"I have no words to express how honored and proud I am. I feel extremely happy to be recognized with such [an] important distinction after 60 years in my professional career, naming me, NEA Jazz Master, the nation’s high[est] honor for this uniquely American art form. I feel very humble to receive this recognition. It is as seeing an impossible dream come true. I thank the NEA and the United States of America."
So well known and respected, his first name alone -- Candido -- is all that is necessary for jazz aficionados to know who he is. Credited with being the first percussionist to bring conga drumming to jazz, Candido Camero is also known for his contributions to the development of mambo and Afro-Cuban jazz.
Born in Havana, Cuba, in 1921, Camero first began making music as a young child, beating rhythms on empty condensed milk cans in place of bongos. He worked for six years with the CMQ Radio Orchestra and at the famed Cabaret Tropicana.
He came to the United States in 1946 with the dance team Carmen and Rolando, and very soon after was playing with Billy Taylor, who wrote in 1954, "I have not heard anyone who even approaches the wonderful balance between jazz and Cuban elements that Candido demonstrates."
By the early 1950s, Camero was a featured soloist with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, with whom he toured the U.S. playing three congas (at a time when other congueros were playing only one) in addition to a cowbell and guiro (a fluted gourd played with strokes from a stick). He created another unique playing style by tuning his congas to specific pitches so that he could play melodies like a pianist. He became one of the best known congueros in the country, appearing on such television shows as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Jackie Gleason Show.
He has recorded and performed with seemingly everybody in the jazz field, including such luminaries as Tony Bennett, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Slide Hampton, Charles Mingus, Wes Montgomery, Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Clark Terry. Among his many awards are the Latin Jazz USA Lifetime Achievement Award (2001) and a special achievement award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers as a "Legend of Jazz" (2005).
The subject of the 2006 documentary, Candido: Hands of Fire, Camero (entering his 90s) continues to perform throughout the world.
Billy Taylor, The Billy Taylor Trio with Candido, Prestige/OJC, 1954
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