Picture the Bronx in the early to mid ’70s. What comes to mind? In the shadows of the trestles that bore the Nos. 2 and 5 trains into and back from Manhattan, life and music played out to a salsa rhythm, or maybe early disco, depending on where you were in the borough.
Where Marc Quiñones grew up, you might have heard the latest albums by the Cuban trumpeter Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros or La Conspiración or Chino y Su Conjunto Melao — bands that his Uncle Rafael played with. You might also have heard Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, or Frank Sinatra, all of them favorites of his mother.
What you wouldn’t have heard was The Allman Brothers.
“They weren’t a big hit in my neighborhood,” he says, laughing at the irony. “Certainly I wasn’t listening to them or to any rock and roll for that matter. The closest I got was Santana, and I listened to them only because they had a lot of drumming going on.”
Quiñones still lives in the Bronx, but from his earliest days of jamming at his uncle’s gigs as an underage interloper, his horizons have stretched far beyond the city’s limits. Eventually they would lead to a most unlikely job as percussionist with those same Allman Brothers. From their first sessions together, for Shades Of Two Worlds in 1991, the multiple influences that inform Quiñones’ style on conga, bongo, and timbales fit with surprising ease into the blues/Southern rock approach that the band more or less invented in the late ’60s.
Onstage and in the studio with the Allmans, with superstars Mark Anthony, Rubén Blades, or Celia Cruz, on tour with David Byrne’s all-star Latin ensemble, on film soundtracks like Do The Right Thing and The Mambo Kings, in the pit with Paul Simon’s Capeman musical, and even back when he was sharing the stage with Tito Puente as part of the precocious Los Rumberitos quartet, Quiñones insists that he always plays essentially the same way — his way, with a personal touch that he developed more through intuition than analysis.
Born To Drum
Quiñones knew, when he was old enough to know anything, that he would someday play percussion, just like his uncle and his father — like people they brought over to his house every weekend.
“Now, Spanish Harlem was known for salsa music blasting out from the windows and people socializing in the street, but the Bronx was different,” he explains. “We lived near the Bronx Zoo, and there was a park-like area there where people would take over a few benches, drink, and have a good time playing drums and singing until the wee hours, without any interruptions from the police. And there was jamming at our house too; people would come over and have an all-out drum festival. Really, I was surrounded by drums pretty much from the beginning.”
By age three, Quiñones was listening and watching carefully as his father’s friends dropped by for their rhythm jams. Though he worked full-time to support his family, José “Tony” Quiñones was a fluent conga player. As he was growing up in the Fort Apache section of the Bronx, he hung out with kids who would one day make their mark as percussion masters. These longtime friends and colleagues — Milton Cardona, Frankie Rodriguez, Frankie Malabe, Andy and Jerry Gonzalez — were among the regulars at those weekend sessions, and each contributed to the knowledge that young Marc absorbed from the sidelines.
Soon Marc was playing too. “They tell me I started physically playing at three, but in my mind and my heart I had been playing before then,” he says. “Even before I was born, my father and my uncle were playing at my house, so who knows if by osmosis that was transferred to me while I was in my mother’s womb? Music was always happening: Cuban music, Puerto Rican music, salsa music, music where the drumming was prevalent. So maybe it was just meant to be.”
With all the talent flowing through his living room, Marc had the opportunity to study directly with one or more of the top Latin hand drummers of the day. Tony Quiñones, in fact, had taught hand drumming privately in Spanish Harlem for a while. But for whatever reason, Marc never took lessons; almost everything he now knows as a percussionist came to him through self-education. In later years, his father would teach him the basics of music theory and introduce him to melodic instruments; he would learn enough this way to play trumpet in his high school band. Drums, though, were always his home, and he built that home solely with his own hands.
He began on his father’s congas, hand-made instruments from a manufacturer whose name he has long forgotten. He also began going to Uncle Rafael’s gigs, despite the obvious problems involved with bringing kids into nightclubs. “The funny thing is that sometimes he would be babysitting me, so he’d have to take me along,” he remembers. “The club owners would give him a hard time because I was only six or seven years old. They were like, ’We can’t let this kid in here.’ Uncle Rafael would tell them he had nowhere to leave me; he was like, ’If I can’t bring him in, then I can’t play. I’ll have to leave and you won’t have a conga player tonight.’ So they had to give in. They’d tell him, ’Well, keep him in the corner, because if anybody sees this child we’ll lose our license.’
“And,” Marc laughs, “before you knew it, I’d be onstage, playing along with the band.”
Soon the young Quiñones was a regular at the drum gatherings that ran regularly throughout the city. On Saturdays he spent hours joining in with the hand drummers near the Bronx Zoo or elsewhere in the borough, at Crotona Park. Sundays were spent with another group at Orchard Beach or going into Manhattan for the largest of all the weekly events, in Central Park. He learned quickly — so quickly that by age nine he had already made his debut at Carnegie Hall, as one of the battery of drummers in a production that Quiñones recalls as “almost a Latin version of Tommy.”
One of the lead characters in that show was a good friend of Marc’s father. Sensing something special in the young conguero, he urged Tony Quiñones to take his son down to Roberto Clemente State Park in the Bronx, where Tito Puente was looking to put some of New York’s most talented children into a percussion quartet that he would feature in his shows.
“So we went there,” Quiñones says, “and that’s where I met Bobby Allende, who was at the time seven years old, his brother Tito, who was a few years older, and this kid named José Jusino, whose brother is Eric Velez, Marc Anthony’s conga player. We played together, and Tito Puente was so taken with us that for the next three or four years we played with him everywhere around the city: Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden, the Central Park band shell, and at all these outdoor festivals. We even played with him at nightclubs. He had this regular gig every Wednesday at the Corso, and he would have us come down and play. This was a school night, so here we are, these kids in a club, falling asleep at the table until it was time to perform.”
(As a side note, Quiñones and Bobby Allende have remained close friends. Like Quiñones, Allende would earn a high-profile, though somewhat abbreviated, position with a hugely successful rock band — in his case, Santana. Currently the two are working together on a joint percussion recording project, under the name “Q and A.” Allende was profiled in the Sept. 2005 issue of DRUM!)
The four percussion prodigies called themselves Los Rumberitos, and they were a smash. Backed by a pianist and bassist, with Puente playing along, they’d showcase their versatility by switching instruments, with each boy taking a turn on congas, bongos, and timbales. The act lasted about six years, until they reached their mid-teens and the novelty began to wear off. By the time they broke up, though, all four had advanced significantly as players, though once again more from their own work and from watching Puente in action.
“Growing up, before I started taking an interest in timbales, I would listen to a lot of Tito’s records and try to emulate his solos,” Quiñones says. “The funny thing was that before I got to see him play, I was learning it all wrong. We played this thing called an habanico, which is a roll that introduces the next section of a song, like when you’re coming out of a mambo section. It sounds like a single-stroke roll, but it’s actually a double-stroke. So when I finally saw him playing, I was like, ’Oh, man! This is totally off the wall!’”
Just as important, Puente encouraged all four members of Los Rumberitos to keep growing as musicians. “He appreciated our talent,” Quiñones says, “and he was always very warm to us. Even in his later years, he was always supportive. We became a family because, with us being so young, I think he took to the fact that we had potential.”
When Los Rumberitos broke up, Quiñones concentrated on high school until he was old enough to start working the club circuit. His reputation was already established, thanks to the exposure he’d earned through playing with Puente on bills that included three or four other bands. So it was no surprise when he got a call, at age 17, from one of the top Latin singers of the time, Rafael de Jesus, who had just left trumpeter Luis “Perico” Ortiz’s band to cut a solo album.
“He hired me for that session,” Quiñones says, “and I have to admit it was intimidating because this was my first opportunity to record with real artists — heavyweights like [pianist] Oscar Hernandez, who is music director for the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, and the conga player Juan ’Papo’ Pepin, who was a big influence on me. Sal Cuevas, one of the biggest salsa bass innovators, was on the gig as well. So there were lots of heavy cats, and here I am, this newbie, thrown into the mix.”
Apparently Quiñones acquitted himself well, since de Jesus invited him to join his band. With that, the doors flew open, and soon every open night, when he wasn’t working with de Jesus, was filled with freelance jobs for other bands. “From when I was 16 to 20 years old, I played with basically every salsa band in New York City,” he says. “My steady was with Rafael, but I also played with José Alberto ’El Canario,’ who had his own band, and with Raphael’s old boss, Perico. Back then there were so many clubs that there weren’t enough musicians to go around, so I subbed a lot. There might be three clubs in one block, so on one night I’d start at one, go across the street to play the next set, and then pack up and go to the third club. It was ridiculous.”
It wasn’t only his playing that raised Quiñones toward the top of the percussion list. Thanks to his years of playing trumpet in high school, he had developed an ability to sight-read charts — not a common asset among even his more seasoned colleagues. His skill at playing treble clef lines on sight translated into an even stronger capability with percussion parts — which, unlike a trap drummer’s score, consists only of slashes to mark each impact and accent.
The music business being as it is, even all this work wasn’t enough to cover living expenses after high school, and so Quiñones mixed his nighttime regimen with a nine-to-five ordeal as a Citibank teller — “handing out money,” he points out, “rather than making it. During this time, I was really just playing music for fun. It wasn’t a job; it was more about making a little money, hanging out, meeting girls, you know what I’m saying? I always thought I’d have to subsidize my playing with a real job.”
That began to change when bassist Sal Cuevas tipped Quiñones off to a job sitting in for Milton Cardona on a recording date with Willie Colón. At the time this seemed no different from the fill-in gigs that Quiñones often played. What he didn’t know was that the band’s drummer, Johnny Almendra, had noticed how easily the young substitute handled each arrangement, thanks to his reading. Nor did he realize at the time that Colón was having problems with Cardona, who had the habit of missing rehearsals and shows every now and then.
So when Colón called out of the blue with an offer to join his band as a conguero, Quiñones jumped at it. The day job was instant history, and for the next five years he traveled and recorded with the celebrated trombonist and New York salsa pioneer. He worked his way up as the band’s bongosero, timbalero, and eventually music director, with responsibilities ranging from leading rehearsals to making sure everyone had the right uniform for the night to getting the band to the airport on time.
Following his run with Colón, Quiñones signed on with Rubén Blades, a world-class job that placed him at the pinnacle of Latin music from 1986 through ’89. This, in turn, led to a stint on timbales with Talking Heads founder David Byrne, who devoted a year to fronting a huge, 17-piece Latin ensemble whose members included a red-hot rhythm section, with Cardona on congas and José Mangual Jr. on bongos, and more than a few legends, including Colón, Ray Barretto, and Celia Cruz. When that tour closed, Quiñones was recruited to play percussion with jazz fusionists Spyro Gyra. Though that position lasted for just a year, it ended at an opportune time.
Following a show in Tallahassee, Florida, Quiñones was relaxing, making himself a sandwich, backstage, when a total stranger came rushing up to him. “He’s ranting and raving about my playing, like, ’Man, my wife and I couldn’t keep our eyes and ears off of you! You’re amazing! You know, I think I’m going to have to steal you from this band!’ I’m like, ’Yeah, whatever, man,’ but I gave him my number, and when he left, the manager of Spyro Gyra was like, ’Man, that’s Butch Trucks from the Allman Brothers!’ Which meant absolutely nothing to me.”
Shortly after that, Trucks called with an offer to fly Quiñones down to Memphis, where his band was getting ready to lay down tracks for Shades Of Two Worlds. “I say okay, even though I still have no idea who the Allman Brothers are. To me, it’s just another session. I see Jaimoe sitting on a cooler, chilling out; I think he’s one of the roadies. I thought one of the guitar techs was Dickie Betts. But Butch and Jaimoe will both tell you now that it was a blessing that I had no idea who they were, because I didn’t have any preconceived notion of what I should play.”
They got to work, and right away producer Tom Dowd took note of that same reading ability that had helped Quiñones hit his stride in New York. “They were paying this complicated instrumental that went from 4/4 to 7/4 to a 2/4 bar here and there. The changes were going by so fast that I asked Tom to sketch out a diagram for me. And he goes, ’You read music? Great! That makes it easier for us.’ He sketches out a part and we knock it out, and he’s going on about how amazing that is, because Gregg Allman and Dickie Betts can read only chord charts.”
After the session, Quiñones flies back home to news from Spyro Gyra leader Jay Beckenstein that the band has decided to “go in a different direction” and let him go. For two months, nothing much happens. Then Trucks calls again, this time with news that everyone in the band was so knocked out by his work in Memphis that they wanted him to play on their upcoming European tour. “That was 15 years ago, and I’m still here,” he smiles.
Quiñones was the answer to the band’s long search for a final rhythmic ingredient. Both drummers, Butch Trucks and Jaimoe, had always wanted to add percussion to the mix. Both had, in fact, gotten up from behind their kits on occasion to make that addition. Yet everyone was committed to the two-drummer concept, which stemmed from the late Duane Allman’s admiration for how James Brown used that formulation to maximum funk effect. From his perspective, Quiñones played in this setting more or less as he had played over the years with every other band: the same patterns, the same feel. Apparently, no adjustment was needed to fit into what Trucks and Jaimoe had cultivated — but there was, he concedes, one new twist to working with the Allmans.
“Before coming to the Allman Brothers, I’d never worked solo,” he points out. “I was always part of a percussion section. With Willie Colón, I shared the stage with two other percussionists. With Rubén Blades, there were three other percussionists. With the Allman Brothers, I’ve got two drummers to contend with as opposed to a bongo player, a conga player, and a timbale player. That’s the only adaptation I’ve had to make. Otherwise, my approach has always been the same: Less is more.”
Looking ahead, Quiñones can foresee the end of his journey with the Allmans. “It’s slowing down a little,” he admits. “They’ve been on the road for almost 40 years, so they’re getting tired of it. But I never thought I’d be in this band as long as I have, so I can’t project what’s going to happen. Five years from now I could still be doing the Allman Brothers or I could be doing something different. I’ve never projected the future and I’m not going to start now, other than to say the spectrum is wide. From the opportunities I’ve been blessed with over the years, I know that anything is possible.”
Quiñones’ Percussion Sidekick
The voice is craggy, like a road rutted by a thousand touring vans. But even though he’s talking about something that happened more than a decade ago, Claude Hudson “Butch” Trucks sounds as amazed as if he’d first heard Mark Quiñones only yesterday.
“That was back in … my God, it was 1991,” the veteran Allman Brothers drummer recalls, amazed as well at how quickly time can pass when you’re having fun. “He was playing with Spyro Gyra and completely dominating them — and that’s not a half-assed band. So I went backstage after the show, told him I played with the Allman Brothers, and said, ’I’m stealing you.’ He acted very impressed, but after I walked out he turned around and said to everyone else in the room, ’Who the hell are the Allman Brothers?’”
You’ve already read Marc’s account of this encounter, but what you haven’t heard is how his playing affected the Allman’s groove, as assessed by the drummer who had been in charge of that groove since the band’s debut in 1969. Fact is, despite their formula of working with two drummers, Trucks and Johnny Lee “Jaimoe” Johanson sensed almost from the start that something was still missing from the rhythm. That something was a percussionist.
“Since way back when we did ’In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed’ on our second album [Idlewild South, 1970] we’d been looking for a Latin percussionist because a lot of the jamming we do lends itself to those rhythms. But we play louder than the average band, so finding someone with the musicianship and the power to play with us was difficult.”
For a while, they thought they’d found their man in Mark Morris, the now-seasoned session player whose credits include Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Dolly Parton. “He had the musicianship, and he did a couple of albums with us, but when he got onstage with us, he was completely lost,” Trucks recalls. “He might as well not have been there.”
From the start, though, Quiñones fit right in, in part by changing the roles that the two drummers had defined through their years of playing together. “Before Marc joined the band, I held down the fort so Jaimoe could play around me,” Trucks explains. “Now that Marc is there, I don’t have to worry about that. I’m much freer to explore and take more chances. I can throw threes against fours, and if my three doesn’t happen to come out with my four, it’s okay because Marc is there.”
Sometimes it’s more than okay, Trucks admits, with an affectionate laugh: “When we’re playing at full tilt and I get completely and totally lost, I’ll turn around and look at Marc. He’ll give me the 1, and then I hit it hard and act like I knew what I was doing. Sometimes that happens so often that I get a crick in my neck from turning around and looking at Marc. The honest truth is that he embarrasses me because he’s just so good.” –Robert L. Doerschuk