chekereLatin Percussionist Newsletter Issue 7 Spring 1998

Mike Collazo

Master Timbalero

by Ken Ross and Victor Rendón

 ∞ Interview ∞

Mike Collazo Latin PercussionistTimbalero/drummer Mike Collazo is by all standards one of the most respected percussionists in the music industry today. His outstanding career spans over three decades working with major artists such as Eddie Palmieri, Marcelino Guerra, Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe, and the legendary bands of Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, and Machito. Mike is among an elite group of musicians who in the 1960's pioneered what was to become the New York City Latin sound. His musical application of the drumset in Latin music, particularly his distinct hi-hat pattern and deep grooves are characteristic of his style which earned him the reputation as a "musician's musician." During the past fifteen years, Mike has been keeping a busy schedule with Orquesta Broadway and continues to freelance with numerous artists. We at Latin Percussionist are honored to share this interview with our readers about this legendary musician.

Mike grew up in New York City's "El Barrio." He recalls one of his earliest experiences that first inspired him to take up playing a musical instrument."When I was a teenager, I went to a place called The Melrose House in the Bronx. They had a band that turned out to be Al Santiago and his band the "Chakanunu Boys." That was the first time I saw a band and I thought it was fantastic. My god! Just like the records! That's what I want to be,"said Collazo. "So, I got interested and started to practice at home. I didn't have money to buy sticks or timbales, so I took the wooden dowels from coat hangers to use as drumsticks. For the timbales, I used to practice on a desk drawer." Mike was too young to go to dances so he listened to the Saturday night radio shows that featured the music of Noro Morales and his brother Humberto who played a set of Leedy Ludwig timbales with a bass drum. "While listening to the radio program I would practice with my dowel sticks. The side of the drawer was the paila and the top was the drumhead."

Totally inspired and determined, Mike made it his business to find a teacher. "I heard that Ubaldo Nieto (timbalero with the Machito orchestra) was giving lessons and so I hooked up with him. He was a very nice man. I took lessons with him once a week and sometimes when I didn't have the money, he would teach me anyway."

At the age of seventeen Mike enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music where he studied music history, piano, theory and percussion with Fred Albright, a very well known percussionist/author/educator. "He was a great teacher," recalled Collazo. "He taught me how to read music among other things."

Mike started to get some work with a few local bands. "I started playing with a young band leader Eddie Forester called "Eduardo" who took alot of people under his wing, like Eddie Palmieri and "Chickie" Perez."

Eventually Mike's name got around and someone recommended him to Marcelino Guerra. Mike explains, "The timbalero was Willie Bobo who was leaving the band to play bongos with Tito Puente. As a result, I was asked to play in Marcelino's band. That was great exposure for me because at one time the Marcelino Guerra band was the rival to the Machito Orchestra similar to the rivalry between Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez. That was a real professional band! Doc Cheatam and Sahib Shahib were in the band among other great jazz musicians. Marcelino would pick me up and take me home from the gigs because I was still young."

After a while, Vicentico Valdés and Manny Oquendo were leaving the Tito Puente band to form Vicentico's orchestra and they asked me to play timbales with the band. It was a great experience to play with them. These guys were well established. The first conguero with that band was Johnny Paloma and later it was Tommy Lopez. I stayed in the band for about five years and Manny was like my best friend. Eddie Palmieri was also in the band and we learned alot from Manny. He exposed us to alot of Cuban music. Everybody in New York was listening to Tito Puente, Machito, and Tito Rodríguez but Manny was a fanatic about listening to Cuban groups like Orquesta Riverside, Sonora Mantacera, Orquesta Aragon, Senén Suárez and all the other top bands in Cuba. He would take the guys to his house and show them how to play montunos and guajeos. He was a great teacher and he changed alot of things in New York like the way the cowbell is played. After working with Vicentico I went into the army for two years."

When Mike came home on leave from the army, his friend Manny was playing timbales with Johnny Pacheco. "Pacheco was the hottest thing with the pachanga. Tito Rodríguez was even considering replacing his horns with a flute and violins to do the charanga thing! That's how hot Pacheco was! After the service I began playing with Eddie Palmieri's band. The band was cookin' and people were starting to take notice. This was the beginning of "La Perfecta" in trio form. Later he got people like Barry Rogers, Ismael Quintana, and Mark Weinstein. He also added charts to become more organized. I played timbales and "Chickie" Perez played congas."

Mike was then called to play with Tito Rodríguez when Papi Pagani was leaving the band. Unfortunately Mike had to leave Eddie's band, but this was a great opportunity for Mike and as it turned out, he made a good decision. "Tito started selling alot of records including the hit albums Tito-Tito-Tito, Back Home in P.R., and Tito With Love.

Tito ran a strict band. We had about nine or ten uniforms. If you came in with your shoes unshined he would say, "Oye que pasa mulatto?" As a result, the band looked and sounded very sharp and disciplined. The band also had a lot of dynamics. Since Tito was a singer, the volume could be way up there, then it could come down to nothing just like the Count Basie band. He used to rehearse the trumpets first, saxes next, then put them together. He was also a perfectionist in the way he handled business. When we went out on tour we had a new album out, new uniforms, and even new cases with the name Tito Rodríguez Orchestra painted on them."

Mike Collazo is known among drumset players as the drummer with Tito Puente. His distinct hi-hat pattern and rock solid time became his trademark. Mike explains, "The hi-hat pattern started when I was working with Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz. The guy before me played a hi-hat, and Richie's music wasn't just salsa. We played jala jala, calypso, cha cha chá, etc. It was similar to Willie Colon's band that used to play all those different rhythms. Everything the timbalero played was written out including fills, paila, bell, and hi-hat. Once you learned the chart, you could add your own thing. The best experience I had playing with Ray was taking solos, which I had not done before. When I started playing, the only one I remember who took timbale solos was Tito Puente! I took a solo on a tune called "Aguzate" which became a hit. My name was mentioned on the recording and people still remember me because of that."

Mike was eventually asked to play drumset for Tito Puente. "Tito started to experiment using a trap drummer. Julito Collazo was in the band before me. He wasn't a trap drummer but he was keeping time, playing fills and kicking the band. I bought a drumset and did the same thing. Tito wanted a maraca effect on the hi-hat and he didn't want it too involved because we had congas, bongos, and timbales. If I played too much it would get in the way. I was basically there to keep time which is basically my thing anyway!" (much the way his teacher Ubaldo Nieto played with the Machito Orchestra).

After twelve years with Puente, Mike accepted an offer to play with Orquesta Broadway. The band plays a different style of Cuban music called charanga. "I love the music!" says Mike. "It's typical Cuban music. The band works alot and the money is good! It's alot easier on me because I don't have to carry a drumset". Besides playing with Orquesta Broadway Mike is also enjoying some freelance work. "I feel very fortunate to have made a living and played music with the high caliber of musicians I've worked with," says Mike.

The Collazo legacy continues with Michael Collazo Jr., an accomplished timbalero in his own right and a proud son. Michael is busy working in the New York area with Sergio George's project D.L.G.(Dark Latin Grooves), Miles Peña, Johnny Ray, Willie Colon, and most recently a new rising star Frankie Negrón. He obviously has his father's gift for music and is just beginning to find his niche in the business. "There was always a set of drums and timbales at the house," says Michael. "I naturally got into the drums first because when I was growing up my dad was playing drumset with Puente. I used to go to some of those gigs to hear them play. Forget about it! My dad was also into all the great jazz big bands like Basie, Ellington, and drummers like Grady Tate. My father never gave me formal lessons but when he was playing a gig, I would get up and jump behind the kit during the break!"(laughs)

Michael continued to get more serious about his drumming and played in the Stevenson High School Jazz Band in the Bronx, one of the top high school bands in New York State. I didn't get serious about the timbales until I was into my twenties," says Mike Jr. After studying with Johnny Almendra at the Boys Harbor Performing Arts Center, things started to develop quickly for Michael. At the present, his music career looks very promising. His proud father is quick to point out that he can't take the credit. "I didn't teach him", says Mike Sr. "Michael always had a good ear. I bought him a drumset when he was young and he started playing in school. When I heard him play in a school concert, I was amazed! He is always practicing. I look at him now and I see myself when I was young", says the proud father.

Mike Sr. adds, "Playing Latin rhythms has changed so much. People are doing things now that they didn't do before. He explained that musicians like Orestes Vilato would break tradition and try new things. "And, why not?" says Mike. "Who said there's only one way to play! We didn't have formal training like today. Now we have places like the Boys Harbor Performing Arts Center in "El Barrio" with guys giving lessons. We also have videos, books, and teachers like Louie Bauzo who have all this great information to teach. I think it's great.

As for advice for younger players Mike says, "The most important thing I want say to young musicians is to study, practice! practice! and practice! your instrument. And, don't be afraid to experiment. If people like it, and accept it,.....then it's O.K!" TF