Cuban tres master Arsenio Rodríguez: a fundraiser for a foundation created in his name will be held at Ashkenaz in Berkeley on Saturday

He was a prolific composer who helped found an international musical movement, a highly syncopated African diaspora sound that he controversially claimed credit for inventing, but when he died in obscurity in Los Angeles he ended up in an unmarked grave. That was the sad story of New Orleans jazz patriarch Jelly Roll Morton.

But, in a disconcertingly similar case of neglected genius, Cuban tres master Arsenio Rodríguez experienced the same tragic trajectory. And, much like a group of LA jazz fans rallied to place a marker on Morton’s resting place, Richmond-based tresero and vocalist Tito Gonzalez has launched the Arsenio Rodríguez Foundation, which presents a fundraiser Saturday at Ashkenaz.

The Cuban-born Gonzalez has been a force on the Bay Area Latin music scene since he moved here in 2000, and as the leader of the popular band Tito y Su Son de Cuba he’s one of the region’s leading purveyors of classic Cuban son, the style that came to maturity in the 1940s work of Arsenio Rodríguez. Gonzalez was motivated to launch the foundation after he released his second album, 2010’s Al Doblar la Esquina, and decided to visit the grave site at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester County, NY, where Rodríguez had been buried after his death in Los Angeles in 1970 at the age of 59 (a friend produced an eight-minute video of Gonzalez’s visit.

Photo: Kai Shuman
Tito Gonzales has launched the Arsenio Rodríguez Foundation which presents a fundraiser Saturday at Ashkenaz. Photo: Kai Shuman

“We were able to find the gravesite with a map but I got very depressed to see that the grave was unmarked,” Gonzalez says, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter (my wife, gracias, mi amor).

The foundation aims for far more than placing a tombstone and small monument on Rodríguez’s grave. Gonzalez’s ultimate ambition is to launch an annual festival celebrating son, the graceful sound reintroduced to the world by the Buena Vista Social Club project, and to present workshops teaching Afro-Cuban rhythms and tres, the distinctive Cuban guitar with three courses of double strings. Another stated goal of the foundation was realized last month when the Bronx rechristened the intersection of Intervale Avenue and Dawson Street “Arsenio Rodriguez Way,” just a few blocks from where the tresero settled in 1953.

It’s hard to overstate the influence of Rodríguez, who paved the way for the rise of salsa in the late 1960s. A master of the tres, he was blinded as a youth by being kicked in the face by a mule (or horse, the story varies). After playing in several top bands in the 1930s he founded Arsenio Rodríguez y Su Conjunto Todos Estrellas, a band that transformed the Havana scene with its expanded role for trumpets, addition of piano and congas, and expansive book of original compositions. Steeped in Afro-Cuban rhythms, he brought the definitive Cuban pulse known as clave to the foreground, while celebrating his Congolese heritage with lyrics drawn from Palo Monte rituals and sayings.

During a long trip to New York City in 1947, in an ill-fated attempt to restore his eyesight, Rodríguez participated in the birth of Latin jazz, recording with Cuban conguero Chano Pozo and performing with the new style’s foundational figures Machito, Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauzá. And when the big band mambo sound swept dance floors a couple years later, he wasn’t unjustified in claiming that the new sound was infused with his rhythmic DNA. Others pointed out that the brothers Macho and Cachao (Orestes and Israel López, respectively), recorded their tune “Mambo” in 1938, but Rodríguez undoubtedly set the template for mambo with his horn arrangements, a contrapuntal concept that came to fruition in the orchestras of Perez Prado and Tito Puente.

“Arsenio Rodríguez created mambo and Pérez Prado made the money,” Gonzalez says. “Cachao also says he created it, but it was Arsenio Rodríguez. Rodríguez coined the term when he was directing his horns, shouting mambo! Mambo! Mambo! But the genre created by Pérez Prado.”

While Gonzalez grew up in a musical family where his father played the tres, he had little interest in son as a young man. Rather he was drawn to American music: Elvis Presley, jazz and rock. Traveling the world as a fisherman, he was exposed to an international array of musical styles, and it was only in his late 30s that he found himself drawn back to traditional Cuban music when he started studying the tres.

After a quick burst of attention following his involvement with collective band made up of erstwhile taxi drivers, he devoted himself to the tres, studying with the instrument’s foremost practitioner Papi Oviedo (a charter member of the Buena Vista Social Club) and guitar great Octavio Sanchez Cotán. Gonzalez worked steadily with leading Havana bands such as Conjunto Estrellas de Chocolate, and Chapotin y sus Estrellas, but his course was set when Rodríguez’s daughter Regla Rodríguez Travieso hired him for Nuevo Conjunto de Arsenio Rodríguez, an ensemble devoted to the music of its namesake (Gonzalez hopes to bring Rodríguez to New York for the dedication of her father’s tombstone).

It’s not like Rodríguez has been forgotten since his death. In the early years of the salsa movement the great pianist/composer Larry Harlow recorded 1972’s Tribute to Arsenio Rodríguez (Fania), and the great Cuban band Sierra Maestra released an album focusing on his compositions in 1994, Dundunbanza! (World Circuit). But many American music fans discovered the pleasures of Rodríguez’s music in the late 1990s via volatile jazz guitarist Marc Ribot, who toured widely with his band Marc Ribot y los Cubanos Postizos (Marc Ribot and the Prosthetic Cubans) and recorded two albums of tunes associated with the late tresero. For Gonzalez, that’s just a taste of the attention that should be lavished on a musical giant “who influenced everything.”

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....