The Bronx is one of America’s most notorious boroughs, particularly the South Bronx. Yet out of this tough neighborhood have come the most beautiful and inspiring music and musicians, including the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s longstanding bassist, Carlos Henriquez.
On November 16–17 in The Appel Room, Henriquez brings to life his history and survival in the neighborhood with Carlos Henriquez: The South Bronx Story.
“The whole concept of the show is almost mimicking the West Side Story, but it’s not going to have actors or anything,” Henriquez explains. “Each song that I’m presenting has a certain meaning to the growth of the Bronx, whether it’s negative or positive. In some of the songs that I’m writing, I pay respect to the Ghetto Brothers gang of the 1960s and a guy named ‘Black Benji,’ a person who was part of the Ghetto Brothers but also a peacemaker, who got killed, unfortunately, by other rival gangs. Because of his death, the Ghetto Brothers united on one evening to try to amend all that rivalry and to be peaceful.
“That’s the birth of how we got the whole Zulu Nation and the birth of hip hop and integration. I’ve been talking to Felipe Luciano who’s been mentoring me,” says Henriquez. Luciano is a legendary lecturer, activist, poet, journalist, writer, and co-founder and chairman of the Young Lords. He co-founded the Young Lords branch in New York City [it originally began in Chicago and later became a national unit]. Luciano later attended college and eventually became a radio, television, and print journalist. He also had a lasting, positive influence on Carlos Henriquez.
Henriquez grew up with the sounds of the streets and the music that surrounded him. These memories of his youth are the basis of the exciting program he’s bringing to The Appel Room stage. It’s a story of poverty and survival-of-the-fittest and how he now performs on the most respected stages in the world.
“I’ve got a piece called ‘Robert Moses,’” Henriquez explains, “which is about the destruction of the South Bronx with the development of the Cross Bronx. I’ve got another piece called ‘Hydrants Love All,’ about when they open the fire hydrants in the summer, because I remember as a kid being in the streets enjoying the water coming out of the hydrants. I remember seeing blacks and Puerto Ricans, Irish people, Mexicans, and even a bunch of white people. It was never a situation of hate when we were there under the water. I use that symbol as a symbol of hope and unification. I have another piece called ‘Soy Humano,’ which means ‘I am human,’ which speaks of the human condition of living in the South Bronx but being a location of very, very low income families, mostly Puerto Ricans and blacks, who were occupying the area yet weren’t getting much help from the government. We were slaves to the system.” The song talks about how he wants to make things better. “I’ve got a piece called ‘Fort Apache,’ the police precinct that dealt with all the nasty drugs and stuff like that in the South Bronx and how it was so corrupted. I’ve got another one called ‘Borough of Fires,’ which talks about the Bronx being burned down.”
This blazing musical performance in The Appel Room “is basically a story about the growth of the Bronx. It’s basically an overview of what I know what the Bronx is.”
Henriquez today is a longstanding member of the rhythm section for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. As did the Bronx, like a phoenix, Henriquez rose above the mayhem to bring us beautiful, healing music.
“It was my family that drove me to music. My mother was a dancer in her younger days. She would dance in shows in Puerto Rico. My father played trombone during high school and college. As I was going through my schooling at PS 30, my father knew a couple of the teachers because he was a custodian. He would say, ‘when you go to this school, I want you to study with this particular teacher.’ So I was developing as I was going through my public school and intermediate school levels. It was then that I really fell in love with the classical guitar and salsa and the bass. That was the school where I was really able to understand what this music was worth. I was lucky enough to have people at the school like Victor Venegas, who was the bass player with Mongo Santamaría. We had Willie Rodriguez, a great piano player who was playing with Conjunto Libre. I had Connie Grossman who was the flute player with the Yomo Toro Band, and he introduced me to Joe Santiago, the bass player that played with Machito and Mongo Santamaría. Joe used to pick me up and bring me to school and teach me stuff. The book of my life was meant specifically for that to happen. It was like it was perfectly written. These guys fell in love with my total devotion to music, and they wanted to help me. They gave me all the tools I needed. I was 12 or 13 when I got my first bass, with a tax-exempt letter from my church so they wouldn’t charge me tax! It was deep, man. Victor Venegas drove me out to New Brunswick in his blue Volvo—I remember vividly—to buy my first baby bass. I remember that drive, man. I remember Victor looking at me, at how happy I was just to buy that bass!”
Time progressed, and Carlos Henriquez became a man mentored by the greats. Then, one day, fate lifted him forward.
“I met Wynton Marsalis through a friend of mine named Steve Oquendo, a trumpet player. We started going to his house after school. One thing led to another. Wynton knew I liked to play bass. He said ‘come on, play some bass,’ and I would play, and he fell in love with the way I played and one thing led to another. He asked me to come back and play at some of the parties that he would have at night at the house. He would call me to do fundraisers, and that’s how I started. All of a sudden Rodney Whitaker [Marsalis’ bassist at the time] took a year-long hiatus, so I took over. I was working with pianist Eric Reed when he called me. Rodney returned to the band, we took a break, and I came back in like 2002.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Music fans worldwide can take home an especially exciting piece of that history with the release of Blue Engine Records’ Una Noche con Rubén Blades. This brand new album captures an extraordinary series of performances from 2014, featuring the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and special guest Rubén Blades, with music direction by Carlos Henriquez. Bringing together the worlds of salsa and swing, these historic and sold-out concerts can now be relived through this record.
“I’ve known Rubén Blades since I was two years old—or at least I feel like I have,” Henriquez says. “Jazz is the story of taking old parts and building something new… The music I arranged for Rubén Blades to perform with the Orchestra sounds like Panama, New Orleans, and New York all mixed into one. Those sounds form the heart of all our stories as musicians, and in combining them we reaffirmed that we’re all in this together.” The album is currently available for pre-order on Jazz at Lincoln Center’s website and through Amazon and iTunes.
Those lucky enough to be in New York this November can experience Henriquez’ musical magic firsthand in Carlos Henriquez: The South Bronx Story. It’s an amazing musical journey that will give you goose bumps, lift your spirit, and fill you with courage to face tomorrow. This is the healing music we all need to hear. Join us in this celebration of life, love, hope, and the mantra “Never Give Up!”
Scott H. Thompson is an internationally published writer and jazz publicist.