by Bobby Sanabria

Trust the Leader

The late 1970s saw increased interest in percussion instruments in the United Sates and abroad. In response to this need, Martin Cohen, founder and chairman of Latin Percussion, decided to send a group of musicians to perform in a series of educational clinics throughout Europe. "I signed up Johnny Rodriguez, who played bongo with Tito. Johnny got Tito involved. Carlos 'Patato' Valdez played conga and pianist Eddie Martinez and bassists Sal Cuevas rounded out the quintet. I was thrilled to have Tito involved in the project," stated Cohen. "He made a major impact on me dating from the time I first saw him perform at The Palladium back in the early 1960s. It wasn't until a few years later that I got to know Tito on a personal level. By this time Latin Percussion was in its infancy and I used a set of Tito's Cuban-made timbales and timbalitos as a basis for the prototype of my ribbed shell design. I based the 'Trust the Leader' promotional campaign on Tito's supreme skills as a bandleader and musician."

The quintet, which Cohen named the Latin Percussion Jazz Ensemble, gave a series of successful concerts and seminars throughout Europe. Cohen spent several months on tour with the group. "It was a unique privilege for me," he recalls, "hanging out with one of my heroes. Through all the traveling and things that can go wrong on the road, Tito remained a constant source of inspiration. His sharp wit always kept me smiling. [The Latin Percussion Jazz Ensamble, Tito on timbales and Patato Valdés on congas, at the Montreux Jazz Festival (1980) http://youtu.be/ZxzphmtiUVk] Probably the most memorable occasion for me was when Tito performed with Toots Thielman, the jazz harmonica player, in a concert commemorating the 1000th anniversary of the city of Brussels. It was electrifying!"

In 1979, the ensemble toured Japan, where the reception for Tito was tremendous."It was here, I believe," states Martin Cohen, "that Tito realized he had achieved worldwide popularity."

Tito would win his first Grammy award in 1979 for the album Homenaje Benny Moré. [“Fiesta de tambores,” with Celia Cruz on vocals, from Homenaje a Benny Moré http://youtu.be/Jkpca9VSW8c.] Later that year, members of the Latin music community and Latin NY Magazine honored him with a testimonial roast. At the end of the affair, Joe Conzo remembers, "we had received all of these checks given by the patrons of the roast and we didn't know what to do with them. We decided to set up a scholarship fund in Tito's name to help support the education of musically gifted youth. "The scholarship fund," states Tito, "was a dream of mine for a long time. In the Latin community we have a lot of gifted youngsters who don't get an opportunity to develop their talent because of lack of money. Long after I'm gone, the fund will be helping kids." Over fifty grants have been awarded since the inception of the ten-year-old fund.

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Originally from Latin Percussion. | Reprinted by permission from Latin Percussion.
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