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Mr Jack Costanzo introduced bongos to the world when he joined bandleader Stan Kenton in 1947. He then went on to work with an array of artists including Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Betty Grable, Harry James, Judy Garland, Dinah Shore, Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley among many others. His popularity was such that legendary jazz critic Leonard Feather named him ‘Mr Bongo’.

The following interview with Mr Jack Costanzo was especially conducted for my Master of Philosophy in Music [By Research] thesis titled The Conga Drum: Development, Technique, Styles, Improvisations and the contribution of Master Drummer Ramon ‘Mongo’ Santamaria which I completed in 2008 at the ANU in Canberra. The thesis documents the conga drum’s historical development, investigates basic hand techniques and current technical hand developments, as well as the enormous contribution of master drummer Ramon 'Mongo' Santamaria, arguably the most influential player in the history of the instrument, exploring his percussive output as well as his ensemble, composition and arranging proficiency. I conducted this interview with Mr Jack Costanzo via telephone.

PERTOUT: I wanted to start by asking you how you developed your interested and love for congas and bongos

COSTANZO: I essentially taught myself in Chicago when I was a kid. There were no bongos players to teach me anything. A band came in from Puerto Rico. Latin music was just starting to show its head a tiny bit, and they had a drummer that played bongos. It was the first time I saw bongos in person. Then I made a pair of bongos myself and taught myself to play. That’s how that happened.

PERTOUT: Then you started playing in bands around Chicago?

COSTANZO: I was a dancer then Alex. My wife to be was my dancing partner. We toured and I used the bongos in the act. She would do a little solo and I would follow her footwork with the bongos. That helped me learn to play.

PERTOUT: And so what inspired you at the time to develop your bongo skills further? When did you encounter players like Mongo Santamaria for example?

COSTANZO: Oh, when I saw Mongo I was already in the business. The first bongo player I saw was when I went to New York as a dancer. That was Chino Pozo and he was marvellous. I was just a teenager at the time. Chino and Armando Peraza were my favourite bongo players. I saw lots of bongo players after that, of course, as Latin music came in pretty strong. We are talking now 1940-1941 now.

PERTOUT: Were you primarily playing bongos at the time?

COSTANZO: Well, I always played both conga drums and bongos, but bongos is what gave me whatever notoriety I had. The name ‘Mr Bongo’ has been there like 60 years and so I am kind of married to that. I play conga drums much more now than bongos and have for many years.

PERTOUT: When did you join Nat King Cole?

COSTANZO: We recorded bongos when I first joined the trio in February 1949. We were recording mostly bongos on all the songs, but in person I was using conga drums. That really helped spread conga drums in jazz. At that time there were Latin players, Alex, don’t get me wrong, but there was no one that had the feeling for jazz yet, including Chano Pozo who was with Dizzy when I was with Kenton. He was fabulous, I mean absolutely marvellous but he didn’t play on any jazz tunes. He played on the tunes that were compatible with what he had to offer. He was great on Manteca, Tin Tin Deo and all those tunes but he just didn’t seem to have the feeling for jazz.

PERTOUT: How long did you get to play with Nat King Cole and what was that experience like for you?

COSTANZO: I played with him for 5 years. It was marvellous. You know Alex you just never got tired of Nat’s singing.

PERTOUT: I always loved some of the arrangements you did with Nat King Cole, for example on Calypso Blues, now who came up with the drum and voice idea?

COSTANZO: It was Nat’s idea to do Calypso Blues with just conga drums. I did come up with Go Bongo and some insignificant things. Nat pretty much chose what we would play. The trio then adjusted their playing to what Nat had chosen to do.

PERTOUT: I understand that around that period you also travelled to Cuba.

COSTANZO: Every now and then we would have a week or so off and in 1951 I did just that. We were in Miami with a few days off and I flew to Cuba. I also took the opportunity to bring back some congas with me.

PERTOUT: What brand of congas and bongos were you using then?

COSTANZO: I was using the ‘Jack Costanzo’ model bongos made by Valje then. The company has now been taken over by Latin Percussion who gave Armando Peraza my bongo model. Martin Cohen, the CEO and founder said “I didn’t know it Jack, I swear.” By that time, the drums were already made and there was nothing that could be done about it. And Armando is my dear friend, but he is playing my bongos and getting the endorsement. The Valje bongos were called the ‘Costanzo bongos’ so I was upset about that. I used those bongos for over fifty years, from the last part of Nat King Cole until now. I still have them.

PERTOUT: Would they have been the first bongos to incorporate tuning hardware?

COSTANZO: In the USA probably. I bought a pair of tuneable bongos when I joined Stan Kenton in 1947 from a guy that came from Cuba. He brought them from Cuba with him. The hardware wasn’t great Alex, but they were tuneable. I ended up going back to the candelas type, the ones that you would tuck the heads on and then we would heat them to tune them. Eventually, I started using ones with hardware when the hardware was made here. The Valje ones were probably one of the first in the US to incorporate tuneable hardware that I am aware of.

PERTOUT: Was the Valje brand making congas as well at the time?

COSTANZO: Yes he made both. He didn’t do that well financially as he wasn’t willing to mass produce them, so I never took any money either. He would say “I just want to make enough to live”. He did marvellous work. His son Ralph, has taken it up now. I think it is a company called Resolution Drums or something like that. I haven’t seeing any of the products yet, but I’ve heard they are very good. He was going to make me a pair of bongos. However I am still waiting. That was six months ago (laughs), I don’t think he is going to send me a pair!

PERTOUT: What do you use nowadays?

COSTANZO: I use a set of Gon Bops conga drums and still my Valje bongos. They are not my original pair but before Tommy Flores died, he was the Valje CEO, he made me a special pair. That was in 1975.

PERTOUT: How did you develop your playing at that time, were you always studying by yourself?

COSTANZO: I did hear a bongo player, he was in a band called Casino De la Playa. His name was Ramoncito. I got ideas on how to play from the way he played. In those days Alex, now we are talking around 1938, 1939, 1940, when they recorded, not when I was playing, they played a more basic beat, a straight kind of a beat, few off beats. It wasn’t like now where everything explodes, they kept it pretty straight. So I was able to hear what he was doing at least. I couldn’t see how the hands were, but I could hear the pattern, the martillo which is the basic bongo beat. And so I learn to replicate what he was doing. Of course it didn’t give me any ideas on how the off beats went. I learned that part a few years later. In 1947 when I joined Stan Kenton I had only worked for a year and a half as a professional with some Latin groups. And even then I had a lot of work to do be a good bongo player, Latin wise. With Kenton it was easy as I had a feeling for jazz and so we got along great on that.

PERTOUT: Was the material with Stan Kenton very much charted for the entire group?

COSTANZO: They wrote charts, but to this day I am a very poor reader Alex. But players helped me through it. Pete Rugolo would cue me and we got through it okay. There wasn’t a lot of real tempo jazz with the bongos with Kenton. It was used more for special effects kind of things that later they used for movie soundtracks. Not straight tempo things except for when we recorded The Peanut Vendor and Machito. Those pieces were rhythm things, but we did a lot of stuff that had nothing to do with rhythm, just hitting the bongo here and there somewhere in the arrangement, usually wherever I felt like it and fortunately Kenton liked what I did so that was fine.

PERTOUT: At what stage did you start your own projects?

COSTANZO: My band started in 1956. In the 1960s my wife became the singer in the group and we travelled all over the place. It wasn’t a Latin group or a jazz group, but more like a Las Vegas lounge group. We were entertaining but playing dance style music.

PERTOUT: How do you see the new era of technical development in the playing of congas and bongos?

COSTANZO: It’s kind of a little frustrating Alex to be perfectly honest with you. I look on the internet and see tons of conga drummers and bongo players playing so free that they forgot the idea of what a rhythm instrument is suppose to play. The conga drum is a rhythm instrument. I am not talking about Giovanni because he is incredible. When he plays salsa he restricts himself to playing rhythm and he is fabulous. I feel many of the others are just trying to see how many drum rudiments they can do and when do too many I have to say I am not thrilled by that at all. Some of the solos have no conception of time whatsoever, no conception of any kind of sequence, just how many beats they can play, and that doesn’t please me because that is not the way you play. You can’t do that in a rhythm section, I don’t think.

PERTOUT: It has changed a lot with this new generation of players.

COSTANZO: Yes you have players like Richie Flores he has technique like Giovanni coming out of their ears. That’s a different style of playing. Eddie Palmieri loves it, he loves for Richie to go all over the place and play and that’s fine. But just because Giovanni and the new generation of players are so fabulous it doesn’t make those of us that play straight not. We are not discarded, we just play a different way. Armando doesn’t play that way, I don’t play that way. Ray Barretto didn’t play that way and there is space for all of us. But that doesn’t make me not say to you that Giovanni is incredible. You know even today when I play jazz I play one conga. I just use one drum because the tones get in the way. Jazz is not like Latin music. Jazz has all those different chords, you don’t want to be having all the different tones coming out of all the different conga drums, it just doesn’t mix with all the jazz chords.  For me, that is how I feel, one conga drum on jazz.

PERTOUT: You’ve had a remarkable career, are you playing a little?

COSTANZO: A little bit is a good phrase (laughs). I don’t go looking for work. If they call me I go. I just played at the Northsea Jazz Festival and that was fabulous, we had a marvellous time, they gave me a tremendous ovation. I was thrilled to death, I can’t tell you. As far as recording is concerned I had a couple of recent releases on the Cubop label but I don’t know about Australia Alex, but right now Latin music is quite flat. If I were to record now I would put a couple of Latin things because obviously I am a bongo drummer, but I would not record a Latin jazz album. If the company insisted I would do it for them but I would not do it if it were my choice. I want to reach all the people I can reach and I can’t reach them if they are not buying those cds. Right now is very slow for all the band leaders, the Latin band leaders are having a hard time. The only one that keeps doing very well are the Spanish Harlem Orchestra and Poncho Sanchez. Outside of that is really hard. But I have been lucky all my life. I liked what I achieved through the years, and I am not talking about my playing Alex, I am talking about knowing people that were great artists and playing with them, that was very exciting to me. I am getting emails from people from around the world, some of them are very, very rewarding to me. They tell me how I inspire them to play, that really makes me feel good Alex.

Telephone Interview. 15 February 2007.

© Alex Pertout. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior written permission from the author. This article forms part of the thesis ‘The Conga Drum: Development, Technique, Styles, Improvisations and the contribution of Master Drummer Ramon ‘Mongo’ Santamaria’ which was submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Master of Philosophy in Music [by Research] Faculty of Arts, Australian National University.

© Alex Pertout. All Rights Reserved.