Jack Costanzo, Musician Known as Mr. Bongo, Dies at 98
Aug. 26, 2018
Jack Costanzo, left, with Marlon Brando on the CBS program “Person to Person” in 1955.Bettmann/Getty Images
Jack Costanzo, a Chicagoan of Italian descent who taught himself to play the bongos and, somewhat improbably, became a ubiquitous figure in Afro-Cuban jazz, accompanying singers like Nat King Cole and mingling with Marlon Brando and other Hollywood stars, died on Aug. 18 in Lakeside, Calif., near San Diego. He was 98.
The cause was a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm, his wife, Maureen Wilson, said.
Mr. Costanzo, after stints with Stan Kenton, Cole and other prominent artists, became a bandleader himself, recording albums across a half-century, some of them employing his nickname, Mr. Bongo, in the title. He was also a session player on numerous other albums and accompanied performers in television appearances, including Ann Miller during a spunky rendition of “I’m Gonna Live ’Til I Die” on a 1957 episode of “The Dinah Shore Chevy Show.”
Ann Miller and Jack Costanzo in 1957. Video by vintage video clips
Perhaps his starriest celebrity pairing was with Brando, a drumming aficionado. He was sometimes mistakenly credited with teaching Brando the bongos and conga drums, a claim he was careful to correct whenever he got the chance.
“Everybody thinks I taught Marlon Brando,” he told the music site Herencia Latina. “I never taught Marlon how to play. He knew how to play before I met him.”
That initial meeting, he said, had occurred when he was appearing with Cole at Carnegie Hall in 1953; Brando, who admired his playing, came to the stage door and asked to meet him. They became friends, jamming “hundreds of times,” Mr. Costanzo said, often at Brando’s house in the Hollywood Hills. There Brando filmed a segment for Edward R. Murrow’s CBS television program “Person to Person,”giving a tour of the home and showing off the Oscar he had won days before for “On the Waterfront.” Two-thirds of the way through the interview, drumming is heard.
“That’s Jack, I guess,” Brando says, leading the camera into another room where Mr. Costanzo is pounding on conga drums, a set standing idle for Brando.
“I guess we’re now ready to audition a new act: Brando and Costanzo,” Murrow says. “That even rhymes.”
The two proceed to play together for more than a minute.
Brando, Mr. Costanzo told The San Diego Union-Tribune 60 years later, “played very well as a nonprofessional musician.”
Jack James Costanzo was born on Sept. 24, 1919, in Chicago to Matteo and Virginia Sances Costanzo, both immigrants from Italy. He grew up in Chicago at a time when dancing — the kind done in hotel ballrooms — was studied and practiced by young people who envisioned making a career out of it. Mr. Costanzo, at 13 or 14, would go to places like the Merry Garden Ballroom, which had a main ballroom and an annex, to work on his steps.
“The girls came down in long, gorgeous gowns, spaghetti straps,” he recalled in an interview with Whittier College’s “Inside Latin Jazz” series several years ago. “Everybody that was dancing in the annex wanted to be a dancer, and I was one of those persons. And I was dancing with people that were eight, nine years older than I. I was just a young kid. In fact, that’s what they used to call me: ‘the Kid.’ ‘I want to dance with the Kid.’ But nobody kidnapped me.”
During one visit, a band from Puerto Rico was playing.
“The drummer on one song came out in front and played the bongos, and that was the first time I saw a pair of bongos,” he said. “And I went crazy.”
He wanted to learn the instrument, but there was a problem.
“There was nowhere to buy them,” he said. “You couldn’t buy bongos anywhere in Chicago.”
So he made a set out of butter tubs. Mr. Costanzo, though, had not yet abandoned his aspiration to be a dancer; for a time he and his first wife, Mary Margaret Myers, whom he married in 1940, were a professional dance team known as Costanzo & Marda. (They divorced in 1959.)
Mr. Costanzo on bongos with the pianist and singer Nat King Cole in about 1950. The guitarist is Irving Ashby and the bassist is Joe Comfort.Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Mr. Costanzo joined the Navy in 1942 and was discharged in 1945 on the West Coast, so he stayed there, teaching dance for three months at the Beverly Hills Hotel before the bandleader Bobby Ramos, who had heard him play at a jam session, offered him a job in 1946. As Mr. Costanzo described it, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time: Mr. Ramos wanted a bongo player for an engagement at the Trocadero nightclub, and there were no others around.
“It was either me or not having bongos,” Mr. Costanzo said.
In 1947 he joined Stan Kenton’s orchestra, raising his profile considerably, and by 1949 he was playing with Cole, who, after adding him, changed the name of his act from the Nat King Cole Trio to Nat King Cole and His Trio to reflect the fourth member. He stayed with Cole for more than four years.
Mr. Costanzo, his nickname notwithstanding, was also adept on the larger conga drums. “Bongos are the salt and pepper of the rhythm section,” he once explained, whereas congas were more substantive.
Mr. Costanzo acknowledged that he was sometimes snubbed by Latin percussionists who resented that he was playing “their” music.
“They were not happy that Kenton hired me,” he said. “They were not happy that Nat King Cole hired me.”
They wouldn’t teach him beats or otherwise help him learn.
“If I would have not been a natural drummer,” he said, “it would have been impossible.”
Mr. Costanzo was popular in Hollywood, giving lessons to actors like Gary Cooper and Rita Moreno, sometimes so that they could pass as bongo players in movies. He was in movies himself, including the 1965 Elvis Presley vehicle “Harum Scarum.”
His albums in the 1950s included “Mr. Bongo Plays Hi-Fi Cha Cha” and “Latin Fever.” He often performed and recorded with his third wife, the vocalist Gerrie Woo. (They divorced in 1977.)
In his 80s he enjoyed something of a comeback, releasing “Back From Havana” in 2001 and “Scorching the Skins” in 2002, as well as touring. He was still playing in his 90s.
“He put the bongos on the map and is the bridge between Latin jazz and jazz,” the trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos told The Union-Tribune in 2015, when Mr. Costanzo was preparing to play at a local club. “The fact that he’s 96 and still doing it is unbelievable.”
Mr. Costanzo’s second marriage, to Jodi DeMelikoff, ended in divorce in 1966. In addition to his wife, whom he married in 2009 after many years together, he is survived by three daughters, Jill Costanzo, Valerie Woo Costanzo and CeCe Costanzo; a son, Jack James Costanzo Jr.; a stepdaughter, Stacy Coulter; a stepson, Tod Wilson; seven grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Mr. Costanzo once told the story of being hired by the director Frank Capra to teach the bongos to Carolyn Jones, an actress later known as Morticia in the television series “The Addams Family,” for a part she was playing in the 1959 Frank Sinatra film “A Hole in the Head.”
“I gave her eight lessons, and the talk circuit in Hollywood was that Frank Capra, everywhere he went, said, ‘I’m paying this Italian bongo player a thousand dollars to give Carolyn Jones eight lessons!’ He couldn’t stand it.”
“I saw the movie, by the way,” Mr. Costanzo added. “She did about three seconds on the bongos.”
A version of this article appears in print on Aug. 27, 2018, on Page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: Jack Costanzo, Who Helped Popularize The Bongos and Latin Jazz, Is Dead at 98. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe