By Willie Colón
Originally published July 3 1993
Three men died this summer.
Coincidentally, they were all in the arts, all musicians, all Latinos.
Originally published July 3 1993
They were all pioneers of the music we call Salsa today. The Latino community lost the creme de la creme of three generations of Latin music. Within a months time Louie Ramirez, Hector LaVoe and Mario Bauza were gone.
We expect our idols to be here forever. People who have been a part of our lives for so long, albeit through their musical work, can be gone tomorrow. In a way, their presence is our presence. They protect us. They let people know that we're here. Aside from the unexpected sense of mourning one experiences, it's an unpleasant reminder of our own mortality.
When I first dreamed of becoming a musician, Louie Ramirez was already an established accomplished arranger, vibraharpist, pianist and percussionist. Louie would win people over with his sense of humor. Charlie Palmieri and Louie Ramirez always had time for young upcoming musicians like me. When I was in a jam, trying to put my group together I could always count on Louie to help me locate players, even though he studied at Julliard, Louie would come and sit in to cover the chair if necessary. When I think about it now, this could have been pretty embarrassing for him. We must have sounded like hell.
Louie was not prejudiced. He treated everyone equally. No one was safe from his "Grouchoesque" wit. Louie had few enemies in the business because of his easy going ways.
His thing was playing, creating, and just plain working hard. He was the arranger of choice. He arranged for Tito Rodriguez, Machito, Tito Puente, and me, among others. He made so many hits that it was unthinkable to do an album without Louie's work on it. He arranged Fania Record's first hit for Johnny Pacheco, "El Guiro De Macorina. In 1986, with his group called "Noche Caliente" he officially kicked off the Romantic Salsa fad that is still going strong. His career however was like a roller coaster ride.
A musician's life is risky in every way. There's no economic security, not even a guarantee of professional respect. The scene is always changing. Its a never‑ending contest. Because of his talent, Ramirez, would always get his moment of triumph and recognition. In bad times, Louie would put on a good face with an honest philosophy of the streets and a brilliant sense of humor.
In Louie's passing we have lost another bold veteran who, armed with his cultural instinct and his love for what we are, helped us shine with our own radiance and showed us a path we could take to our find our tribal bliss. We shall each carry that torch in our hearts and take it as far as we can; in honor of Louie Ramirez and all of our fallen warriors. The struggle continues. Farewell my brother Louie, and please, behave yourself!
HECTOR LAVOE, friend, my partner and sidekick for eight years and over 20 albums. The hick from Machuelito, by Ponce's cantera, who became our "Elvis. The spirit of Puerto Rico and of the poor barrios of Latin America. That 90-pound "hayseed" who arrived at the big apple ready to take on the baddest of the bad.
That boy who applied the songs of Carlos Gardel, Felipe Pirela, Ramito and Odilio with the religious songs of the cross while adding Cheo and Maelo's funk; giving that alien desolate void that we on the mainland could never cross, a voice.
Hector Juan Perez was the bridge between our past and future Latino culture. Hector Juan Perez transformed himself into a persona called Hector LaVoe to accomplish a mission that slowly changed from a pleasure cruise to a battle of life and death.
A graduate with honors of The University of Proverbs and Anecdotes, Member of the Grand Circle of Improvisers of Improvisers, poet of the streets, honorary wiseguy, hero and martyr of the Cuchifrito Wars where he served courageously for many years.
The "captains of swing" respected him. That's why they nicknamed him the "Improvisers of Improvisers. The beginners feared him. When it came to words, Hector LaVoe was a killer:
In business, love and friendship, he was not. His fans are accomplices to this tragedy. Hector could curse everybody's mama and they would laugh; they spoiled him.
Hector LaVoe's history was filled with betrayal and disappointment. The good-looking country boy that drove all the women crazy also wanted to be a barrio baddass. In time, his shady friends "little presents" became thick heavy chains. This fault resounded in a fatal series of events that finally took that boy, who sang to The Almighty with all his heart, away from us.
The business world also betrayed him; record moguls who live like Saudi princes selling his records and reselling them as CD's without paying royalties as LaVoe languished in poverty; promoters who would offer him crumbs so they might sell tickets to exhibit "The Singer of Singers" in his agony; impersonators seeking to claim the name and memory of Hector LaVoe as their personal property; the Latino legal community also turned its back when asked to help protect him; and me, I too betrayed Hector by not having the courage to face him in his condition.
Life was worth more than a dollar to Hector. When the dirty water sharks learned this, they circled him as if he were bleeding. God knows, those who go through life devouring others and living for the buck wind up with few that will cry for them, and fewer still that will remember them in their prayers.
Pioneer, maestro, companion, today Latin America cries for you. Hero of the poor, victim of the forces that are decimating our people, martyr of Salsa ‑ the monster you helped create. Forgive us Hector.
MARIO BAUZA: The first thing that really made me identify with Mario was that we had the same birthday, April 28th. Mario was born in the district of Cayo Hueso, Havana in 1911.
He came to New York in 1930, worked with bandleader‑drummer Chick Webb and Cab Calloway, and became his old buddy from Cuba, Francisco "Machito" Grillo's first trumpet and MD (musical director). For many, many years Machitos band was "the" top Latin band in New York.
With Machito, he set standards for all groups to come. Their group called Machito and the AFRO Cubans is the grandfather orchestra that all Latin big bands were to follow. Thus, planting the seeds of what was to become the Afro‑Cuban/Jazz fusion legacy and the roots of the Salsa music movement. Although was loath admit that the Salsa movement even exists. Some veterans like Tito Puente still are. (That's another article. One could state that there is no Tito Puente but wouldn't make necessarily so . . . )
Mario's collaborations with the likes of Chico O'Farril, Clark Terry, Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, just to name a few, helped Latinos gain a foothold in America. As if that wasnt enough, Bauza is credited for discovering the young, then unknown, Ella Fitzgerald.
God knows what his work did to further the cause of Latinos and African Americans. The last time I saw Mario Bauza was when we did the Bill Cosby show together. It was, one of Cosby's last episodes and Mario's last TV appearance.
What I do know is that he was a very descent man, who was polite but not servile, and intelligent enough to treat others, even those with whom he disagreed, with respect. His coming to New York to become part of that black movement out of Harlem, is the stuff that no‑nonsense, grass‑roots, walk‑walking, activism is made of. He served us throughout his tireless work. At 82 years old, he'd recently recorded two albums, was still doing club dates and planning on doing a European tour. Our love, thanks and respect Maestro.
None of these men became rich from becoming Latino stars, despite the weight of their contributions. Theirs was a stronger, compelling cause. One that obliged them to continue unwaveringly into the abyss of creativity, risking sometimes their own self destruction.
The artist is the scribe of our society, the one who records what is, and proposes ideas that could be. Legislators of our social and spiritual laws. They came, did their work, and left this world for reasons beyond our comprehension. They recorded most of their work in Spanish but their legacy is part of the universal search for our deepest identity where we are all one.