Bongo pioneer Jack Costanzo drums on at 96
| 12:35 p.m. Nov. 14, 2015
Above: Percussionist Jack Costanzo with his bongo drums at his Lakeside home. Below: In Costanzo’s office hangs a picture of him with Nat “King” Cole taken in the late 1940s when Costanzo was part of King’s band. — David Brooks
Like many musicians, Jack Costanzo lights up when he recalls his first musical epiphany.
Never mind that the legendary percussionist, long known by fans and fellow performers alike as “Mr. Bongo,” experienced that epiphany when he was barely a teenager in the mid-1930s.
What is most notable about this longtime San Diego resident isn’t how vivid his memory is now. Nor is it the fact he has collaborated with everyone from Nat “King” Cole, Dizzy Gillespie and Elvis Presley to Sam Cooke, Barbra Streisand and Marlon Brando, who became one of Costanzo’s good friends.
Rather, it’s the fact that – at 96 – he is preparing for his next concert. It will be his first headlining appearance in three years, although he has shared stages here in the interim with such top jazz artists as saxophonist Charles McPherson and trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos.
“I never smoked, I never did drugs, and that helped me be a healthy person,” said Costanzo, who performs Friday at Dizzy’s in Pacific Beach with the Bi-National Mambo Orchestra (ticket information appears below). “When you’re playing congas and bongos, it’s enough exercise for anybody.”
Remarkably spry, and with his dashing good looks barely touched by the passing of time, Costanzo all but bounded across his study and music room to greet a visiting reporter and photographer for a recent interview.
“Do whatever you like, as long as it doesn’t cost me money!” he quipped.
For the next few hours, Costanzo vividly discussed his movie-worthy career, which saw him introduce the bongos to jazz and to Hollywood. He apologized periodically for not remembering each specific detail, although his sense of recall would be impressive in someone 30 years his junior. Even when a name eludes him, he is usually able to pinpoint the exact years of his career highlights with impressive accuracy.
“Jack is amazing,” said Dizzy’s honcho Chuck Perrin. “Even when he comes to a show, just to attend, he has the energy of someone who is 19 or 20. He’s one of a kind.”
Those sentiments are shared by Castellanos, who performed on Costanzo’s two most recent albums and toured with him, and by Steve Kader, the talent buyer for the Adams Avenue Street Fair and La Mesa’s soon-to-open The Platform at Depot Springs Beer Company.
“Jack is really an inspiration and a hero to all us musicians,” Castellanos said. “He put the bongos on the map and is the bridge between Latin-jazz and jazz. The fact that he’s 96, and still doing it, is unbelievable. He gives 200 percent every time he gets on the bandstand.”
“We are lucky to have him,” said Kader, who worked behind the scenes on Costanzo’s two most recent albums of new music, 2001’s “Back From Havana” and 2002’s “Scorchin’ the Skins.”
“There are not that many true music icons still around. Like Sonny Rollins, Willie Nelson and Chuck Berry, Jack represents the last of an era. ”
Costanzo lives on a hill in Lakeside with his girlfriend, whom he met here in 1983. He is likely the only living musician whose credits range from Charlie Parker, Yma Sumac and former San Diegan Patti Page to Mexican “Space-Age Bachelor Pad” music pioneer Esquivel, jazz-funk band The Greyboy Allstars and film giant Orson Welles (whose classic 1958 film, “Touch of Evil,” features Costanzo on its soundtrack).
During the several decades he spent in Hollywood, Costanzo was also hired to teach movie stars how to play bongos and congas. His many celebrated students included Gary Cooper, Betty Grable, Jack Lemmon, Rita Moreno, Van Johnson and James Dean.
“Well, I wouldn’t say I taught James Dean,” he said with a chuckle. “He only came for two lessons and really wasn’t well suited for it.”
A key instrument in Latin music, the bongos were virtually unknown in the United States when Costanzo was born in Chicago on Sept. 24, 1922. His first passion was dancing, and he did so avidly with his girlfriend, Marda Saxon, who later became the first of his four wives. In their late teens, they toured the Midwest as the pre-mambo Latin dance team of Costanzo & Marda.
When he was about 14, Coztanzo heard a visiting band from Puerto Rico perform at the Merry Gardens Ballroom, a popular dance spot in the Windy City. For one song, the group’s drummer switched to bongos — two wooden hand drums, which are cradled between the knees to play. Costanzo was instantly mesmerized.
“My eyes came out of my head!” he recalled.
Since there was nowhere in Chicago or the nation to buy bongos at the time, the enthusiastic teenager made his own. He used butter bins and a large drum head, which he cut down to size. Since there was no one to take lessons from, Costanzo is entirely self-taught on the bongos.
“I had to learn on my own, which is good, because I developed my own style,” he noted. “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.”
In fact, even before his musical epiphany with the bongos, Costanzo was already drawn to the drums. to paraphrase a classic songs of the times, he had rhythm, he had music, he had silverware.
"The way I started to play is, my mother had cold crème jars, and I'd loosen the lids, get a knife and spoon, and hit them like drums."
Why? What drew him to drumming?
"I don’t know," he said. "It just came to me, and I did it. My mother wasn't too happy; I just made noise!"
Costanzo enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1942. He was stationed in the New Hebrides in the South Pacific, where he worked in aviation ordnance. Upon his discharge in 1945, he moved to Los Angeles and became a dance instructor at the plush Beverly Hills Hotel.
“I hated it! I did not like being a dance teacher, at all,” he said.
He soon started working with various Latin music acts, including singer Bobby Ramos, the group Lecuona Cuban Boys, pianist René Touzet and future TV star Desi Arnaz. His big break came in 1947, when celebrated big band leader Stan Kenton lured Costanzo away from Touzet.
“A lot of Latin musicians were not happy Stan hired me, but there were no other bongo players then in L.A.,” he said. His public profile grew almost instantly, thanks to such key recordings with Kenton as “Bongo Riff,” “The Peanut Vendor” and “Abstraction.”
“At the time, when you joined Stan’s band, in six weeks you were a star,” Costanzo said, beaming. “Later in 1947, the Kenton band did a concert in Philadelphia. The next day, we were all waiting for the train, and I heard a voice call out: ‘Hey, Mr. Bongo!’ I’ve used that ever since. It was (celebrated jazz critic) Leonard Feather who called me ‘Mr. Bongo.’ ”
Costanzo also excelled on the larger conga drums. The demand for his nimble percussive touch was so great that Nat “King” Cole put an ad in Down Beat magazine, stating that he wanted to hire Costanzo. Another musician, pretending to be the budding Mr. Bongo, took the job.
The ruse was soon uncovered when Costanzo’s brother, Marty, went to hear Cole and asked if the singer/pianist had made contact yet with his in-demand sibling. Costanzo’s eyes dance with delight as, nearly 70 years later, he re-enacts that conversation.
“Nat told Marty: ‘I hired him.’ And Marty said: ‘That’s not Jack!’ ”
Costanzo’s career soared even higher in the 1950s and ’60s, when he was being paid double and triple the going Musician’s Union standard rate for recording sessions. He was especially favored by singers, including Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra, who — like Brando — became a friend.
“I knew (Sinatra’s second wife) Ava Gardner before he did,” said Costanzo, whose own second wife and periodic musical partner, Gerry Woo, was a Playboy Bunny. He has been married four times and has four children.
Costanzo's debut album as a bandleader, “Afro Cuban Jazz North-of-the-Border,” came out in 1955. His 1957 album, “Mr. Bongo,” was the first of a half dozen or so to feature his stage moniker. a Good number of his albusm have been reissued on CD.
In 1965, Costanzo was cast in the Presley movie “Harum Scarum.” He blushed when asked whether he or Presley was the bigger ladies man.
“That’s not fair,” Costanzo said, “because it would sound like braggadocio if I answered. But I don’t think I had the access Elvis had.”
A few years after making his acclaimed comeback albums in 2001 and 2002, Costanzo hit the road with his band. They performed at major jazz festivals in the U.S. and abroad. The fact that Costanzo was already in his eighties was not lost on his band members, some of who were at least 50 years younger than him.
"Jack is an amazing role model," said trumpeter Castellanos. "We played the Toronto Jazz Festival, and I remember how tired we all were when we got there. Not Jack. He was so full of energy and life, saying: 'Come on! Let's go! We're representing San Diego!' It's remarkable to still see him doing what he's done, and what he does. He's a true leader."
Has Mr. Bongo ever contemplated writing his autobiography?
“I can’t tell you how many people have asked me to, and my answer is always no,” Costanzo said. “They’re not interested in me doing a book, unless I tell stories (about various stars). They want to know secret things, and I’m not interested in doing that.”
Costanzo has tried to retire from music at least twice, but the lure of drumming — and applause — keeps drawing him back.
“Sure, I’m aware of the audience’s response; you wouldn’t be a big ham if you weren’t!” he said. “I’ve had a nice life. I don’t know when God will call me, but I’ve had a nice life.”
Bonus Q&A with Mr. Bongo
We asked Jack Costanzo to reminisce about some of his famous friends and collaborators. here's what he had to say about…
Stan Kenton: "He was a pioneer. His music was not soft; it was screaming!"
Nat "King" Cole: "A gentleman, and a gentle man. He was a great performer, just sitting at the piano by himself."
Ava Gardner: "She was very nice and down to earth. I knew Betty Grable, too."
Marlon Brando: "Marlon was a dear friend, and someone who always supported a worthy (political or social) cause. I never gave him a lesson. He played very well as a non-professional musician. When I did 'Guys and Dolls' with Marlon, we did a lot of stuff during the breaks and played a lot of music together."
The pioneers of bebop: "I played with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, but my favorite was Bud Powell. How come? Because he complimented me when we were done playing, that's how come! He shook my hand, and said: 'Finally, a bongo and conga player who can play jazz'!"
Jack Costanzo & The Bi-National Mambo Orchestra, under the direction of Bill Caballero
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Dizzy’s (inside the San Diego Jet Ski Center), 4275 Mission Bay Drive at Rosewood Street, Pacific Beach
Tickets: $20; $15 (students)
Phone: (858) 270-7467