Threading underneath most of Carlos Ortiz’s joyous documentary “Machito: a Latin Jazz Legacy” (showing Saturday and Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m. through June at the Monica 4-Plex) is a Latin beat--omnipresent, infectious--and it makes your feet want to dance and sway. A lot of the time, it pulses from the hands and maracas of Machito himself.
We see him here--(Machito) Frank Grillo, born in Cuba, 1908--near the close of his life, in a modest Bronx living room, with his wife of 40 years. And we also see him--in splendid archival footage and publicity stills--in his heyday, as a monarch of New York Latin music. But the film proves to us that his heyday never really passed. As he talks, he seems quiet, self-effacing, supremely gentle and humane, never arrogant or full of himself.
In Machito’s hands, the salsa music of his native Cuba--itself a hybrid of Caribbean and slave musics and European harmonic and melodic influences--was married to the big band jazz and be-bop of America. This was jazz during its most mercurial period: the ‘30s of the big bands, the ‘40s of be-bop, the ‘50s of “cool.”
During those years, Machito formed The Afro-Cubans with his arranger-trumpeter brother-in-law Mario Bauza. He was the crossover king of salsa, the Latin music maker, whom jazz luminaries all wanted to record and play with--and his records include tandem performances with Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Johnny Griffin and Buddy Rich. Even into the ‘80s in this film, we see Machito trading passionate licks with two old friends: trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, of the bent bell and the billowing cheeks, and the long, tall, ineffable tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon.
This is a movie that can make you cry and laugh as well as dance. The archival footage--arranged with impressive taste and economy--shows us the rise of one music and then a marriage of two. We see and hear the music scene of the young Machito’s Cuba, and we see and hear the Cotton Club’s young Duke Ellington--in an Art Deco visualization of “Black and Tan Fantasy.”
We see the streets of Spanish Harlem, as they were when Machito immigrated in 1937. Then we discover what happened when those musics joined, a happy and explosive merger of two cultures, wh1768122412Cugat, Tito Puente and Perez Prado--and of this assemblage, Machito was the equivalent of Ellington or Basie.
His rise was swift. Afterward he faced what every popular entertainer fears: the shift of the spotlight. Yet, as Ortiz shows, Machito stayed a music maker, felt no bitterness, kept touring and made more than 75 albums. In 1982, remarkably, he won a Grammy.
Documentaries, at their best, can bring you near to the past, to people and events you might never have known. That’s what director-cameraman Ortiz has done here: brought us close to a wonderful man and a marvelous life and music we might otherwise have missed.