An Appreciation: Graciela

By Fernando Gonzalez

Graciela, a pioneer in Latin Jazz and one of the most important vocalists in the history of Latin music in the United States, died Wednesday morning at New York Cornell-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. She had been hospitalized for some time and, according to reports, died of renal and pulmonary failure. She was 94.

Graciela Pérez Gutierrez was born in Havana, Cuba, on August 23rd, 1915. She started singing encouraged by his foster brother, Frank “Machito” Grillo and, while still a teenager, she joined the all-female group Orquesta Anacaona. She had a solid professional life, including touring and recording, when in 1943 she was summoned to  New York City by her brother in law, saxophonist Mario Bauzá, musical director of the great Machito and his Afro-Cubans orchestra. Machito had been drafted and the band needed a vocalist.

She proved to be not only a top flight singer but a strong front person — versatile, sassy and engaging. She could swing with ease and then, seemingly just as casually, play up the emotions by telling a story of love found and lost in a bolero.

After Machito’s return, Graciela stayed on and sang with the orchestra until 1975 when, after a dispute over the direction of the band, Machito and Bauzá split. She returned to the stage and the studio with Bauzá´s own orchestra in the 1980s and unofficially retired in 1993, after Bauzá´s death. Still, she remained active, most recently recording with fellow Cuban conguero Cándido Camero on 2004’s Candido & Graciela Inolvidable.

Her friend and assistant of many years, Mappy Torres, told the New York Times that she died “with her claves in her hands.” It was only appropriate.

Graciela with Machito and Mario Bauza

Graciela recording with Candido Camero

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