Graciela Perez-Gutierrez: Singer who helped pave the way for the fusion of Latin and jazz

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The Independent Online

Known simply by her first name long before it became fashionable for female artists, Graciela Peréz-Gutierrez was a versatile and superbly theatrical singer, who paved the way for Latin divas such as Celia Cruz and La Lupe.

During a marathon career spanning more than seven decades, Graciela was most famous as the featured singer with Machito and his Afro-Cubans. One of the very first big bands to fuse Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz arrangements and improvisation – thus formulating Latin jazz – they enjoyed their greatest popularity during the 1950s mambo craze. Sharing a residency at New York City's Palladium Ballroom with the bands of Tito Rodríguez and Tito Puente, Machito was one of the original "Mambo Kings"; onstage, Graciela was his "queen".

"I don't sing just to sing," Graciela told Latin Beat magazine in 2005. "You need to give a song time to understand it and express its lyric well. Today that does not happen." Equally influenced by American jazz icons Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald as well as her early Cuban role models, Graciela was as comfortable crooning romantic boleros and cha-cha-chás as she was skatting through fiery guarachas in a piercing alto. She was renowned for her clear diction, clever phrasing and story-telling manner, sometimes including hilarious spoken-word interludes in her interpretations. Her best-known song was the coquettish "Si Si No No" (1955), a camp masterpiece of innuendo and double entendre, featuring spicy interjections from Machito.

Graciela grew up in Jesús María, one of Havana's most musical neighbourhoods due to its strong Afro-Cuban community. Her adoptive older brother Frank "Machito" Grillo encouraged her to sing, and the family home became a popular haunt of local musicians such as Mongo Santamaría. When Graciela was only 6, the pioneering trova singer María Teresa Vera came there to perform. Witnessing Graciela tap along to the clave rhythm accompanying her, she predicted: "that girl is going to be a singer."

This is exactly what Graciela did. At the age of 17, and despite her father's opposition, she joined the ground-breaking all-female ensemble Anacaona as their featured singer. They travelled to Puerto Rico in 1934, and by 1937 Graciela had made her first recordings and visited New York with them. The following year the curtailment of nightlife that preceded the Second World War forced them to end a three-month residency in Paris and return to Havana.

In 1941, Graciela left Anacaona to sing on the radio with El Trio García. By this time, Machito had been working in New York since 1937, having recorded with Xavier Cugat, and founded Machito and his Afro-Cubans with his brother-in-law Mario Bauzá. When Machito was drafted into the US Army in 1943, Bauzá summoned Graciela to New York, where she became their lead singer for the year of his absence. On his return, they shared lead vocals in a partnership that would last for over 30 years.

Under Bauzá's expert musical direction, they built up a strong following in the clubs, dance halls and on the radio in New York and across the US, working with and influencing the likes of Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie. By the time the Palladium Ballroom opened in 1949, they were playing to large, unsegregated crowds and soon helped to make it "the home of the mambo".

After signing to Columbia in 1951, Machito and his Afro-Cubans recorded a series of very successful albums, most with the word "mambo" in their titles. It wasn't until after this vogue had passed that Graciela recorded her debut solo album, Esta es Graciela (1963), with backing by Machito's orchestra. It included the hits "Ay, José" and "Mi Querido Santa Cló". Graciela's 1965 follow-up, Intimo y Sentimental, is widely considered to be the finest showcase of her talents.

However, the big-band era had by then come to a close, and by the late '60s the music that would soon widely be termed "salsa" was in the ascendant. In 1973, Machito's decision to prune his brass section for a tour of Europe precipitated a split with Graciela and Bauzá, who co-led their own, new big band. They recorded several Grammy-nominated albums and toured Italy and Germany before Bauzá's death in 1993. Machito had died of a stroke while performing at Ronnie Scott's in London in 1984.

Although she officially retired after Bauzá's death, Graciela continued working occasionally, receiving Grammy and Latin Grammy nominations in 2005 for the album Inolvidable, recorded with Cándido Camero. She won a Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007, and made her last public appearance at New York's Lincoln Centre on her 93rd birthday. At the time of her death, she was still recording, writing her memoirs and participating in a documentary about her extraordinary life.

Jon Lusk

Graciela Peréz-Gutierrez, singer: born Havana, Cuba 23 August 1915; died New York City 7 April 2010.