When Cuban-born Graciela Grillo-Perez died on April 7, the world of Afro-Latin Jazz lost an icon. A pioneer in Afro-Cuban music and known simply as Graciela, Grillo-Perez earned and held the title “The First Lady of Latin Jazz” until her death in New York City at the age of 94.
In her last telephone interview with this reporter, which took place in 2006, Grillo-Perez was very excited about returning to the studio to work on a new album. She noted that she had some aches and pains, adding “that is expected at my age.” She continued, “Going in the studio is giving me some energy and, overall, I feel good.”
During the same period she wrote an insightful piece on her memories of Harlem that appears in the book Forever Harlem (Spotlight Press 2006).
Grillo-Perez’s early performances at the Apollo Theater in Harlem were spiced with sweet vocals and explosive harmonies, leading critics to refer to her as the Latin equivalent to Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. For more than three decades she was a dominant female singer, spanning the popular mambo and salsa eras. She was a member of the band of the great Francisco “Machito” Grillo, her foster brother. The two played a significant role in the creation of Afro-Cuban jazz on the New York City Latin front.
Grillo-Perez’ professional career began in Havana, Cuba, in 1933, when she joined the all-female band, Anacaona, named after an indigenous Indian queen. The formation of Anacaona about a year before, marked the beginning of “all-girl” bands in Cuba. Under the direction of flautist Alberto Socarras, the band toured Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico and New York.
Meanwhile, Machito and Mario Bauza, who played with Dizzy Gillespie and were the link who inspired Dizzy’s Afro-Cuban repertoire, formed “Machito and the Afro-Cubans” in New York in 1939. They were the first band to fuse jazz-arranging techniques with Afro-Cuban rhythms. When Machito joined the Army in 1943, Bauza called Grillo-Perez in Jesus Maria, a small town in Havana and asked her to come to New York and share the singing duties with Puerto Rican vocalist Polito Galindez. Upon arriving in New York, Grillo-Perez resided with Bauza and his wife Estela, Graciela’s sister, on 111th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. After three years in Harlem, Grillo-Perez made her first big hit, Si, Si, No, No, which got the group booked at the Apollo Theatre. On the night of the group’s perfromance, a young Sarah Vaughan was in the wings waiting to go on stage.
“I could hear her behind the curtains telling me, take a bow, take a bow,” Grillo-Perez said of that night.
In 1986, Bauza formed the Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra and Grillo-Perez joined him as the principal vocalist. After Bauza’s death in 1993, she went into semi-retirement making occasional public appearances and cameos on various recordings.
Grillo-Perez has appeared on more than 50 albums throughout her career. Her most recent recording, in 2004, Candido and Graciela–Inolvidable joined her with legendary conguero (conga player) and fellow countryman, Candido Camero, earning them a Grammy nomination. “I remember Harlem as the place that embraced me when I arrived in this city. It became my home away from home. Although I was not born here Harlem became my Jesus Maria,” stated Graciela in Forever Harlem.
For six decades Graciela carried the torch for Latin jazz, along with other pioneers such as Mario Bauza and Machito. Now, in this new millennium, Latin Jazz still rules in Spanish Harlem, or East Harlem, known by local residents as “el barrio.”