Jack Costanzo dies, helped introduce bongos to jazz, toured with Nat King Cole
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People who didn’t know Jack Costanzo might have assumed excess energy was why the 98-year-old man kept drumming his fingers on tabletops, dashboards and any other available surface.
Actually, he just couldn’t help it. He was “Mr. Bongo,” the exuberant musician who helped introduce bongos to modern jazz — not to mention beatniks and assorted hepcats, including Marlon Brando.
Mr. Costanzo died Aug. 18 of complications from an aortic aneurysm at his home in Lakeside, California. The Chicago native was 98.
He played with Latin bandleaders Desi Arnaz and Xavier Cugat as well as Duke Ellington, Judy Garland, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Charlie Parker, Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand.
Touring with Nat King Cole in the South, Mr. Costanzo would forego whites-only hotels to stay with Cole, who was relegated to lesser accommodations because of his skin color.
Brando praised him as “the foremost exponent of jazz bongo.” Mr. Costanzo jammed with the actor during a 1955 Edward R. Murrow TV interview with the actor two days after he’d won an Academy Award for “On the Waterfront.”
At one point, Brando invited him to his house for dinner and a bongo session, said his nephew Mike Costanza, who, like some family members, spell their last name with a final “a” rather than “o.”
“They were playing for about four hours. My uncle called him ‘Brandy,’ and he said, ‘Brandy, you promised me dinner,’ ” the nephew said. “Brando went to the freezer, took out a frozen hamburger, put it in a pan, cooked it up and said, ‘Hurry up and eat; we’re playing more.’ ”
Mr. Costanzo played on movie soundtracks including Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” and “Harum Scarum,” during which he picked up a few karate moves from star Elvis Presley.
He told Presley to call him Jack, but he wouldn’t. “He called me Mr. Costanzo,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1995. “And it was ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir.’ He was so polite.”
He cut many records, including “Scorching the Skins” and “Latin Fever, the Wild Rhythms of Jack Costanzo.” He also laid down tracks for Motown and the Supremes, as well as with the famed Los Angeles session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew.
“He’s touched jazz, he’s touched Latin jazz, he’s touched Motown,” said his niece Sharon Costanza.
He’d grown up with the Italian music of his immigrant parents Matteo and Virginia Costanzo, who moved the family around the city during the Depression. But something shifted for young Jack when he heard a band from Puerto Rico at Chicago’s Merry Garden ballroom at Belmont and Sheffield, according to a short film by Nelson Datu Anderson.
“’That was the first time I saw a pair of bongos, and I went crazy,” Mr. Costanzo told Anderson. “Afro-Cuban does have a different feeling. . . . than just the regular Latin rhythms. . . It was more conga drum than bongos.”
He initially made the instrument himself. “In those days, butter was not in one-pound packages, it came in big wooden tub,” he told the Sun-Times. “I cut the empty tubs down and made a pair of bongos. I used heads from regular bass drums. And I taught myself to play.”
Cole hired him in 1949, billing his combo as “The Nat King Cole Trio, featuring America’s #1 Bongo Player, Jack Costanzo.”
“He said the best five years was working with him,” said his fourth wife, Maureen Wilson Costanzo.
Mr. Costanzo once told interviewer Alex Pertout, “You just never got tired of Nat’s singing.”
Jim Crow rules blocked Mr. Costanzo from playing with Cole in some cities in the South.
“I was so upset,” Mr. Costanzo recalled in the Anderson film.
Beyond that, “Nat Cole was not allowed to live in a regular hotel. He was living in joints, and I’m living in a first-class hotel.”
So he moved to be with his bandmates. According to his niece, “He said, ‘No, I’m going to go with them. We’d be jamming all night, and we had a better time.’ ”
“I could play a solo for five days,” he told the Sun-Times, ‘”but I’d much rather fit into a band and just let it cook.”
He attributed his longevity to moderation. “He never smoked or drank,” said his daughter Jill Costanzo, but she added, “He was a Disneyland kind of dad. He made popcorn and took us to the drive-ins.”
He is also survived by his daughters Cece Costanzo and Valerie Woo, son Jack, stepchildren Stacy Coulter and Tod Wilson, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. A celebration of his life is planned Oct. 1 at the Music Box club in San Diego.