The death was announced this week of Rico Rodriguez of one of the great figures from the era of Jamaican ska music in the sixties, through to the British Two-Tone movement in the 1980s.

Later, along with musicians like Denys Baptiste, Andy Sheppard, Guy Barker and Annie Whitehead, he was a member of Jazz Jamaica, Gary Crosby’s big band that fused ska, reggae and jazz (I remember seeing them on the Massive tour in 2004, putting on a show full of musical sparkle and exuberant energy). From 1996 until 2012, Rico was also a member of the Jools Holland Orchestra.

Rico Rodriguez
Rico Rodriguez

Probably the first time I became conscious of Rico Rodriguez was when I bought the 12inch single version of The Specials’ Ghost Town in 1981, the year of the riots in Liverpool 8 and Brixton. In the middle break of the extended version were sublime solos from Dick Cuthell on flugelhorn and Rico on trombone.

The Specials: Ghost Town (extended version)

Rico was 80 when he died. He was born Emmanuel Rodriguez to a Cuban father and a Jamaican mother in Havana in 1934. After his family moved to Jamaica, Rico was raised in slum housing on one of the many narrow, overcrowded streets near to Kingston Harbour. His mother sent him to the Alpha Boys’ School, a Catholic charitable trust run by nuns for ‘wayward boys’. Rico and many other musicians, including fellow trombonist Don Drummond and trumpeter Tommy McCook, benefited from the school’s disciplined music tuition. The three of them  would form the backbone of Jamaican music as it moved into ska and reggae in the sixties.

The intensive musical curriculum at the school exposed him to the work of many American jazz greats:

When we were coming up, it was the swing era, so we listen to a lot of Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton. Later, listening to people like Clifford Brown, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Charlie Parker, those were our chief musicians. Listening to those musicians at that early stage was like magic, and we learned that to achieve this magic was one of the world’s very hard things.

In 1958 Rodriguez became a Rastafarian and moved to the Rastafarian community in the Wareika Hills near Kingston. There he joined in exuberant free-form jam sessions and was able to explore wider influences including calypso, mento and traditional African music. The first LP of Rico’s that I bought was Man From Wareika. Recorded in 1976 and a blend of reggae and jazz, it referenced those years in the Wareika Hills. Backed by some brilliant musicians, including Sly and Robbie and the British flugelhorn player Dick Cuthell, the album represented something new for me in the way it blended reggae and jazz and showcased the trombone.

Rico Rodriguez: Man From Wareika

But long before that Rico had been a veteran of the recording studio. His discography includes hundreds of recordings from a long career that dates back to the 1950s, performing on countless recordings by other artists. One example is Theophilus Beckford’s ‘Easy Snapping’, recorded in 1956. Rico comes in at about 1 minute 50.

Theophilus Beckford: Easy Snapping

At the end of 1961 Rico sailed to London, where he played with Georgie Fame and made records for UK-based producers under various names. But like many Jamaican musicians who had moved to the UK, he struggled to make a living from music and worked by day at jobs such as painting and decorating, and a soul-destroying period on the Ford assembly line at Dagenham.

The very first Rico LP that I bought wasn’t Man From Wareika, but Jama, released in 1982, which I heard as an extension of the solos on the Specials’ Ghost Town single. Recorded both in Kingston and in London, with tracks produced by Dick Cuthell, and Jerry Dammers, Jama featured some of the finest Jamaican musicians, including Tommy McCook (tenor sax), Sly Dunbar (drums), Robbie Shakespeare (bass), plus several members of The Special AKA, notably Jerry Dammers (piano), and Dick Cuthell (cornet, flugelhorn).

The cover of Rico's Jama, released in 1982
The cover of Rico’s Jama, released in 1982

To me, the music on this album still sounds as fresh, joyful and gloriously laid-back as the day it was recorded. The effect is like getting stoned without the necessity for herbal inhalation.

Rico Rodriguez: Some Day

Rico Rodriguez: Jam Rock

Rico Rodriguez: Do the Reload

After Jama, Rico disappeared from the limelight for a while. But he returned in the 1990s as a member of Jazz Jamaica, the brainchild of bass player Gary Crosby –  a big band inspired by the rhythms of Jamaican reggae and ska and the improvisational nature of jazz. Here’s their version of Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan’ (from the 1993 album, Skaravan):

Jazz Jamaica All Stars: Skaravan

And from the same album, here’s their take on the Don Drummond original, ‘Don Cosmic’:

Jazz Jamaica All Stars: Don Cosmic

Overlapping with his time as part of the Jazz Jamaica ensemble was his long residency with Jools Holland Band (he could often be seen playing during the New Year’s Eve broadcasts). He was awarded an MBE for his services to music in 2007.

I don’t play trombone like a trombonist, I play trombone like saxophone. I really never studied the trombone technique, and maybe if I studied the trombone technique, I wouldn’t be so popular; I would have been sounding like one of the other technicians. Because I don’t play with that amount of technique—it’s more soul feeling.

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