Orkester Journalen, April 1968:
"Percussionist with Joie de Vivre"
by Lasse Mattsson
Sabu: Happiness is: To live in Sweden, to be married to Agneta, to play, to jam with a great many friends, to play, to be with all the wonderful people and musicians here, to hear applause, to play, to get support, to listen to music, to play. And to play... I have to talk about how glad I am to be here. You may be my psychoanalyst...
OJ: Down in a cozy, basement lair in a house in Bromsten, outside Stockholm, sits a jazz legend --an old pal of Dizzy, Parker, Blakey-- and he enjoys life more than ever.
Six hours of talking to Sabu does not lead to anything about how or what he plays. Only that he plays, loves, lives.
We all have seen how jazz music conserves ones outer and inner sides. Sabu, world champion of congas --and master of bongos, maraccas, triangle(!)-- remains one of a kind. Now 44 years old, he looks 20 years younger. In the old, entangled documents from Harlem it says that he was born in 1930. He knows better himself. Men do not write about the appearance of other men. But you would have to search far to find anyone more fresh, vigorous, and attractive on a bandstand. A jazz musician with every qualification but one: the ability to make enemies.
After three hours about happiness, music and a home, Orkester Journalen gets Sabu --"I have seven to eight proper first names, don't care a bit about them"-- to tell briefly the story of his life.
Before then a hurried, painfully unsung good friend bids farewell: Frank Corvini --Argentinian trumpet player from Buenos Aires-- who has played with Dizzy, Josephine Baker, Carmen Cavallaro, and the Platters (famous for "Only You," among other songs) and now has lots of movie, recording, and other studio-oriented jobs after his one-year stay here. He played, for instance with Nancy Wilson on Berns.
Tell us, Sabu!
Sabu: I was born on 111th Street in Spanish Harlem in New York. On July 14th, 1930 -- according to the documents, ha ha. I am of Spanish-African-West Indian origin.
When I was eleven years old, I joined a trio. First I played on tin cans in back yards. Then --still eleven-- I got a job on 125th. We had 25 cents. Every third night.
Maybe you'd like to know what I did before I reached eleven? I sold drugs and booze, broke windows, stole, fought, lived among murder and in slums, fighting like a savage to survive. With fists and picklocks. You may write that. It's a part of my life...
I got jobs with the Latin bands of Marcelino Guerra and Catalino Rolon. Military service one for year, joined up when 17. Got out, joined Joe Loco and Josephine Premice, played clubs. 1946 was my first year with serious jazz, with Art Blakey's Big Band -- with, among others, Cecil Payne and Ernie Henry. Became buddies with Monk and Silver. Occasional gigs with them.
But I needed food too. I joined the Lecuona Cuban Boys in the summer of 1947. Stayed for half a year. I'll never forget when my friend Chano Pozo was murdered. We were in Chicago with Lecuona. Chano had played with Dizzy. I mourned deeply, cancelled the agreement [with the Lecuona Cuban Boys], and took the train to New York and the Strand Theatre and asked Dizzy if I were needed. "Yes," he said.
I stayed with Dizzy for nine months and made my first jazz recordings with him. In April, 1949 I joined Benny Goodman and June Cristy. But then a dream job came up and I quit: 13 weeks at the Three Deuces in New York with Charlie Parker, Red Rodney, Al Haig, Curly Russel and Max Roach. Yes, thank you -- good!
Just at that time I became good friends with Marlon Brando [whom we saw on percussion on UNICEF-TV from Helsinki a couple of months ago]. We still keep contact. There is maybe some collaboration on its way...
Then I was with the late Latin king, Miguelito Valdes --"Mr Babalu"-- before I met Harry Belafonte. He came and woke me up in the mornings and dragged me home to his mother on Amsterdam Avenue, where we rehearsed and raged before the roughly thirty charity concerts I made with him. That was 1951-52.
Then I joined Blakey's Jazz Messengers, went back to Josephine Premice, and back to Blakey in House of Flowers in 1954. I was with Buddy DeFranco in 1955. By then I already had made a couple of films for Universal, and it was great to get my own band in Hollywood and make some grammys for Norman Granz: a successful "Stairway to the Stars," among others.
In 1956-57 there was the tour with Tony Bennet, sadly unknown here. The best singer in the business! In 1958 I had my own Afro-Cuban band, with grammys for RCA, Columbia, and Blue Note. Then I made my money running a burlesque and strip joint in Baltimore [home of the Sabu Home Page -- editor] for close to three years. Then it was jazz again: records and other jobs with Blakey's Messengers.
Well, I had already played with J.J. Johnson, Wynton Kelly, Mingus, and Kenny Clarke in 1959. And in 1961 I started on my own again -- first in New York, then in San Francisco on "Jazz Workshop."
I went back to Blakey in '63. Then it was exciting with new things with Tony Bennet, Xavier Cugat, and Sammy Davis, Jr., among other things in Puerto Rico. There, I also acted in a couple of films for the famous Argentinean Leopold Torre-Nilsson.
OJ: It was in Puerto Rico that personal milestones happened. One day a Swedish woman turned up... Agneta Brogestam-Martinez, blond, tall and slender --from Bromsten, B.A. with four diplomas in chemistry-- became the wife of Sabu on the 4th of January, 1967 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They managed to finish four days of the honeymoon. Agneta happened to be Lill Lindfors' best friend. Asked her if possibly Sabu could get a job here [in Sweden].
The old jazz enthusiast Lill went into a spin. And here he is, up to his ears in work. All since his arrival in August. Why "Sabu?" Dizzy named him. He is exceedingly like "the elephant boy" -- the old Hollywood star Sabu, whom he [Sabu Martinez] actually met once in Belgium. Big laugh for the similarity.
Sabu: Lill had expected an elderly man, 44 years, ha ha. Everybody else, too.
Lasse Lönndahl, Gunnar Wiklund -- do you really know how good they are? -- Siw Malmqvist, Svante Turesson, Nisse Hansén, -- yes, I want you to mention all my friends... Lars Egler, Torbjörn Axelman, Ardy Strüwer, the artist director of Berns; Ulla Stenberg, Aller Johansson, Anders Burman, Anders Linder, Carl-Axel Dominique... And don't forget daddy and mummy Olof and Birgitta Brogestam. And the dachshund, Kicken. This is my family. I am the son in the house.
To play and have a home waiting... I dig you people! This is my bag, man!
OJ: Sabu and Agneta soon will get a flat close to the house on Mjölvägen. Sabu's schedule on the wall is full, backwards and forward: the Strand with Clifford Fears-Dyane Gray, TV with Siw, recording with Christer Boustedt, movie, radio, Park Avenue in Gothenburg with Lill and Anders and Gunnar Svensson in May...
Sabu: Lasse Werner, Christer B., Janne Carlsson, Bertil Lövgren, Sven Hessle... Do you realize what musicians you have in this country, really? And what people... Lasse Ekborg, Monica Z., Palle Danielsson, Monica D.... Whoa, whoa, whoa...
OJ: We listen to a tape with Bosse Broberg, and a tape with Monica Dominique. At one point there is applause that swells and roars. "This, you understand, is life!," Sabu rumbles, pointing at the source of the sound.
(OJ's special correspondent was forced to do some poor, Teddy Wilson imitations on the piano before being allowed to leave.) "Ah, music, man," Sabu thunders.
This wonderful madcap --who has evolved great plans for high-level, Afro-Cuban jazz in Sweden (which is going to conquer the entire country from top to bottom, thanks to his playing)-- we should be darned thankful to have here.
Let's be his bag, man!
-- Lasse Mattsson
This interview was published originally in Orkester Journalen (Sweden's Downbeat), April 1968. It is reprinted here by the gracious permission of Lars Westin, Editor.
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