“I've had a lot of difficulties because of my character,” septuagenarian Armando Peraza admits as he holds court at Cafe Bucci in San Mateo for a rare interview. “I wouldn't take anything from anybody!” Apt words coming from a guy who once wrote a tune called “Te Aranco La Cabeza (I'll Tear Your Head Off).”
Part of the first wave of Latin drummers to arrive in the dust of Chano Pozo (whose collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s led to the fusion of bebop with Cuban elements and set the groundwork for today's Latin jazz), Peraza's flamboyant personality and stellar work with everyone from George Shearing to Perez Prado, Machito, Stan Kenton, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Santana has earned him titles like “the Miles Davis of the bongo” and the “Picasso of percussion.”
“He's a master who has taken the art of bongo playing to an incredible level,” says Bay Area percussionist and bandleader John Santos, who will honor this “revolutionary” of the bongo as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival.
“It has to do with how he gets different sounds out of his drum with the combination of fingers he uses,” Santos explains. “It's like tabla playing.”
Born and raised in Havana, Peraza first aspired to a semipro baseball career, and later boxing. In his early 20s, though, he fell into music and evinced a natural talent for the bongo, soon playing with acclaimed rumba bands like Conjunto Kubavana. He left Cuba in 1949 and moved to New York City with boyhood friend and percussionist/bandleader Mongo Santamaria, joining a musical revue that billed the duo “The Black Cuban Diamonds.” Bebop and the mambo were at their height, and Peraza concentrated on a fusion of the two styles.
When the show closed, Santamaria left for Mexico and Peraza joined hipster Slim Gaillard for a national tour. Booked at Jimbo's Bop City in San Francisco for the last stop, they tore the former Fillmore District club up, but when it was time to pay Peraza, Gaillard was nowhere to be found.
“It hurts to talk about those days,” Peraza says. “My English was so bad. I had to find the Latinos to survive. I headed to the Palomar Ballroom on Market Street near Van Ness, where Merced Gallegos was playing. As I was going inside I was stopped by a guard who told me I couldn't go in because it wasn't for blacks.
“Luckily, there was a guy at the door who was playing with the band that recognized me and told them who I was. I was asked to join the orchestra and soon started heading to the Fillmore.”
It was an electrifying time for music as the new Afro-Cuban jazz sounds began to filter in, even if there were only a handful of Latin orchestras playing them; young jazz musicians like Dave Brubeck and vibe maestro Cal Tjader (students at Mills College and S.F. State, respectively) were inspired by Peraza's work. Following Santamaria's lead, Peraza left for Mexico as a formality to establish U.S. residency, then returned to plant his feet in the Bay Area in 1953.
With a group called the Afro-Cubans, Peraza started a running gig at the old Cable Car Village. The next year, he and Tjader recorded the landmark album Ritmo Caliente for the then-S.F.-based Fantasy Records. Tjader had just returned from a stint with George Shearing's group and was obsessed with the idea of Latin jazz. “There was a lot of bongo fever back then, and I guess I played pretty well on that record,” Peraza laughs.
Shortly after, Peraza joined the Shearing Quintet just as Tjader was leaving it. It was during these next 12 years that Peraza came into his own as a jazz percussionist, not only performing feature spots onstage but contributing compositions to the group, tunes like “This Is Africa,” “Estampa Cubana,” and “Mambo in Miami.”
When Tjader scored a 1964 hit with “Soul Sauce,” he and Peraza hit the road again. It was Tjader who gave Peraza a chance to record his only solo album, Wild Thing (1968), on SKYE Records, where Tjader was working as a producer. Featuring Chick Corea, Johnny Pacheco, Sadao Watanabe, and Tommy Lopez, the record would greatly influence Escovedo brothers Pete and Coke, who brought Peraza in as a founding member of Azteca, the 1970s Latin rock ensemble.
This collaboration would be short-lived, as Peraza joined Carlos Santana's group in 1972 during the Caravanseri era. With the addition of fellow Cuban Orestes Vilato on timbales, Santana's music began to bubble, and Peraza would stay close to the legendary Bay Area guitarist for nearly 20 years.
“It was very satisfying playing with Santana,” recalls Peraza, who retired from active playing a couple of years ago after a struggle with diabetes. “We went around the world, and Carlos gave our music mucho valor internationally.”
“I consider myself lucky,” he continues. “I had the privilege to play with everybody. I'm also still alive when most people my age have disappeared. … I hope somebody in this new generation can accomplish what I have. If you believe in yourself, maintain your integrity, your principles, you have the fountains of prosperity. But as soon as you lose self-respect, you're finished.”
The San Francisco Jazz Festival presents “Homenaje: A Tribute to Armando Peraza” Fri, Oct. 20, at the Masonic Auditorium in S.F., featuring Peraza, John Santos' Machete Ensemble, Peraza's former Shearing bandmates Al McKibbon and Emil Richards, and special guests Francisco Aguabella and Orestes Vilato; call 788-