Sonny Bravo was one of the mainstays of Tito Puente’s ensembles for nearly twenty years.
This post appeared on the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance blog, in January, 2016.
Puente’s recordings such as Tito’s Idea, The Mambo King: His 100th Album or Mambo Birdland feature Bravo’s work, at the piano, on paper or both. But he also played, arranged and recorded for a who’s who in Afro-Caribbean music, a list that includes flutist José Fajardo and percussionists Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaría, era-defining singers such as Vicentico Valdés, Miguelito Valdés, Celia Cruz and La Lupe and the great bands of Frank Grillo “Machito,” and Tito Rodríguez.
For the public at large, however, Bravo may well be just one more faceless musician.
“Public recognition or wealth have never been goals of mine,” noted Bravo, 79, in an interview conducted via email. “When the members of the Latin Giants of Jazz Orchestra, consisting of many ex-musicians of the Tito Puente Orchestra finished running down my chart of “No Me Molesto” at the rehearsal, they all started applauding [and] musical director, José Madera turned to me and said: ‘It’s the best chart on the CD.” That’s why I do this. That’s what’s important to me: The acceptance of my music by my peers.”
Bravo probably heard much more than acceptance by Arturo O’Farrill & the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and the audience, as they celebrated his work and that of masters such as José Madera, Johnny “Dandy” Rodríguez Jr., Ray Santos, Papo Vázquez, Reynaldo Jorge, Joe González and Bobby Porcelli in their “Tribute to the Great Sidemen of Latin Jazz” at Symphony Space, in New York City, January 29th and 30th.
Born Elio Osácar (he adopted his maternal grandmother’s maiden name tired of having his name mispronounced and misspelled) on October 7, 1936, in West Harlem, New York and raised in Miami, FL, he was surrounded by music. “My exposure to Afro-Cuban music began in the womb,” wrote Bravo.
His father, Santiago “Elio” Osácar, was the bassist for the Conjunto Caney, and his uncles, Tomás, a vocalist and tresero, and Macho, who sang, played guitar and maracas, “were ever-present in our lives.” In 1928, the brothers had founded El Sexteto Tampeño.
“That entire generation on both, my dad’s and mom’s sides, was born in Key West, FL & raised in Tampa, FL. My four grandparents were born in Santiago de las Vegas and Bejucal, suburbs of La Habana.”
Bravo wrote that he had been taking piano lessons all along, but that his dream “was not to become a Latin Jazz musician but a Major League Baseball player.” In fact, he attended the University of Miami’s School of Music on a baseball scholarship. He dropped from music school however, dejected after changes in the baseball program robbed him of a chance of playing as a freshman. But after injuring his arm playing in an Amateur League game he “decided to turn to the only other thing I knew how to do. I started playing with El Conjunto Casino de Miami, and soon after my dad’s death in 1957, joined El Conjunto Caney in 1959 and never looked back.”
He joined Tito Puente in the early ´80s and notes that “working with Tito Puente was quite educational. According to legend, he was a bit of a tyrant in his early days. He mellowed considerably as he aged. However, I was a leader before I was his sideman,” he points out.
Bravo had worked with big names such as Miguelito Valdés and La Lupe when, with percussionist “Dandy” Rodríguez Jr. (“The brains behind the movement,” observes Bravo) and singer Adalberto Santiago, they turned a collection of top Latin music sidemen who got together to jam at a small club in New York on Mondays into Típica ’73, a superb group that would shake up the conventions of salsa as it reconnected it to its Cuban roots.
In fact, Intercambio Cultural, arguably Típica ’73’s masterpiece, was a collaboration with Cuban master musicians such as Guillermo Barreto, Felix Chappotín, Tata Güines, José Luis “Changuito” Quintana and Richard Egües produced by Bravo and Rodríguez and recorded on November, 1978 in Cuba. It was a simple but brilliant idea that logically, naturally, closed the circle by bringing the experiments of the Neoyorkinos, back to the source. A conversation continued, indeed. But those were different times. Intercambio Cultural was an artistic success — but for the group, it was also a political, and as a consequence an economic, disaster.
“It´s our crowning achievement,” wrote Bravo, responding to a question about the recording. “For us it was an unforgettable experience. I wouldn’t trade those three weeks I was there for anything — even though it was the beginning of the end for Típica ’73 due to the blacklisting, negative press and death threats we received from the anti-Castro community. We never again played Miami, Union City, NJ, Club Cubano, etc. I’m thrilled about the current exchanges and I applaud Arturo for his efforts.”