Books for Everyone!

Maestro Cugat

Spring 2019

Where to begin with the man born Francisco de Asis Javier Cugat Mingail de Bru y Deulofeu? We’ll start by giving his renowned name: Xavier Cugat.

Born in Girona, Catalonia, Spain on 1 January 1900, Cugat immigrated with his family to Cuba when he was five years old. That single stroke of family history proved lucky and lusciously ripe for Latin music and Cuban rhythms. Cugat was the Original. Before there was Big Band, there was Cugat.

He studied classical violin as a child, becoming a paid violinist at the age of nine in a silent movie theater. It was this sublime instrument, the violin, that so clearly and vividly marked the sound of Xavier Cugat. His “band” was a teeming orchestra that created a lustrously big sound, complete with the arrangements of Cugat. This man and his orchestra came to define the music of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, both before and after World War II.

“The Waldorf” was a world unto itself. Cugat played that world to the hilt of flamboyant elegance with what became standard-setting songs, starting in 1931. In October of that year, the second incarnation of The Waldorf opened. This Art Deco version replaced the original Victorian-era Waldorf-Astoria. Cugat and his band performed for this gala event, replacing the resident band of Jack Denny. He and his band played there for the next 16 years.

Music of the Hollywood films of the 1930s and well into the 1940s was redolent with the strings, rhythms and fluid melodies of Xavier Cugat. Hollywood utilized many songs that American Big Bands thereafter picked up and recast into their own styles. The Cugat sound, however, created the imprint of the music that others would re-work but not quite re-define:

Begin the Beguine, Perfidia, Brazil, Siboney, La Cucuracha, Cherry Pink Apple Blossom White, Besame Mucho.

His career was first set into motion at the Teatro Nacional Symphonic Orchestra in Havana. There, he performed as first chair violinist. Then, in 1915, at the age of 15, Cugat immigrated with his family to New York City. His musical work progressed to violin solos in recitals for operatic tenor Enrico Caruso. By the 1920s, Cugat had formed a band, and the musical venue changed to the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles.

The spectacular rate at which this musician progressed is, in itself, a performance of record. By his early 20s, Cugat was hobnobbing with the actor/comedian/filmmaker and future songwriter, Charlie Chaplin. The tango was a dance favored by Chaplin, and so Cugat added that form to his playlist at the Cocoanut Grove. Not surprisingly, the tango became so popular that Cugat logically offered tango lessons, given by South American dancers, to attendees at the Grove.

Entrepreneurial success came naturally to Cugat. The tango lessons were such a big hit that the South American dancers became a part of his orchestra. It was just a matter of time until, in 1928, Cugat made his act into a Hollywood film:

Xavier Cugat and His Gigolos

The man had a sense of humor!

Dance and Cugat became rather close partners. He produced records for the conga, the mambo, the cha-cha-cha, and, lastly, the twist, a dance form that must have thrown this man a curve in terms of footwork.

Rarely was a gifted musician so gifted. He’d begun drawing caricatures between his musical numbers while working at the Teatro Nacional Symphonic Orchestra. That talent developed into a job as a nationally syndicated cartoonist at the Los Angeles Times. His success was shared among his family, most notably his brother, Francis, who created the cover art of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Marriage to any musician is a dicey proposition. Cugat was married five times which, given the range, scope, vitality, and life span of the man, probably did not constitute excessive attempts at matrimony. His death in October 1990 ended his life-long performance as a man of musical gifts. His recordings, however, continue to excite, enchant and even educate the listener — in the ways of music, romance, and the rhythm of love.