As he worked his way through a rice bowl at a Japanese restaurant near Columbus Circle in Manhattan on a recent afternoon, the bassist, composer and arranger Carlos Henriquez reflected on the long history of Latino musicians in the jazz world.
“In the 1920s, there was a bassist and tuba player called Ralph Escudero who used to play with W.C. Handy and Fletcher Henderson,” he said, arching his manicured eyebrows for emphasis. “We’ve always been part of this. So, I’m going to say, Hey, I’m from the South Bronx, I’m Puerto Rican and I love jazz.”
Henriquez, who will lead an all-star band on May 5-6 in a centennial tribute to the mambo kings Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez at Jazz at Lincoln Center, was about to join a rehearsal for the institution’s annual gala. Dressed down in a gray plaid flannel shirt and dark bluejeans, he took his place at his pivotally placed bassist’s chair as the orchestra practiced standards — the theme this year was “American Anthems” — including Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
“I’ve always visualized the bass as the catcher of a baseball team — we see everything, the whole game,” he said. “That catcher is dealing with everything that’s coming in and calling the plays. We, the bass players, can really determine where the music is going to, where the concept is going.”
Over about 25 years as a professional musician, Henriquez has developed a reputation as a grounded but wildly imaginative composer and player. “Carlos has become a master of his instrument and writing arrangements,” said the timbalero José Madera in a phone interview from his home in Colorado. “He’s grown, he’s left the planet, he’s in outer space somewhere.”
Henriquez’s path from the streets of 1980s Mott Haven in the Bronx to the Jazz at Lincoln Center stage was sparked in part by an encounter as a teenager with the organization’s director, Wynton Marsalis. “When I was a kid, the Jazzmobile used to come to St. Mary’s Park across the street from the Betances Houses, where I grew up,” Henriquez said, referring to the portable stage that brings jazz to New York neighborhoods. “I remember Clark Terry and David Murray played, and also Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Larry Harlow.”
Henriquez said his father, who worked at a V.A. hospital, was given cassettes by his African American friends. “One day he gave me a tape with Bill Evans, Eddie Gomez and Paul Chambers, and I was freaking out — I was like, man, this is killing.”
At first, Henriquez played the piano, and then switched to classical guitar, which landed him in the Juilliard School’s music advancement program while he attended the performing arts high school LaGuardia. He switched to bass in his second year at Juilliard, and won first place in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition for high school bands. At 19, he joined the Wynton Marsalis Septet and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
“I started going to Wynton’s house religiously, and we exchanged information about Latin music, something we do to this day,” Henriquez said. “And vice versa. If I need help with classical music or something, he’ll help me out.”
During a question-and-answer session at Essentially Ellington in 2019, Marsalis praised his protégé: “Every night this man is coming to swing,” he said, addressing a roomful of jazz hopefuls. “He gave me a another whole way of understanding music,” Marsalis added. Describing a moment when Henriquez offered a critique on a piece Marsalis had written, the trumpeter recalled the bassist saying, “It’s all on the wrong beat.’”
For Henriquez, the key to fusing Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz is finding a way to get the feeling of swing to conform to the five-beat clave rhythm. “It’s not just imagining ‘The Peanut Vendor’ as played by John Coltrane,” he said. Henríquez credits Manny Oquendo’s Conjunto Libre and the Fort Apache Band, which was headed by the Bronx brothers Andy and Jerry González, as “spiritual leaders.”
As a session bassist, Henriquez has played with Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Lenny Kravitz, Natalie Merchant, the bachata group Aventura and the Cuban jazz pianists Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. He has even toured with Nuyorican Soul, the dance-music project led by the D.J.s Little Louie Vega and Kenny (Dope) Gonzalez. “We had DJ Jazzy Jeff spinning records onstage while we were playing Latin grooves,” he said.
Since 2010, when Henriquez served that year as musical director of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s cultural exchange with the Cuban Institute of Music, he has been integrally involved in the group’s Latin jazz programming. In the past decade, he’s been at the helm for a show featuring Rubén Blades singing jazz and salsa standards, a Latin spin on the work of Dizzy Gillespie, and last year’s scintillating “Monk con Clave” tribute to Thelonious Monk.
“I was telling them, look, there’s a bigger picture to this,” Henriquez said of his message to the orchestra’s leadership. Musicians from earlier eras who are meaningful to the New York scene are “not getting credit,” or opportunities to perform. “We need to hire these people so that we could at least let them know that we didn’t forget about them.”
For this week’s Puente and Rodríguez tribute, Henriquez, who played with the Tito Puente orchestra when he was in his late teens, enlisted longtime Puente collaborators like the bongo player Johnny (Dandy) Rodríguez Jr. and Madera, and crafted a set list that combines both well-known and somewhat obscure tracks from the two luminaries.
One of Henriquez’s charms is his ability to ad-lib nuggets of Latin music and jazz history between songs, in quips that land somewhere between stand-up comedy and a TED Talk. Asked over lunch about the rumored rivalry between Puente and Rodríguez, who vied for top billing at shows at the Palladium and other venues, he coolly demurred in deadpan comic tone. The song “El Que Se Fue” (“The One Who Left”)? “Rodríguez was trashing a guy,” Henriquez said, “but it wasn’t Tito Puente.”
The Puente centennial has also occasioned a tribute and art exhibit at Hostos Community College in the Bronx; a vinyl reissue on Craft Recordings of “Mambo Diablo,” Puente’s 1985 jazz album, which featured “Lush Life” and other jazz standards; and an event at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts on May 20. Yet as much as the mambo era burns brightly in the spirit of Latin New York, Henriquez, whose 2021 solo album “The South Bronx Story” mined 1970s lore of widespread arson and street gang truces, continues to dig deeper into other neglected histories.
“I’m working on my next album and I realize, we’re right in the middle of this neighborhood that used to be called San Juan Hill,” he said, referring to the area that was demolished to build Lincoln Center. “And then I find out, we used to live here, with African Americans, and Benny Carter wrote a suite called Echoes of San Juan Hill, and Thelonious Monk used to play here. I came to realize how valuable this neighborhood was, and I found this out because I was yearning to find my connection to jazz.
“It’s the spirits of our ancestors, and they’re calling, you know?”