THE YEAR 1958 WAS GOOD FOR MUSIC. Miles Davis recorded Milestones [Columbia/ Sony, with Paul Chambers on bass], an album considered by many to be his best effort. Sonny Rollins made his politically musical statement with Freedom Suite [Riverside, Oscar Pettiford on bass], and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers laid down the alltime hard-bop classic Moanin’ [Blue Note, Jymie Merritt on bass]. In the same year, pianist and American jazz icon Nat King Cole recorded something groundbreaking: a fusion of Cuban rhythm and American pop sensibility that used the cha-cha-chá dance rhythm.
“El Bodeguero” [Cole Español, Capitol, 1958], or “the grocer’s cha-cha,” was recorded in Havana with a studio orchestra led by Armando Romeu Jr. Cole later overdubbed his vocal tracks in Hollywood. Travel and business between the U.S. and Cuba had not yet been restricted by el bloqueo (the blockade), which went into effect in 1960. For the Cuban orchestra, this was a normal studio session, a recording of the dance rhythm of the day. For Nat King Cole, it would become one of his biggest-selling hits.The cha-cha-chá rhythm developed from danzón, the traditional Cuban dance.
The name cha-cha-chá (often shortened to chacha) is derived from the sound of the guiro and the shuffling of the dancers’ feet. In the ’50s, music with the cha-cha-chá rhythm developed along with the cha-cha-chá dance craze.
Example 1 is a basic cha-cha bass line on Cole’s version of the “El Bodeguero” harmony. Example 2 shows the end of the tune: The rhythm section goes into a double- time feel, and Cole sings “toma chocolate paga lo que debe” (he drinks chocolate, he pays what he owes). I can imagine all the Sputnik-era dancers shuffl in’, bouncin’ and shakin’ when the tune hits the double time. It still makes me want to get up and dance.
The trick to playing the cha-cha-chá bass line is that the notes are relatively short and percussive. The bass line should have a hypnotic groove that serves as an integral voice in the percussion section.
On the heels of Cole’s success, the great trombonist and bandleader Tommy Dorsey had a huge cha-cha hit with his big band version of “Tea for Two” [The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra starring Warren Covington, Tea for Two Cha-Chas, Decca, 1958, George Boehm on bass]. Still one of the most-requested cha-cha numbers at weddings and society gigs, “Tea for Two” has an infectious groove and a mellifluous melody.
Example 3 is a cha-cha bass line over the harmony of “Tea for Two.” This is what will get feet on the dance floor—the over-60 society folks remember the groove from back in the day, and the under-40 lounge lizards hear the groove as vintage chic.
The cha-cha-chá groove is intrinsically connected to the dance. If you can’t chacha- chá, the dancers can’t cha-cha. Yes, it’s completely corny and retro, but no one ever said society gigs were havens of musical integrity. Plus, the cha-cha-chá remains a basic rhythm used in modern Afro-Cuban music. So lighten up, get your cha-cha going, and let it groove!
Despite being raised in the woodlands and rolling hills of Kentucky, the Bluegrass State, John Goldsby has played on several Latin jazz albums, including Arturo Sandoval’s Mambo Nights [Connector] and Lalo Schifrin’s Latin Jazz Suite [Aleph]. He recently played “El Bodeguero” with Hilario Durán and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez. Visit John atwww.johngoldsby.com