Jazz Caliente: Meet the Rhythm Makers, Part 6

Oct 6, 2017

Ramón "Mongo" Santamaría Rodríguez is probably the most recognized of the Cuban-born conga drum players associated with American jazz and R&B.  To many, Mongo represented the pinnacle of Afro-Cuban percussion.

Mongo Santamaría was best known for his 1963 hit "Watermelon Man" and his composition "Afro Blue," which was made famous by John Coltrane.   

Mongo first came to New York from Havana in 1950, and spent the years of the Mambo craze working with Mambo Kings Pérez Prado and Tito Puente. 

He moved on to San Francisco to play with Cal Tjader's band.  The West Coast musicians produced a softer Latin jazz sound than their New York counterparts. 

But at the same time, Mongo recorded an album of authentic Cuban religious drumming and chanting, showing its West African roots.  That 1958 album, "Yambú," was followed by the album "Mongo," which introduced the composition "Afro Blue."  

Mongo Santamaría recorded live at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley in Seattle, March 1990
Credit KNKX music library

Mongo headed back to New York in 1962, forming his own band to play his special style of Latin jazz.

When Herbie Hancock substituted for Mongo's pianist one night, the band experimented with adding an Afro-Cuban rhythm to Hancock's freshly-written tune "Watermelon Man."  Recorded in 1962, it became Mongo's theme song, and heralded the era of Latin Soul music.

Listen for Mongo Santamaría's version of the Temptations song, "Cloud Nine" this week on Saturday Jazz Caliente.  And spend some time with this rare interview and live performance video from 1980:

Jazz Caliente airs Saturdays at 5:00 p.m.  The show is hosted by Robin Lloyd and produced by KNKX Public Radio.