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The Dean of Latin Jazz, Noro Morales

by Tomás Peña


The following article is part of the PR Project and was originally published on jazzdelapena.com It is reprinted here with permission. 

Multi-instrumentalist, composer Norberto Osvaldo Morales (Noro) was born in the Puerto de Tierra section of San Juan, Puerto Rico on January 4th, 1911. Initially, he was trained as a trombonist however he is remembered as an exceptional pianist and bandleader.

According to the musicologist Max Salazar: “Noro was a Puerto Rican hero in the 1940s, partly because some of the title of the tunes he wrote bore the names of Puerto Rican cities and also because of Rafael Hernandez’s lyrics, which celebrated the island’s culture. For the first half of the 1940s, Morales and Xavier Cugat’s groups were the most popular bands around; after 1945, Morales’s main rival as a bandleader was Machito. During this period, Noro’s band was paid the highest compliment an orchestra can get: where Morales and his group appeared, musicians from other bands would come just to watch the performance. That was what Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Charlie Palmieri, Hector Rivera, Lou Perez, Pete Terrace, Frankie Colon, and Ken Rosa did on many occasions.”

Noro was raised in a musical environment. His father, Louis was a violinist; his brother Ismael (Esy) played the flute and saxophone; Jose (Pepito) was a saxophonist, brother Luis played the violin and sister, Alicia played the piano. All were all outstanding musicians.

In 1924, father Louis Morales, his wife, and nine children moved to Caracas, Venezuela, and he became the musical director for (then) President Juan Gomez. Shortly after that, Luis Morales died, and Noro took over.

Six years later the orchestra broke up, and the family returned to Puerto Rico, where Noro freelanced as a pianist with Rafael Sanchez y Su Sinfonica, the Midnight Serenaders, Carmelo Diaz and Rafael Munoz among others before relocating to New York City in 1935.

His first stateside job was with the Alberto Socarras orchestra. The Morales Brothers Puerto Rican Orchestra emerged in 1938 with drummer Humberto, flutist Etsy, and Pepito. Their first six recordings were for Columbia Records.

The tune, Serenata Ritmica, recorded for Decca Records in 1942 catapulted Noro to fame in the mambo and rumba music world. Also, it led to performances in major nightclubs in Manhattan such as The Stork Club, El Morocco, La Conga, The China Doll, the Palladium and the Copacabana among others.

An incident at the legendary Stork Club between Noro and the popular radio personality, news anchor and journalist Walter Winchell led to a boost in his popularity. According to Salazar: “Winchell spoke to Noro in English. With a bewildered look Noro replied, ‘Scoose me, my English is not so nice looking.’ Winchell mentioned the incident in his column the next day.” Afterward, Noro composed the tune, Walter Winchell Rumba.

During the 1940s Noro appeared in films such as The Gay Ranchero (1941), Cuban Pete(1942), Ella (1942), and Mexican Jumping Bean (1942).

Noro was equally famous in Puerto Rico. He performed for the inauguration of the island’s first elected Governor, Luis Muñoz Marin. The performance led to a recording contract with MGM Records. According to Serrano, “On the first MGM LP, Morales recorded (the tune) Rum & Soda, which he dedicated to the Governor and a campaign to popularize Puerto Rico’s rums.”

During the 50s an RCA A&R representative convinced Noro to record American pop standards, which lacked Noro’s trademark sound and swing, which led to a decline in his popularity. After over 25 years in New York, he became homesick for Puerto Rico.

According to the author, historian Joe Conzo: “In the late 1950s, the music business in the United States was on a downward turn. The big bands for the swing era were replaced by small conjuntos, ensembles, and venues such as the Palladium Ballroom were no longer profitable. Noro suffered from diabetes and was beginning to lose his eyesight, which contributed to his decision to return home.”

His sister Alicia, negotiated a contract for him to play with his band at the prestigious La Concha Hotel in San Juan for six months. He performed there for four years.

Morales was  also known as the “Latin Duke Ellington,” and the “Dean of Latin Jazz.”There is a difference of opinion as to whether or not Noro was a jazz musician. Max Salazar is dismissive of Noro’s jazz “chops.” Basilio Serrano describes Noro’s sound as “bright and syncopated” and “jazz with a Latin ambiance.” This much is for sure; Noro was masterful, innovative pianist whose sound encompassed Puerto Rico’s flavor with New York City sensibilities. Also, he was popular and successful in the New York scene for roughly 20 years.

Also, he influenced Machito, Tito Rodriguez Tito Puente, and Charlie Palmieri and to a lesser degree, Eddie Palmieri among others — many of who went through his band and performed with many significant artists including Pellin Rodriguez, Vicentico Valdes, Dioris Valladares, Vitin Aviles, Ray Romero, Manny Oquendo, Willie Rodriguez, Willie Rosario, and Ray Santos among others.

Noro Morales died in January 1964 at the San Juan Jorge Hospital in Puerto Rico. The official cause of death was uremia (kidney failure).

For a taste of Noro, check out Charlie Palmieri’s A Giant Step (Tropical Budda Records, 1984), which includes Rhumba Rhapsody. Also, Noro’s No More Blues (Tico, 1960).

About the author: A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject.

List of works consulted

  1. Conzo, Joe. Perez, David A. Mambo Diablo, My Journey with Tito Puente. Author House. 2011. Print.
  2. Nater, Pete. Salsa Legends and Master Academy, www.slamanater.com. 
  3. Salazar, Max. Mambo Kingdom: Latin Music in New York. Schirmer Trade Books. 2002). Print.
  4. Serrano, Basilio. Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz, 1900-1939: Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz. iUniverse. 2015. Print.
© Tomás Peña. Published by permission in Centro Voices 12 March 2019.