One of Duke Ellington’s great qualities as a bandleader was that he personalized the role of each member of his orchestra. Their individual sound was so distinct, instead of writing the name of each instrument on the score paper, he instead would write the names of each individual player. Such an individual voice in the orchestra was valve trombonist Juan Tizol.
Born and raised in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico on January 22, 1900, his musical training came at a young age from his noted uncle Manuel Tizol who was the then director of the distinguished Banda Municipal (Municipal Band) and
Symphony Orchestra of San Juan, the island’s capital city. He eventually became a member of both groups. In 1920, Juan joined a band that traveled to the United States to work in Washington D.C. performing at the famed Howard Theater. It is here where he first met maestro Ellington. Many of the musicians stayed and became a permanent part of the orchestra. House drummer Sonny Greer stated that at one time “…the whole orchestra at the Howard was practically all Puerto Rican.”
In 1929 Juan became a permanent member of the Ellington band where he helped the orchestra tremendously becoming the bands “Straw Boss” (second in command) and copyist, helping to formally organize the orchestras repertoire while also contributing as a composer and arranger.
Noted for his beautiful tone, Tizol alongside fellow trombonists Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton and Lawrence Gilbert were given the sobriquet, “God’s Trombones,” by Duke. In 1936 Tizol wrote his signature piece, “Caravan,” which was first recorded by the Ellington orchestra in 1937. With its hypnotic Middle Eastern character, the piece has become a standard in jazz with hundreds of different versions being recorded by various artists worldwide and is one of the most requested tunes at any jam session.
Other well-known pieces by him are “Perdido,” “Pyramid”, “Lady of Puerto Rico,” whose name was changed to “Moon Over Cuba,” as well as “Conga Brava,” “Puerto Rican Chaos,” “Jubilesta” all expressing Tizol’s Afro-Caribbean roots. In 1944 Juan left Ellington to perform and record with trumpeter Harry James Big Band. He subsequently returned to the Ellington organization in 1951. In 1953 he permanently moved to Los Angeles becoming a studio musician while performing sporadically with the big bands of Harry James, Nelson Riddle, Louis Bellson and as a staff musician on the Nat King Cole television show. He returned very briefly to Ellington’s band in the early 60s passing away on April 23, 1984, in Inglewood, California, two years after the death of his wife, Rosebud.
Here is Tizol .C. 1952 performing with the Ellington Orchestra his signature piece. Also featured are other legendary Ellington sidemen, Ray “Floorshow” Nance on violin, Louis Bellson on drums, and Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet.
Duke Ellington, Caravan, Juan Tizol 1952
Here is multi-Grammy nominated DEFCA board member Bobby Sanabria conducting his students in the multi-Grammy nominated Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra performing Tizol’s “Moon Over Cuba” in a Live concert at the Manhattan School of Music c. 2013