The Palladium legacy lives on
The idea of bringing together the three great Palladium orchestras in an innovative concept was the brainchild of Mario Grillo, better known in the music world as Machito, Jr. whom I had promised to address on the subject of the Big Three at the Palladium.
Here I share one of my dreams come true. To be able to write about what I am passionate about is a great luxury, but to have these greats of music welcome me with so much affection to fulfill it is simply magic, fantasy and illusion.
Mario Grillo was born and grew up in a home that supported and sponsored his decision to become a musician. However, his mother -Doña Hilda Torres (EPD)- forced him to practice one hour a day “the hard way” while she told him that being a musician was as serious as being a doctor or a “shyster”. Mario Bauzá was his solfeggio teacher, since reading music was mandatory in his professional path.
At the age of ten he was already playing with his father’s orchestra. When he was still in high school and only 15 years old, Mario Grillo was already the regular timbalero in Machito’s orchestra. However, Machito, Jr.’s career skyrocketed when he did not yet dream of being ready to become a bandleader.
In 1975, his uncles Mario Bauzá and Graciela Grillo Pérez left their Machito’s orchestra, forcing Machito to take action and rescue his orchestra. Machito did not seem to be affected by the fact that Mario Bauzá’s replacement had not yet reached the age of majority. At only 19 years old, Mario Grillo became a bandleader “a la cañona” as we say in Borinquen bella.
The new orchestra was affectionately called “Machito and his Kindergarten” since the musicians were youngsters hungry for musical experience. Although Mario Grillo did not know it, the virtuoso timbalero had been preparing for this moment since he was only five years old when he had performed a timbal solo with none other than the “King of the Timbal”.
In 1982, at the age of 25, Mario Grillo directed and produced the recording of the 1983 Grammy winning album in the category of Best Latin Recording. With great pride Mario adds that the recording was done in Holland and that the entire process was completed in four hours. It is worth mentioning that Machito and His Salsa Big Band won against Julio Iglesias, José Feliciano, Willie Colón & Rubén Blades and Ray Barretto.
Here is a sample of the album in reference (Arrangement by Isidro Infante):
I ask you: How did the idea of establishing The Big 3 Palladium Orchestra come about?
Mario Grillo Torres, whose name honors the great Cuban jazzman -Mario Bauzá (EPD)- and whose nephew he is, tells us that the idea came out of desperation. The booking agency of Mario Grillo’s orchestra found that its strongest market was rather in Europe and Scandinavia. However, one bad day Mario Grillo had to face the possibility of modifying his orchestra. His promoter suggested that he reduce the 16-piece orchestra to form a quintet or sextet to make the project more profitable.
Machito, Jr. laughingly recalls that he only knows about big orchestras, so he got down to work and started making phone calls. He called Tito Puente’s widow: Margie, Tito Rodriguez, Jr. and Tito Puente, Jr. Once Margie, Rodriguez, Jr. and Puente, Jr. agreed to ally with Machito, Jr. the latter returned to the booking agency in London to offer him three orchestras for the price of one. Three calls were enough for Mario Grillo to return to counter negotiate with that promoter, offering him an irresistible orchestra.
The idea entailed a large orchestra with three timbaleros. Each timbalero would play one third of the repertoire, corresponding to the repertoire of the Patriarch of the timbalero on duty. That is to say, Mario would lead the orchestra during the performance of Machito’s orchestra repertoire; Tito Rodriguez, Jr. would lead the orchestra during the performance of El Inolvidable Tito Rodriguez’s orchestra repertoire prior to the closing in which Tito Puente, Jr. would lead the orchestra during the performance of the King of Timbal’s orchestra repertoire. The booking agency representative had no choice but to give up the promoter’s original idea of reducing the large orchestra concept to form a smaller, more economical group, because no one offers three orchestras for the price of one. And Mario is not a salesman. As an important detail, the tour began after 15 concerts were confirmed, without the orchestra having posters, much less CDs to promote. And “in a crazy way”, as Mario Grillo describes it, they began to fulfill the “stews”. The first places to host that non-promotional musical tour concert were Columbia University and the Verizon Center. From there they went on to England, France, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria and Latvia.
A year into the tour, Mario Grillo was asked by the booking agency to promote a tangible during the next tour. The Big Three Palladium Orchestra, Performing the Music of Tito Rodríguez, Machito and Tito Puente was born.
This CD was recorded live at the Blue Note during two concerts that were “packed”, as Mario Grillo told me with emotion. The recording of this masterful production was coordinated from a rolling recording studio that monitored 48 microphones. The long awaited compact disc became the promotional item for the ten years that were added to that historic tour, which initially consisted of only fifteen concerts. The first concert of this historic reunion was in 2000. This year marks the 21st anniversary of the establishment of the Palladium’s Big Three Orchestra. Having come of age, this orchestra has the repertoire of the owners of the mambo. This results in more than three hundred record productions, which adds up to more than three thousand songs and no room for exaggeration; so as Mario Grillo declares: “Anything can happen”.
During the eleven years of touring Europe -Finland, Germany, Spain and France-, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco -to mention a few places- Mario Grillo repeated what he did with Machito’s orchestra; this time the legacy sounds through The Big Three Palladium Orchestra. For Machito, Jr. one of the most emotional moments was when they came to Puerto Rico for the Jazz Festival. For the first time, the heirs to the mambo era – Tito Rodriguez, Jr., Machito, Jr. and Tito Puente, Jr. – teamed up again in their three-orchestras-in-one concept to bring the Palladium legacy to Puerto Rico. In fact, between laughter and mischief Mario states that his father always insisted that: “the best interpreters of Cuban music are the Puerto Ricans” adding that this assertion guaranteed him tremendous fire within the Cuban community.
When I asked Mario about his favorite instrument, he commented with a loud laugh: “women, I’m malamañoso”. Once we returned to the line of conversation, he added that he has been a TOCA artist for ten years. With a serious tone he added that he is very proud of his colleagues, fellow artistic staff members within TOCA Percussion. Among that list, he mentioned Tito Rodriguez, Jr. and the late Jimmie Morales, who, according to Mario Grillo, used to make a fire out of two coffee cans no matter what brand of instrument it was.
As you can see, each of the “Palladium’s Big Three” left behind a timbalero son, coincidentally. These three timbaleros have made it their mission to keep the Palladium legacy alive and well.
With deep pride, Mario Grillo told me that in 2019, the 80th anniversary of the first Machito orchestra, established in 1939, was commemorated. The average seniority of the musicians who remain in the orchestra since its establishment is forty years. In fact, there are anecdotes that show Luis “Perico” Ortiz as an alumnus of Machito’s orchestra. It is said that when “Perico” was part of Mongo Santamaría’s orchestra, he would go to play with Machito’s orchestra during his days off. Another alumnus of Machito’s orchestra is the bongos player of the Gran Combo de Puerto Rico: Richie Bastar, who as a teenager became the substitute bongos player of that school orchestra. With the privileged memory that characterizes him, Mario Grillo states with admiration that in 1979 Machito identified excellence in Isidro Infante -also a former student of Machito- when they played in Finland.
Although Machito, Jr. has not insisted on being Machito’s son, it is not possible to forget that he is the son of one of the greats of mambo, creator of Cubop and salsa, so it is not surprising that his father is still a topic of conversation in musical circles.
Here is one of my favorites (Arrangement by René Hernández)
WebsiteBy: Bella Martinez “The Irreverent Salsa Writer” Puerto Rico
WebSite: Bella Martinez
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