I Remember Benny

It's been 44 years since Generoso Jímenez last performed in Miami. He remembers the date perfectly, April 17, 1959, but he can't quite recall the name of the place where he played trombone with the Banda Gigante de Benny Moré. "It was a plaza," he says, squinting. A thin bluish film clouds his dark eyes. "When I looked out like this, there was nothing but heads. There sure were a lot of people who showed up."

On tour during the Latin jazz craze that swept the United States in the Fifties, Benny Moré's Giant Band played to packed crowds in Miami, Los Angeles, and New York City. So why hasn't Jímenez come back before now? The elderly arranger, on a family visit from Havana, looks at me like I'm crazy. He steadies himself with his cane on a tall stool in a friend's Kendall kitchen. Well aware that whatever he says will be read by officials back in Cuba, he takes a deep breath, then exhales: "For reasons beyond my will."

Now 86 years old, Jímenez still remembers every note of the hits he not only played but frequently arranged for the "Bárbaro del Ritmo" ("The Wizard of Rhythm") -- a hard-living eccentric with astonishing range who, forty years after his death, is still revered as Cuba's greatest musical genius. Although never formally trained, Bartolomé Maximiliano Moré dominated every genre of traditional Cuban music, from Afro-Cuban folklore to romantic ballads to big-band dance numbers. Before forming his own orchestra in 1953, he sang with many of the most important outfits of Cuba's golden age: Miguel Matamoros's group, Perez Prado's orchestra, and the dance band of Bebo Valdes; the complete collection of his hits, including the immortal "Como Fúe," "Hoy Como Ayer," "Bonito y Sabroso," and "Que Bueno Baila Ud.," is enough to fill eleven discs. Jímenez began writing the occasional chart for Moré when both men played with Valdes in 1952; as a member of Moré's own outfit from 1955 through 1959, Jímenez's ability to turn out top-notch arrangements at breakneck speed made him a favorite with the frenetic singer, who improvised as recklessly with his life as he did brilliantly onstage.

A small dapper man with a trim, well-tended mustache, Jímenez walks with a dignified swing even though his legs have bowed with age. Jet-black spots spackle his worn mahogany skin. He scowls when he can't quite make out a question, fiddling with a hearing aid draped over his right ear.

"Regla," he yells to his eldest daughter, who accompanied him to Miami. She shouts the question into his left ear.

"But he hears the music without the hearing aid," the daughter insists.

"It's inside," he whispers, proudly tapping his chest. "The music is inside."

Sitting beside Jímenez in the kitchen is the man who invited him here, Recaredo Gutierrez. An avid record collector and Moré fanatic, Gutierrez called Jímenez last spring after deciding to put together a band to pay tribute to el Bárbaro. Visa delays kept the trombonist from appearing at the first performance of the Tropicana All Stars last May, alongside former Moré bandmates Alfredo "Chocolate" Armentero and Cándido Camero as well as heavyweight guest Paquito D'Rivera. He also missed subsequent shows over the summer with singer Roberto Torres and percussion legend Carlos "Patato" Valdez. Nevertheless the twenty-plus piece orchestra has followed the original arrangements Jímenez sent up from Havana.

This morning Jímenez is giving a history lesson to Gutierrez and the All Stars' musical co-directors, Juanito Marquez and German Piferrer, who gather around their elder in a circle. Leaning against the kitchen counter, singer Israel Kantor -- at 49, one of the youngest band members-- is enthralled. Kantor paid tribute to Moré back in 1981 as a member of the notorious Cuban dance band Los Van Van. Now whenever the trombonist mentions a song or even alludes to one -- pounding his cane against the floor as if to jog the title from his brain -- the younger man sings a few bars, his powerful voice reverberating off the kitchen's cathedral ceiling. Sometimes Jímenez sings along with him. Sometimes he scats, now the trombone line, now the percussion. He taps out the rhythm on the counter. He claps the clave. He hums: tarara, tarari.

Not all of Jímenez's memories are warm; Moré's bohemian lifestyle often left his collaborators in the lurch. "Sometimes I feel bad remembering stuff about Benny," he says, the corners of his mouth tightening up. "I shouldn't remember things that don't matter today, because he's already passed on to a better life."

He can't resist, though, telling how when they first met in 1952 the singer offered to buy him a drink in an effort to persuade him to do an orchestral arrangement for his hit "Mucho Corazon" ("A Lot of Heart") -- then, once the deal was sealed, Moré stuck Jímenez with the bar tab. Nor can he keep mum about that day in 1957 when the singer showed up at his house in a panic. "Compadre, what's more blood to the man who's already committed murder?" lamented the singer, as though he were more outlaw than bandleader. "I owe the record label eighteen songs."

Jímenez laid out his conditions. "Look Benny, I'll only arrange what I like," he said. "I'll decide without any interference from you. Deal?" The pair picked over a folder filled with 50 songs. Whenever Jímenez saw a lyric he liked, he had Moré sing while he transcribed the melody.

Not entirely satisfied, Moré persuaded Jímenez to accompany him out into the Havana night to look for more material. "We went to every place where they play music," he remembers. "We ended up at a place in front of a fire station. That's where a bachata got going. We left there around eight in the morning." A representative from RCA Records (now BMG) who had tracked down Moré's car was waiting for them outside in Central Park.

"I've got the record," Moré told the incredulous rep. He sang a song they'd heard during the night -- "Elige Tu Que Canto Yo" ("You Choose What I Sing") written by Joseíto Fernandez -- a cappella, on the curb. Even so, Moré drew a crowd. "We looked up and there were a hundred people gathered around, singing the chorus," Jimenez recalls. The arranger took out his paper and pen. "Sing it again. Again. Got it."

Jímenez regrets the tale almost as soon as he tells it. He eyes my laptop suspiciously and growls. But there is one story that he must tell, even though his daughter Regla warns him that my interview time is almost up. "I mean, finish the story today," she shouts into his good ear.

Her father ignores her. Kantor stands rapt beside him. I type as fast as I can. We go back to the end of the year 1955. Moré had skipped out on a number of holiday gigs in Havana for a better opportunity in Venezuela, leaving his orchestra behind. He was gone one month, two. His musicians found work elsewhere. So when he called Jímenez asking him to get the orchestra together for a big gig in Caracas, the trombonist broke the bad news: "What orchestra? You don't have an orchestra anymore."

Still Jímenez agreed to pull together a band and rehearse six numbers for a show on February 9, 1956. The band would leave for Venezuela the day before, leaving one day to rehearse with Moré. But the trip was delayed; the musicians arrived at the hotel just in time to learn that they were about to make their debut live on national Venezuelan television. "Look, Benny already had confidence in me," Jímenez points out. Band leader Moré had no qualms about pulling off the show; the band wasn't so sure.

Indeed the six songs did not fill up enough air time. "We had to play twice," Jímenez recalls. Even so, the orchestra ran out of material with ten minutes left in the show. Moré turned to the pianist. "Let it go in F," he said. The musician started improvising; the rest of the band followed along. Looking around for inspiration, Moré noticed Israel Castellano, the orchestra's utility player, scraping away on a guiro. Castellano had a reputation as a good dancer who always knew the latest steps. "Castellano, how well you dance," Moré sang. The chorus repeated the refrain. Taking his cue, Castellano moved center stage and showed off a few steps. In the meantime, looking around for another line, Moré's eyes lighted on Jímenez. "Generoso, how well you play," he sang. The chorus echoed him. "Generoso, Generoso," Moré improvised between refrains, immortalizing Jímenez's name in what would become one of his greatest hits, "Que Bueno Baila Ud."

"That was guerrilla warfare," Jímenez laughs. "Out comes [Roberto] Barreto with the tenor [for a saxophone solo]. The credits roll. Everyone is dancing. That's it. The program is over. That's how it was born. The work of chance." Like so many of Benny Moré's spontaneous feats, that work of chance is now commemorated as enduring history.

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Celeste Fraser Delgado