Rico Rodriguez 1934-2015
Big-time recognition came late to Rico Rodriguez, the wonderful Jamaican trombonist — and rather wonderful man — who died on Friday, aged 80. But when it came, it made a real impact: the patronage of Jerry Dammers and the Specials, the featured slot with Jools Holland’s big band, the MBE for services to music.
Rico was a product of Kingston’s Alpha Boys’ School, a reformatory located close to Sabina Park, Jamaica’s Test cricket stadium. Like Chicago’s DuSable High School and Detroit’s Cass Tech, the Alpha school was a vital incubator of musical talent, thanks in large part to the legendary Sister Mary Ignatius Davis, who ran the music programme there for several decades.
It was my privilege to be invited to contribute the sleeve note to That Man is Forward, Rico’s 1981 album for the 2-Tone label, on which he worked with his great friend Dick Cuthell, the flugelhornist and producer. During the course of a long conversation, Rico told me a story that began in Kingston’s teeming Mark Lane, where he was born to a Cuban father and a Jamaican mother. The details of his life are contained in David Katz’s excellent Guardian obituary. But I particularly relish his tale of getting his first break when he won the £10 first prize on Vere John’s Opportunity Hour, a radio talent show similar to those run by Major Bowles in the US and Carroll Levis in Britain. “After I’d won, I couldn’t enter again,” Rico told me, “so he’d have me on as a guest. The crowd was always behind me.” Vere John, a white journalist, offered just about the only opportunity for young local musicians to expose their talent to a wider public. “He was aware of the problems in our society,” Rico said.
Large stretches of Rico’s life involved a struggle to survive, including a spell on the production line at Ford’s Dagenham plant and another as a painter for a local authority, so it was great to see that he was finally appreciated. His skills were those acquired by countless musicians who learnt to play modern jazz and then applied the skills learnt from Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, J.J. Johnson, Miles Davis and John Coltrane to more popular forms — like the members of Ray Charles’s band in the ’50s, James Brown’s in the ’60s, Earth, Wind & Fire in the ’70s, and so on up to the guys playing with Kendrick Lamar today. Rico’s fellow alumni of the Alpha school included, at one time or another, the trumpeters Dizzy Reece, Eddie Thornton and Dizzy Moore, the saxophonists Joe Harriott, Bogey Gaynair, Harold McNair, Cedric Brooks, Lester Sterling, Tommy McCook and Headley Bennett, and the trombonists Don Drummond, Carlos Malcolm and Vin Gordon. You could make one heck of a big band out of that lot.
But it was his spell in the late ’50s at Renock Lodge in Wareika Hills, living among the Rasta community presided over by the drummer Oswald Williams, better known as Count Ossie, that made the biggest impression on him. “Most of what I know,” he told me, “I learnt from playing with them.”
* If anyone knows who took the lovely photograph of Rico that I’ve used above, please tell me so that I can provide a credit.