Happy birthday to the great vibraphonist Cal Tjader! A gringo who contributed greatly to the development and popularity of Latin-jazz and was an architect of what became known as "Latin rock". He grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and learned to tap-dance and play piano & drum kit at an early age. He played Dixieland as a teenager and formed a group with then-unknown Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, with Tjader playing kit.
He cut his first disk with Fantasy in '52 and soonafter joined George Shearing's group. Tjader and bassist Al McKibbon encouraged Shearing to hire percussionists to augment the group. Tjader played vibes and bongos in the unit. In '54 he caught the mambo bug while visiting NYC and upon return to San Fran he formed a mambo band. He poached Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo from Tito Puente's group and they hit it big on the West Coast jazz scene.
He signed to Verve in the '60s and had a huge hit with "Soul Sauce", a Dizzy Gillespie tune known previously as "Guachiguara", a song Tjader had been playing for ten years before recording it. He teamed with Eddie Palmieri for two KILLER albums, released on Verve and Tico, in '66. Both are classics of Latin-jazz. Several experiments in exotica and bossa nova were released on Verve, with rock, Asian and Mexican influences in some of the music.
In '68 he teamed with Gabor Szabo and Gary McFarland to found Skye Records. Tjader fell off a bit in popularity in the '70s but came back strong with an excellent Latin-jazz band in the late '70s on the Concord label, the group often featuring Poncho Sanchez. Tjader died on tour in '82 after collapsing from a heart attack. His best records have been reissued and his status as a commercial-jazz great is cemented. Sure, he made some cheesy records down the road but he had some great-sounding ones too!