In one of my earliest tunes, “New Orleans Blues”, you can notice the Spanish tinge. In fact, if you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz.
— Jelly Roll Morton, speaking during his Library of Congress recordings
“Manteca” is one of the most singularly awesome songs in the history of American music — one of the earliest to blend the clave rhythm of Cuban dance music with jazz. Its instant acclaim and popularity help establish Afro-Cuban music in the late 40s, reshaping much of popular music in the following decades. It is also a song that provided Gillespie a platform to speak out about the racism his band experienced in Georgia while touring. And it even influenced the Beatles.
Sometimes it is mistakenly called the first Afro-Cuban jazz song, but it was really Machito, with his musical director Mario Bauzá (who later introduced Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo) who had been working and recording in New York since 1940, creating the foundations for Afro-Cuban music. Still, fans consider Chano Pozo the spark that set the music ablaze. Pozo was one of many Cuban percussionists who had moved to New York City seeking opportunities denied in the nightclubs of Havana, where a racial divisions were so entrenched that even the President, Fulgencio Batista (who was of Spanish, African, Indian and Chinese heritage), was denied membership to one elite club. Others Cuban percussionists who became successful in New York include Mongo Santamaria, Armando Paraza, and of course Desi Arnaz.
“Manteca” was co-written by Dizzy Gillespie, Gil Fuller and percussionist Chano Pozo for Gillespie’s big band in 1947. The title (“Monteca” on the 45 in our collection) was a street term for marijuana. Pozo had just been hired by Gillespie and Fuller had been working as his arranger. Pozo brought the rhythm and the driving melody, and Gillespie provided the bright bridge, reflecting the Ellingtonian aspirations of his big band career.
It was first performed by the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band at Carnegie Hall in 1947 (for some reason the recording did not survive, or was not included when Roost Records released the concert on CD in the 90s). Early performances suggest Gillespie’s bop-based big band was not prepared for Pozo’s straight rhythms and he for their swinging shuffles.
On Gillespie’s 1957 Live at Newport LP, he leads the band in a chant of “I’ll never go back to Georgia!” reflecting the way he had been treated by Atlanta Police at the airport after a recent gig there. The phrase, of course, inspired the Joe Cuba Sextet’s 1965 hit, even though singer Jimmy Sabater Sr. later admitted no one in the band had ever been to Georgia.
Bobby Parker based his 1961 blues jam “Watch Your Step” on “Manteca” — his song was, in turn, was performed by an unknown bar band in Hamburg, Germany. They later based their song, “I Feel Fine,” on it.