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Pianist Mark Levine has played and recorded with Woody Shaw, Mongo Santamaria, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard, Cal Tjader, Tito Puente, Milt Jackson, Pete Escovedo, James Moody, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Fortune, Eddie Henderson, Chet Baker and Poncho Sanchez among others. As an educator, Levine authored two extremely successful books The Jazz Piano Book and The Jazz Theory Book. In 2003 Levine received a Grammy nomination for his release Isla.

The following interview with Mark Levine 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 Mark Levine in person.

PERTOUT: I wanted to ask you about your experiences with Mongo in terms of his leadership skills.

LEVINE: When I joined the band which was around 1968, Watermelon Man had been a hit for several years so the band had already an established protocol. Several players had been in the band for years already. I joined the band at the same time as Sonny Fortune and another woodwind player who didn't stay in the band for very long. But the rest had been there for quite some time, players like Steve Berrios, Julito Collazo and Ray Maldonado. So the band was moving and nothing much changed except for the personnel. Mongo was fairly easy to work for when he was in a good mood, if he was in a grumpy mood I basically stayed out of his way.

PERTOUT: Did he rehearse the band a lot?

LEVINE: No, we had one or two rehearsals at the most when I joined the band, because myself and the two woodwind players were new. I don't recall rehearsing after that at all except when we did the Afro American Latin record date as there were a few new charts. The record date was open ended it lasted several hours. At that time if people did a record they did it in one day. Sometimes you did it in three hours.

PERTOUT: Did he explain montunos or any other patterns to you at all?

LEVINE: No, maybe to Steve Berrios but you know I knew how to play montunos and that was basically what I had to do plus I knew lots of good jazz voicings, so I think I was quite prepared for the gig.

PERTOUT: What about in terms of 6/8 rhythms would he explain the background?

LEVINE: Not really. We played Obatala and of course Afro Blue and he didn't really tell me of any specific patterns I had to adhere to. I don't think Mongo was a schooled musician in the western sense. He knew Cuban music and some African music backwards and forwards but I don't remember him explaining anything or suggesting anything. I didn't really consider him a teacher to me, maybe he was to the percussionists.

PERTOUT: And in terms of playing with him what are your recollections of his sound?

LEVINE: I remember him as being very, very powerful conguero. As far as the congueros I have played with he was on a par with Francisco Aguabella, in terms of being able to dominate the band, very powerful player and so powerful that the band revolved around him, not so much because he was the leader but because he was the strongest voice in the band. It was easy to play with him because of that, the time was always there.

PERTOUT: How did he develop his compositions?

LEVINE: I didn't get to play a lot of his pieces when I was in the band, but I know that when Rogers Grant was in the band he would sing a melody to Rogers who would then write it down and maybe suggest a chord. I don't recall him writing anything down on paper when I was with him.

PERTOUT: And so in terms of repertoire was this during his more r&b tinged period?

LEVINE: Yes, Watermelon Man was his big hit, and then the second hit he had was Cloud Nine which was a silly tune, so it was that type of Latin jazz. We didn't really play any salsa, there were some Latin jazz charts in the band, William Allen, the bass player and of course Marty Sheller who was associated with Mongo for many, many years as a writer had great charts which we played, and they were good writers. He played one chart of mine Sheila which became Linda Chicana. I don't recall ever playing any salsa dance style repertoire, I don't remember ever playing a dance gig with Mongo, we played clubs, television shows, those type of gigs.

PERTOUT: What is your assessment of Mongo's style of ensemble direction?

LEVINE: Mongo's thing was pretty much the same thing every night. As the so called musical director my job was to count off tunes and carry this huge box with all the music, but with all the music in the box we tended to play the same twelve to fifteen tunes, which I found true of Willie Bobo, Cal Tjader and other people I worked with, it’s easy to fall into that, the tunes that you play for a while, they tend to play themselves, people know their parts and play well on them and so there wasn't a whole lot of creativity in that direction while I was in the band.

PERTOUT: And the difference with someone like Francisco Aguabella in terms of directing the ensemble?

LEVINE: I was in Francisco's first band, and he was extremely nervous at the beginning, I have seeing him since then as a band leader and he has chilled out quite a bit, when we started rehearsing by the time we played the first gig there were only two original members left because he was so nervous as a band leader that he would replace people if they missed a rehearsal, he was already in his forties but he had never been a band leader before and was extremely nervous about the challenges. His playing was so musical though. We were playing dance music, salsa, all the charts were new, and so there was not set routine in the band, you know when you play Watermelon Man three times a night, and you don't do very much different on it, and Mongo didn't want you to, the people wanted the same sound as the record. But in contrast Francisco's solos to me were the most creative solos from any conguero that I had ever played with. Maybe Mongo on a different situation would have impressed me creatively as well. This is not a criticism of Mongo it was the situation, but Francisco was pure creativity, you never really knew what he was going to play, so many rhythms, counter-rhythms, cross-rhythms, poly-rhythms that I have never heard any other conguero ever use. Just shear creativity.

PERTOUT: And what happened to the release of Afro American Latin?

LEVINE: Well I think Columbia records were expecting another Watermelon Man or Cloud Nine and when they heard the opening track Obatala they weren't expecting that and that record was shelved for thirty-one years! In some ways I feel that that was one of the most creative records he ever made, certainly in the post Watermelon Man era and Columbia records was just not ready for it.

PERTOUT: Do you see Mongo as one of the founders of the Latin jazz movement?

LEVINE: Oh definitely. At the time the Latin jazz movement was headed by Mongo, Willie Bobo and Cal Tjader, and a couple of others, maybe Pucho & The Latin Soul Brothers and others on the lower level but at the top it was definitely Mongo, Willie and Cal. So definitely he was the founding father of the style. And I think he would be recognised even more as a founding father now if Columbia would have released that record when we first recorded it. I think quite frankly that it hurt his career, the fact that they sat on that record. It would have been a little more different, a more creative direction for him.

PERTOUT: What other congueros have impressed you in terms if their commitment to the Latin jazz movement?

LEVINE: Poncho Sanchez I feel has been very successful in carrying the Mongo tradition, to me his records are very much like Mongo's, essentially the same style, but I hesitate to criticise Poncho because he is such a great musician, but I don't think he has moved the music forward, but he certainly expanded the popularity base. He introduced a lot of people to Latin jazz. Another one of course is Ray Barretto, definitely a force for the music. He has done so many styles, charanga, salsa, he has also played on so many jazz records, he kind of invented that playing, a loose conguero style that fits in with jazz. It fitted much better with the swing ride pattern. Not everybody was crazy about it but certainly drummers were very comfortable with his style.

Personal Interview. 12 May 2005.

© 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.