints, to the sound of the Tito Rodríguez Orchestra, Ray Barretto, his own band, Típica ‘73, and more.
The son of Johnny “La Vaca” Rodríguez Sr., a respected percussionist who also played with the Puente and Rodríguez orchestras, “Dandy” Rodríguez is one of those essential musicians who have created and shaped the sound of contemporary Latin Jazz yet are little known by the public at large.
While some of the great players in the Duke Ellington or Count Basie bands have long been recognized for their contributions, their counterparts in the Latin orchestras, for the most part, have not. Rodriguez 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, Ray Santos, Papo Vázquez, Reynaldo Jorge, José Madera, Joe González and Bobby Porcelli at Symphony Space, in New York City, January 29th and 30th.
“When they called me about the concert I thought it was such a great idea,” says Rodriguez. “Usually people just know the name of the band leader and it’s fine,” he says. “But they must remember that there is a good team behind that leader which makes him look so much better. There’s a way of playing that music that makes it sound the way they wrote it and the way they wanted it — and these guys knew it and they knew how to do it.”
Rodríguez grew up in Spanish Harlem, Manhattan, in a house with “a great music collection, a good, what was then called, hi-fi system and always full of musicians,” he recalls. “It was great — but I was interested in baseball, in stickball. I didn’t get involved with music until later, but music was always in the background, in my house.” By the time he was in junior high, Rodríguez played bongos, congas, timbales and set drums and, as he puts it, “started to get into it.”
“Remember, I lived in El Barrio and back in those days, in that area, there was a lot of music in the air. There would be speakers outside the furniture store or the bodega or the record shop, and music would be playing. This shop would be playing this radio station, the butcher would have another, so walking one block you’d be hearing three different pieces of music. It was an environment full of music.”
“And I also remember as a kid going to rehearsals with my father. It was great,” he continues. “And my mother was a very good dancer at the Palladium. They were both very well liked and it made it very easy for me to get my foot in the door.”
His joining Puente is a case in point. Rodríguez was 16 and playing with a society band at the Taft Hotel which, he recalls, every Saturday would feature a Latin orchestra, be it Tito Puente, Machito or Tito Rodríguez. He was playing timbales then, and just starting with the bongos. “But Tito knew my father, and he knew me since I was a baby, so they let me sit in and fool around,” he says. “But I got better and better, and about four months later I hear a conversation about the band going to Puerto Rico and Jimmy Frisaura, the band director, asks me: ‘Would you like to go to Puerto Rico?’ — and that was the beginning.”
In an eerie symmetry, Rodriguez’s musical career with Tito Puente ended where it began.
“In the last 10 years of the band, I was running the business and my partner, José Madera, was the musical director. Tito was the leader, he would just come and play,” he says before pausing for a beat. “I was with Tito Puente until the day he died,” he says. “I was with him in his last concert, at Bellas Artes, in Puerto Rico.”
Having worked with Puente and Rodríguez (from 1965 to 1968), gave the percussionist insights into “two big bands of the same size and very different approaches.”
If Puente’s band suggested a large percussion instrument, it was because “Puente was a percussionist and most of his arrangements were based on percussion. There were a lot of rhythm things, breaks,” he says. In contrast, “The Tito Rodríguez Orchestra was smoother and [provided] more of a background. The focus was the vocals. Puente was 95% excitement, rhythm. Tito Rodríguez was 95% cool, smooth, a bit more relaxed. Machito’s band was somewhere in the middle. He had some excitement but also some laid back numbers too.”
Rodríguez and Madera, leading The Mambo Legends Orchestra, a repertory band featuring arrangements of the classic Latin orchestra era, want to remind audiences that that sound remains as powerful as ever. “We feel as if we have been commissioned to keep this music we love in the eyes and ears of the young generation,” says Rodriguez. “And we know that when we play these dances, people love it.”
This piece is also posted on The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance’s blog