Jack 'Mr. Bongo' Costanzo, dead at 98, collaborated with Judy Garland, Nat 'King' Cole, Marlon Brando
Error! Filename not specified.
Jack “Mr. Bongo” Costanzo had more than enough musical virtuosity to merit being considered synonymous with the percussion instrument to which he dedicated his life.
He also had the charisma and debonair good looks of some the Hollywood stars he collaborated with in the 1950s and ‘60s — whether on screen or as a percussion teacher — including Marlon Brando, James Dean, Gary Cooper and Elvis Presley. His other collaborators included Betty Grable, Barbra Streisand, Yma Sumac and Patti Page.
Costanzo passed away at his Lakeside home, just east of San Diego, late Saturday. His death came only six weeks shy of what would have been his 99th birthday on Sept. 24. The cause appears to have been complications from an aneurysm he suffered 10 years ago, according to his wife, Maureen Wilson Costanzo.
That aneurysm did not keep the tireless “Mr. Bongo” from headling concerts periodically until as recently as late 2015. Nor did it deter him from practicing his drumming at home, nearly every day, until just a few weeks ago.
“He had a charmed life and also a charmed death, because he didn’t suffer long,” said his daughter, Jill Costanzo.
“I think what he was proudest of was that he didn’t smoke or drink,” she continued. “He was square and was proud of it. He hung out with famous musicians who were shooting up, and he never did a thing. He stayed healthy, exercised and took good care of himself. He loved God very much and he was a very sensitive and empathetic person.”
Jack Costanzo’s final performance was on Aug. 9, when he sat in on congas at trumpeter and San Diego Latin-jazz mainstay Bill Caballero’s weekly jam session at Border X in Barrio Logan. Costanzo was admitted to Grossmont Hospital the next day, Aug. 10, then returned a few days later to his Lakeside home, where he received hospice care.
“Jack would always tell me: ‘Oh, I could’ve done better,’ but this last time at Bill’s jam session, he didn’t say that,” recalled Mrs. Wilson Costanzo..”He didn’t play with his usual power, but he enjoyed himself. And it was perfect that he got to perform the night before all this happened.”
Veteran San Diego concert promoter Steve Kader, a longtime friend, agreed.
“It was almost like Jack was passing the torch on to the other percussionists who were playing at the jam session,” said Kader, who also attended the Aug. 9 jam session. “Anyone who plays bongos was influenced by Jack, directly or indirectly.”
“He was a musician’s musician,” added Caballero, a regular musical partner of Costanzo for the past three decades. “Jack’s legacy speaks for itself — he played with Nat “King” Cole, Machito, Stan Kenton, Charlie Parker and so many more. He was in the (1965) Elvis Presley movie ‘Harum Scarum.’ He was all over the place, especially on the L.A. scene, before he moved to San Diego..”
Costanzo is the subject of a partially completed labor-of-love film documentary by director Nelson Datu Anderson, “Mr. Bongo,” which Anderson is seeking backing for to complete. A nearly 20 minute excerpt can be viewed on YouTube.
A Chicago native, Costanzo was 14 when he became enchanted with the bongos after hearing a musician play them at a dance concert at a ballroom in the Windy City. It was an epiphany.
"My eyes came out of my head!” the self-taught Costanzo recalled in a late 2015 Union-Tribune interview..
“I had to learn on my own, which is good, because I developed my own style. It seemed like it came natural. I listened to a lot of music. (Noted Spanish bandleader) Xavier Cugat was big. And, many years later, he hired me.”
Costanzo enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1942 and worked in aviation ordnance in the New Hebrides in the South Pacific. After being discharged in 1945, he moved to Los Angeles and became a dance instructor at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
“I hated it! I did not like being a dance teacher, at all,” he said in the 2015 Union-Tribune interview.
Gigs with various Latin bands, including one headed by Desi Arnaz, led to Costanzo being hired by big-band leader Stan Kenton in 1947. It was while on an East Coast tour with Kenton the same year that he got his stage name.
Leonard Feather — who in the 1960s became the Los Angeles Times’ jazz critic — called out “Mr. Bongo” when he saw Costanzo at a Philadelphia train station after a concert with Kenton. The name stuck.
“Afro Cuban Jazz North-of-the-Border,” Costanzo's debut album as a band leader,” came out in 1955. In 1957 came “Mr. Bongo,” the first of about half a dozen Costanzo albums that used his stage moniker.
His musical command almost single-handedly — make that double-handedly — establish the bongos as a serious instrument. Costanzo also played a key role in bringing the instrument to the fore in both jazz and Latin jazz. He played the bongos with a winning combination of skill bravura, but always in service of the music.
Thanks to his musical talents and photogenic good looks, he was featured on camera in a number of movies and TV shows. Two highlights, which can both be viewed online on YouTube, are “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die” (which features Costanzo in a sizzling bongos and dance duet with Ann Miller) and “Come Rain or Come Shine” (an even more sizzling duet with Judy Garland).
Costanzo moved to San Diego from Los Angeles in the early 1970s. His two most recent albums of new music, “Back from Havana” and “Scorching the Skins,” were released in 2001 and 2002, respectively. The albums were followed by a concert tour that included at least one date in Canada.
“I wouldn t say he ever really retired,” noted Mrs. Wlson Costanzo. “When he didn’t have an agent anymore, he didn’t pursue jobs. But if someone came to him and said they’d like to use him, he’d jump at that. Jack was a remarkable guy. He was fun to be with and he did so much for me.”
In addition to Mrs. Wilson Costanzo, who was his fourth wife, and his daughter, Jill Costanzo, who is also a San Diego resident, Jack Costanzo is survived by two other daughters from his other marriages, CeeCee Costanzo in San Diego and Valerie Woo in Idaho, a son, Jack “J.J.” Costanzo, also in Idaho, and by Mrs. Wilson Costanzo’s son, Todd Wilson, in Kentucky, and daughter, Stacey Coulter, in San Diego.
His other survivors include seven grandchildren and six great grandchildren, according to Mrs. Wilson Costanzo, along with his third wife, Gerry Woo.
A private memorial service will be held for Costanzo’s immediate family members. A celebration of life concert is tentatively planned for Sept. 23, a day before what would have been his 99th birthday, at the Music Box in downtown San Diego.