Jack Costanzo: Mr. Bongo

SKF NOTE: Excellent portrait of Jack Costanzo. Here’s my edited version. Be sure to read Pop music critic George Varga’s full portrait with video at the San Diego Union Tribune web site.

B8821696Z.1_20151113211059_000G5G5IQ4P.3-0_r900x493 2Bongo pioneer Jack Costanzo drums on at 96
The legendary Latin-jazz percussionist, fondly known as “Mr. Bongo,” will perform Friday at Dizzy’s with the Bi-National Mambo Band, under the direction of Bill Caballero
By George Varga | 12:35 p.m. Nov. 14, 2015

What is most notable about this longtime San Diego resident isn’t how vivid his memory is now. Nor [that] he has collaborated with everyone from Nat “King” Cole, Dizzy Gillespie and Elvis Presley to Sam Cooke, Barbra Streisand and Marlon Brando…

Rather, it’s…that – at 96 – he is preparing for his next concert.

“I never smoked, I never did drugs, and that helped me be a healthy person,” said Costanzo.

“Jack is really an inspiration and a hero to all us musicians,” [trumpeter Gilbert] Castellanos said. “He put the bongos on the map and is the bridge between Latin-jazz and jazz. The fact that he’s 96, and still doing it, is unbelievable. He gives 200 percent every time he gets on the bandstand.”

Bongo pioneer

He is likely the only living musician whose credits range from Charlie Parker, Yma Sumac and…Patti Page to Mexican “Space-Age Bachelor Pad” music pioneer Esquivel, jazz-funk band The Greyboy Allstars and film giant Orson Welles….

…Costanzo was also hired to teach movie stars how to play bongos and congas.., …includ[ing] Gary Cooper, Betty Grable, Jack Lemmon, Rita Moreno, Van Johnson and James Dean.

[T]he bongos were virtually unknown in the United States when Costanzo was born in Chicago on Sept. 24, 1919. His first passion was dancing….

When he was about 14, Coztanzo heard a visiting band from Puerto Rico…. For one song, the group’s drummer switched to bongos…. Costanzo was instantly mesmerized.

Since there was nowhere in…the nation to buy bongos.., the enthusiastic teenager made his own. …Costanzo is entirely self-taught on the bongos.

“I listened to a lot of music,” he noted.

Why? What drew him to drumming?

“I don’t know,” he said. “It just came to me, and I did it.”

His big break came in 1947, when…Stan Kenton [hired] Costanzo….

His public profile grew almost instantly, thanks to such key recordings with Kenton as “Bongo Riff,” “The Peanut Vendor” and “Abstraction.”

Costanzo’s career soared even higher in the 1950s and ’60s, when he was being paid double and triple the going Musician’s Union standard rate for recording sessions. He was especially favored by singers, including Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra….

Has Mr. Bongo ever contemplated writing his autobiography?

“I can’t tell you how many people have asked me to, and my answer is always no,” Costanzo said.

“I played with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, but my favorite was Bud Powell. How come? Because he complimented me when we were done playing, that’s how come! He shook my hand, and said: ‘Finally, a bongo and conga player who can play jazz’!”

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