A Toast to Salsa Trailblazer Larry Harlow, Dead at 82

Bobby Sanabria hosts the Latin Jazz Cruise on WBGO every Friday from 9-11 p.m. ET, which will be devoted in its entirety to Larry Harlow on Aug. 27. He toured and recorded with Larry for over 25 years, and drew on their personal conversations for this tribute.
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Larry Harlow, a ubiquitous presence in salsa who gained the sobriquet “El Judío Maravilloso (The Jewish Marvel),” died on Friday, Aug. 20, at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, NY. He was 82.

His wife, Maria Del Carmen Harlow Kahn, said the cause was renal failure.

A pianist, arranger, producer, and forward-thinking visionary, Harlow pioneered the use of electric keyboards in salsa — as well as creating the powerful two trumpet, two trombone front line that most bands in the genre use today. He gave the music a New York identity while retaining its deep Afro-Cuban roots. He also was the first Latin artist to develop the concept album, with massive works like La Raza Latina: A Salsa Suite and Hommy, A Latin Opera.

Brooklyn Roots

A product of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, Lawrence Ira Kahn was born on March 20, 1939. His father, Nathan “Buddy” Kahn, was a bass player and leader of Austrian descent of the dance band at New York’s famed Latin Quarter. His mother, Rose Sherman, was of Russian descent, and an accountant who occasionally sang opera. According to Harlow’s son, Myles, Rose got young Larry his first gig, at the Carroll Hotel in the Catskills.

On his father’s side, the Kahn family has Austrian Ashkenazi Jewish pedigree; Harlow’s paternal grandfather was the theater critic for The Jewish Daily Forward. Buddy Kahn was the first to adopt Harlow as a surname. “My father was in a car accident and a doctor happened to have arrived on the scene and saved his life,” Harlow told me. “His last name was Harlowe. So my father took on his last name to honor him. Later on I just dropped the ‘e’ in the spelling.”

Growing up, Larry had a front-row seat to his father’s gigs at the Latin Quarter. Owned by Lou Walters, the “LQ” featured top acts of the day, like Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, and Dean Martin with Jerry Lewis. “Lou’s daughter was Barbara Walters,” Harlow recalled. “We used to sit in the balcony just amazed at the shows. My Dad could sing in different languages, so he became very popular with the patrons there and ran the band for about 30 years. He also took me to a lot of Broadway shows so I got to experience musical theater at a young age.” That influence that would later manifest itself in the large-scale works he would later produce.

His Brooklyn roots generated lasting friendships. “I grew up on Rockaway Parkway. I have close to 50 fiends that I keep in touch with, going back all the way back to when I went to grammar school,” he said. “A lot of them — like Neil Axelrod who I met in kindergarten (filmmaker) and Leon Gast (late, great photographer, Oscar winning film director) — still come to our gigs.”

Music and Art

Trained as a pianist from age five, Larry later excelled on a variety of instruments. “I got accepted to the High School of Music and Art, which was then on West 137th and Convent Avenue Street in Upper Harlem,” he said. “I don’t know how it is now, but back then it was very advanced and prestigious to have gone there. You got, in four years of high school, what today you get in a four-year conservatory. A lot of the players in the New York Phil had gone to the school. In those days, besides your primary instrument, you had to take a secondary and a tertiary instrument as well. The oboe was my secondary one, and I got decent enough at it that I used to play occasionally in the Brooklyn Philharmonic.”

Larry Harlow

A bar mitzvah portrait of Larry Harlow (Kahn), at 13.

Music and Art High School proved life-changing for another reason: “When I got off the subway, you had to walk up this long hill to get to the school. I used to hear Latin music coming out of the bodegas. I dug the rhythm… the music was popular with us Jews, but I really didn’t know anything about it.”

An African American saxophonist named Hugo Dickens led a popular band in Harlem at the time. This under-documented group became an incubator for many future stars of Latin music, like trombonist Barry Rogers and percussionists Wille Bobo, Steve Berrios and Pucho Brown. Depending on the pay for the gig, it would perform as a small combo or a big band. “I sat in at a rehearsal,” Harlow recalled.

Larry Harlow's first band

Some members of Larry’s first band while in Music & Art High School in 1953: Marty Lang, Larry Harlow, Joey Amanti, Larry Smith.

“They played stock arrangements of Cuban tunes like ‘Mambo No. 5.’ I could read well, and played everything that was written on the paper. They basically told me I sucked, that I didn’t know how to play the music. I was confused because I was reading exactly what was on the paper. I learned that the piano parts were simplified, really corny, and not what real-deal Latin piano players would play on a gig. So I went to a record store and brought albums by Noro Morales, Joe Loco and others, and figured out that they were breaking up the chords in a rhythmic manner, which in Cuban music is called ‘guajeo.’ Then a trumpet player in one of my classes who was Italian taught me about clave, the rhythmic building block of Cuban music. He actually wrote out the pattern, explained to me the principle of how it worked. There were also a few Latino students at the school who helped me. I was fascinated. I fell in love with the music. I was into Thelonious Monk, jazz, all of that. I was one of the guys writing “Bird Lives!” on subway station walls when Charlie Parker died. But at that time, most of the people in jazz that I admired were junkies, and that turned me off. I dug that in Latin music you could improvise, there was dancing, it was exciting, the rhythms. That’s when I decided that I had to go to the source of the music, Cuba.”

Cuba and the Catskills

The first time Harlow went to Cuba, he had the perspective of a tourist. “But the second time I went, I was smart,” he said. “I brought an old Webcor reel-to-reel tape recorder and recorded as much as I could. There was music literally everywhere. I saw Orquesta Aragón, Cuba’s premier charanga (flute and violin) orchestra, and made friends with the musicians. I actually would travel with them on their bus to gigs. I learned Spanish, went to Santeria ceremonies, rumbas — you name it, I did it. There was a luncheonette in La Habana that all the musicians would go to called Fania. That’s where I first met [future Fania Records founder] Jerry Masucci. He was from Brooklyn like me, so we hit it off.”

Harlow’s research trip to Cuba was cut short when Fidel Castro marched into Havana on New Year’s Day, 1959. “I was sitting on a park bench and one of the rebels came up to me and said, ‘You better leave,’” he recalled. “I took the first plane out of there.”

Returning stateside, he found work with boyhood friend and vibes player Harvey Averne — in the Catskills region in upstate New York. Dating back to the 1920s, the Catskills was known as the Borsch Belt for its popularity with the Jewish community. The area gave rise to a series of summer resorts and an incredibly thriving entertainment industry employing hundreds of musicians. A typical evening would feature a Las Vegas-style show with a headliner accompanied by a big band, followed by a Latin band which would close the evening for dancing. Bungalows could be rented by families for the weekend or the whole summer, which led to some interesting socializing.

Larry recalled: “A family would rent out a bungalow for the whole summer.”

”The men would return to the city to go back to work during the week, leaving their beautiful Jewish wives and daughters all alone over the weekend. Some of the men would say to the musicians, ‘Here’s 25 bucks. I want you to watch my wife.’ Well, what do you think happened? Not only were we watching their wives, we were watching their daughters, too. But it worked the other way as well. Most of the men who left their wives and daughters up there had their shiksas in the city as well. People think all the rock and rollers were having all the fun. Some of that was depicted in the movie Dirty Dancing, but believe me, it was a lot dirtier. I was young and having a lot of fun.”

But in terms of lasting importance, the hedonism took a backseat to the music. “There was a small hotel called Schenck’s,” Harlow said. “It was the last hotel, and all the Latin musicians would show up after all the others had closed for the night. The owner left us the ballroom so we could jam all night. That’s where I met a lot of the musicians who would later become superstars.” In the 1998 PBS documentary Through the Eyes of Larry Harlow – El Judio Maravilloso, legendary salsa vocalist Cheo Feliciano recalled those sessions at the Schenck’s: “It was fascinating to see how these Americans, Jews, who had nothing to do with our idiosyncrasies, played our music.”

Orchestra Harlow

After the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, the U.S. placed trade and travel embargos on Cuba. No longer were groups from the island coming to New York City, Latin music’s epicenter. All the major labels had dropped most of their Latin artists, as the consensus was that Latin music, particularly the Cuban kind, was a losing business proposition.

This vacuum was soon filled by Masucci, a former New York City police officer turned lawyer, and Johnny Pacheco, a Dominican-born flutist and percussionist who had played with Tito Puente. When they formed Fania Records in 1964, Larry was their first artist signing.

“The first thing I noticed was that he really knew how to play Latin music,” Pacheco attested in a 2010 profile of Harlow by Larry Rohter in the New York Times. “He had the band set up, and they were pretty tight, but when he took a solo, that’s when he really got me. He used to take incredible solos. You could tell he had really listened to Peruchín and all those guys in Cuba. The scales he used to play, I was flabbergasted. He really was El Judío Maravilloso.”

Harlow’s early recordings featured the New York-born hybrid called Latin Boogaloo, a fusion of Cuban rhythms like cha-cha-cha, guajira, and son montuno with English lyrics. “I hated it,” he said. “But I did it because it was selling, and we had to stay relevant.”

Then in 1970, one of his heroes — Arsenio Rodríguez, the blind marvel of the Cuban tres — died of pneumonia. Harlow’s subsequent Tribute to Arsenio Rodriguez recording was the first acknowledgment by any bandleader of Rodriguez’s importance to what today is known as salsa. That it came from someone who was not even Latino only helped secure its legendary status.

“Without Arsenio there is no salsa,” Harlow affirmed. “This man, who was the first to add the conga drum, the piano, multiple trumpets, and more to the music, had died in obscurity. No one in the Latin scene did anything in tribute to him. As a Jew I would hear the occasional snide comment about me being an outsider. That album helped to erase some of that snide commentary and got me some respect.”

Here Larry takes a piece of music by Rodríguez that has West African vocal elements, and creatively adds an orchestrated soli section with flute and tres while adding some creative cierres (stop time breaks) with the percussion. It’s trad and rad, from his 1974 album Salsa, which Larry called his favorite work.

No Quiero

Fania All-Stars

Among his many other distinctions in Latin music, Harlow was a founding member of the Fania All-Stars, which first convened in 1968. “The Fania All Stars was inspired by the old Alegre All Stars albums that Al Santiago had produced in the early ‘60s,” he said. “The concept was to take all of the best bandleaders on the Fania label and for each of them to pick two of their sidemen and their singer and assemble it into a supergroup. We had a gig at the Cheetah nightclub in New York City which today is S.I.R. Studios. I was the one who told Jerry that he should film it. I got my old friend Leon Gast as the director and the film was made.”

The film in question was Our Latin Thing, released in 1972. It was mainstream America’s first glimpse into New York’s vibrant underground salsa scene. Waxing poetic, Larry recalled: “New York Puerto Ricans were looking for an identity and they found it in Cuban music. But it’s Cuban music the way it’s played in New York.” A highlight of the film are the scenes of Larry in the recording studio directing an overdub vocal sweetening session with vocalists Ismael Miranda, Adalberto Santiago and Cheo Feliciano, who sang lead on the tune “Anacaona.” Larry is also featured on what has become an iconic piano solo.

Anacaona. Fania All Stars (Our Latin Thing)

Hommy

In 1969, The Who released Tommy. A rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind child who was a wizard at pinball, it brought rock into the world of high art. Larry had been a fan of the genre, its over-the-top dressing and production values, and had even experimented with his own rock group, Ambergris.

Larry Harlow conducting 'Hommy'

Larry Harlow conducting ‘Hommy’ at Carnegie Hall in 1973.

“I was deeply affected by Tommy. It was amazing,” he said. “I was inspired and started to collaborate with vocalist and composer Genaro ‘Henny’ Alvarez, and we came up with a Latin opera which we called Hommy. The difference was that it was a deaf, dumb, and blind kid who was a virtuoso conga player.”

Although obviously derivative, this collaborative effort was so musically different that it stands alone as a masterpiece. On March 29, 1973, Harlow conducted a 50-piece orchestra in a concert performance of Hommy at Carnegie Hall. The music featured eight vocalists — including Celia Cruz, who had retired to life in Mexico. It was a triumphant moment for both Larry and the city’s mostly Puerto Rican community, as now the music had moved into the realm of high art. Here is the song from the opera that brought Celia back to the public’s attention.

Gracia Divina (Live)

And here is the recreation concert performed at Lincoln Center on July 23, 2014, which unfortunately was cut short by a catastrophic rainstorm out of a science fiction movie. Yours truly and my multi-Grammy nominated Multiverse Big Band was chosen by Larry as the core back up band with the addition of a string section and chorus. In total, 100 musicians were onstage.

Larry Harlow’s “Hommy: A Latin Opera” – July 23rd, 2014

La Raza Latina

In 1977 Larry composed his next masterpiece, La Raza Latina. Tracing the music’s roots from West Africa to Cuba and finally New York City, it was again a project on a massive scale. This time the featured vocalist was Rubén Blades, and the music left more room for jazz-oriented players like alto saxophonist Bobby Porcelli.

Salsa Suite, Pt. 3: New York 1950’s & 1960’s

The Piano

As a pianist, Larry was deeply rooted in Cuban tradition. He was deeply influenced by players like Peruchín (Pedro Nolasco Jústiz Rodríguez) as well as Puerto Rican virtuosos like Charlie Palmieri, Juan “Joe Loco” Esteves and Noro Morales. But he also combined that with elements of modernism, as exemplified by players like Lennie Tristano, George Shearing and McCoy Tyner. Along with his contemporary Eddie Palmieri, Harlow passed those influences on to a new generation of players like Oscar Hernandez, Ricky Gonzalez and others.

Tutti Frutti

Una Hora

Larry came from a generation of bandleaders that had to put up with a lot — from unscrupulous club owners, record company executives, promoters, and at times less-than-professional musicians. I remember we had an engagement in Panama with the Latin Legends Band. Formed in 1994 by Larry, Johnny Pacheco, Ray Barretto and Yomo Toro, the group was in a sense a scaled-down version of the Fania All Stars, but no less potent.

By the 2000s, Barretto and Pacheco had left. Yomo and Larry remained, taking over complete leadership of the group. Upon our arrival in Panama, the promoter hemmed and hawed about paying Larry the balance of the engagement by constantly stalling and making excuses. Mind you, we had gotten there in the morning. By evening we were scheduled to go on, and Larry still hadn’t received the balance. There were two armed guards with machine guns dressed in green military fatigues supposedly guarding us. Were they really there to protect us?

The promoter arrives and tells Larry: No worries, he will pay him after we go onstage. Without dropping a beat Larry says: “I’ll give you one hour to get me the money you owe me. If in that hour you don’t come back with the $8,000 balance in American dollars, I will go onstage and tell the crowd why we’re not playing. Remember, the press is out there too, and they will hear everything I say. What do you think is going to happen? The next day it will be in all the papers in Panama and all over Latin America. You’ll never be able to promote another gig in your [expletive] life.”

The promoter was sweating at every word Larry said. Then he repeated, “I’ll give you one hour, una hora.” The promoter left with his assistant. Yomo Toro, the virtuosic Puerto Rican cuatro player, is twiddling his thumbs in disbelief, saying in Spanish: “I can’t believe that with our stature we still have to go through bullshit like this.” The two security guards start telling us that they love us, that they are embarrassed, and this should not be a reflection on the people of Panama. If we want, they will shoot the promoters for us. Larry answers: “Wait till we get paid.” We all laugh nervously, expecting to get screwed. But the promoter comes back within the hour, and Larry got the money. Like a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas, he thumbs through the money in one sweep. Then: “Let’s go, everybody onstage!”

Since we had spent so much time waiting for the money, we were behind schedule in the concert and behind schedule to get to our return flight, which was leaving within the hour after we finished. We still hadn’t got back to the hotel to get our luggage. The crowd was mobbing us for autographs, preventing us from getting to the bus to get back to the hotel. Luckily those machine gun-toting guards helped us. When we got to the airport, the flight was already closed. The next flight back to NYC was in a week. When they found out it was Larry, they radioed and stopped the plane and got us on, treating us like VIPs.

Another angle on the determination of Larry Harlow: Back in 1974, when there were no personal computers, he collected over 100,000 signatures and protested in front of the Uris Theater in New York, where the televised Grammy Awards ceremony was being held. His work as a trustee in the New York Chapter finally got the genre recognition and its own category. In 2008, he received The Trustees Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy.

Moral of the story? Trust the leader, the Jewish Marvel.

Aché

Larry Harlow

Larry Harlow was a priest of Ochun, the orisha (deity) of love and beauty in Santeria. Here he stands in front of his altar.

Larry’s trips to Cuba had exposed him to the music’s deep African roots. Although there are several different African-rooted religions that are practiced in Cuba, Santeria is the most prevalent. Born in the sacred traditions of the mighty Yoruba in Nigeria, where it is known as Ifá, it was brought to the island during the colonial period. Built on the concept of aché — supreme positive energy —it was syncretized with Catholic imagery to mask its practice. Larry become a devotee, and finally a full initiate: a priest of Ochún, the Yoruba deity of the rivers, love, romance, and beauty.

“I see no conflict in me being Jewish and a santero,” he said. “I still wear the Star of David and I’m proud to be Jewish. I see it as a form of protection. Whether it’s the cabala or Santeria, if you f–k with me I’ll make your balls shrivel. The irony is that of all the members of the Fania All Stars, I was the first to make santo. After I did, all of those snide comments about me being Jewish stopped.”

As if that weren’t enough, Larry held a bachelor’s in music from Brooklyn College and a master’s in philosophy from the New School in New York City. To that, all I can say is ibae abae tonú baba Larry. Aché.

For background in preparing this article, special thanks to Larry Harlow’s surviving family: his wife, Maria Del Carmen Harlow Kahn; his son, Myles Kahn; his younger brother, the saxophonist, flutist and radio host Andy Harlow; and his grandchildren, Aaron and Sasha.