Machito was one of the outstanding bandleaders during the golden age of Cuban music. He was born Francisco Pérez on February 16 (various sources give his birth year as 1908, 1909, or 1912), to Cuban parents (he later chose to use the name Grillo instead). He is said to have been born in either Tampa, Florida, or Havana. He certainly grew up in Havana in a neighborhood in which Afro-Cuban religious and musical traditions were well entrenched. His musical family encouraged him to sing, but he preferred to sing harmony rather than lead. His skills with the maraca led Ignacio Piñeiro to hire him as singer in his Septeto Nacional in 1929, and over the next few years he performed with other major Cuban groups. Machito met Mario Bauzá in 1931; in 1936 the latter married one of Machito's sisters.
Machito's career took off when, encouraged by Bauzá, he moved to New York City in October 1937. His musical evolution from that point was heavily influenced by the New York environment, although it remained unmistakably Cuban. He became a lead vocalist in a number of Latin bands and recorded with Xavier Cugat and Noro Morales. Influenced by the black pride exemplified by the lingering influence of the Harlem Renaissance and Pan-Africanist movement, he formed the Afro-Cubans with Bauzá in 1940. Bauzá credited Machito with having introduced the clave to the United States. Machito became known for his clever vocal improvisations and began to write songs as well. The group soon developed a following not only in the Bronx and Harlem among working-class Latin audiences but also among white audiences in midtown Manhattan. The band added the conga, which had been used by Arsenio Rodríguez and others in Cuba but which had not been used by New York Latin bands. The Afro-Cubans began to record for Decca Records in 1941. Machito's sister Graciela joined the band in 1943. The group's artful blending of jazz instrumentation and Cuban rhythms made them an extremely influential band in an era in which Cuban music was at its peak of popularity in the United States. "The marriage of Cuban music with jazz was not a conventional union," Machito argued. "It was a marriage of love" (quoted in Austerlitz, p. 43).
Machito developed a productive association with the jazz concert and record producer Norman Granz. He recorded with many of the major figures in modern jazz, including not only Latin music fans like Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Kenton but also with musicians less devoted to and knowledgeable about the music such as Charlie Parker. A January 1947 concert in New York's Town Hall, which featured a double bill of Kenton and Machito, is believed to be the first such pairing in a concert setting. In March of that year Kenton paid tribute to Machito by recording a composition named after him. Machito prospered during the mambo craze of the late 1940s and early 1950s and played in different parts of the United States from Florida to California. Strangely enough, although his music was popular in Cuba, the band never played there. By the 1960s Cuban music was no longer popular in the United States. In the 1970s Machito had a steady job as a social worker in Latin neighborhoods in New York. In the mid-1970s he split with his longtime musical partner Bauzá and formed an octet. His career began to revive and he took full advantage of European interest in his music. He died in London of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 15, 1984, while on tour.
Austerlitz, Paul. "Machito and Mario Bauzá: Latin Jazz in the U.S. Mainstream." In Jazz Consciousness: Music, Race, and Humanity. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005.
Orovio, Helio. Cuban Music from A to Z. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.
Roberts, John Storm. The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin American Music on the United States, 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Andrew J. Kirkendall