'Mr. Bongo' - Jack Costanzo
One of the stereotypes about beatniks and hippies in popular culture is that they are often to be found playing bongos, possibly in
some smoke-filled cafe accompanying beat poetry. Bongos actually only came into the American consciousness starting in the
early 1950's; and their very presence in so much popular music for two decades can be traced to a single man.
Jack Costanzo was born in Chicago in September, 1922. He played with Stan Kenton's orchestra in the late 40's, popularizing the
Afro-Cuban instrument to American audiences who were starting to crave more exotic sounds in their tunes (a trend which would give
birth soon enough to the various styles known collectively as exotica). Although audiences had known the bongos from
their use by Xavier Cugat's band, they were now being introduced within more mainstream musical stylings, becoming streamlined within
the larger jazz-orchestra sound.
By the mid-1950's Costanzo was known as the go-to guy for lending a unique, vaguely foreign percussion sound to various albums, TV
and movie themes, soundtrack recordings, etc. He guested on sides by various jazz artists and even popular singers like Peggy Lee.
In 1958 Costanzo released Latin Fever, which would quickly come to be seen as a classic of exotica. Subtitled 'The Wild
Rhythms of Jack Costanzo,' the album featured a small but tight ensemble of bongos, piano, flute, trumpet, and tenor saxophone;
the group starts swinging with the very first few notes, creating a unique Latin-jazz sound that dozens of groups have since tried to
replicate. (Incidentally, the album's cover - reproduced at right - is also considered one of the classic cover graphics of that
Another classic from Costanzo is Mr. Bongo Cha Cha Cha from 1956; one his few albums to have been reissued in CD form, it
was originally so popular that it had been licensed and released by no less than six times.
Modern listeners eager to hear his sound can seek out either of the above-mentioned CDs; also, Capitol Records' 'Ultra-Lounge' series
features several Costanzo tracks, as well as many other exotica and lounge classics.