OSCAR ALEMÁN (1909-2009)
On the 20th of February 2009 we'll commemorate the fact that Oscar Alemán, el Rey de la Guitarra Swing, as he is a labelled on one of the latest reissues, was born 100 years ago. This fact will be celebrated in Argentina, where he is still an icon of the Argentine jazz. In June 2008 the Legislatura de la Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires, the local government of the city of Buenos Aires, placed a plaque in the entrance-hall of the apartment at Maipu no. 359 in Buenos Aires, where the great Maestro lived during the last decades of his live. During this ceremony his granddaughter Jorgelina and several colleagues played his music. I wrote about that event at the contribution Recognition for Oscar Aleman
The plaque at Maipu 349
Oscar Aleman was born on the 20th of February 1909 as the son of a Toba Indian from the El Chaco district and an Argentine father Jorge Aléman Moreira, and as a small boy he had to earn money, together with his father and brothers and sisters (Carlos, Jorgelina and Juana) for his family with the Moreira Sextet, a vaudeville group that toured in Argentina and Brasil. Little Oscar was dancing, being labelled as El compeón del malambo (= The King of the Malambo). When he was twelve years old his father committed suicide, his mother died in Buenos Aires and the kids had to earn a living on the streets of Santos (Brasil). Oscar danced, became a prize fighter and could even save some money to buy himself a cavaquinho. He taught himself to play this instrument and, as he has said, the first tune he learned to play was titled O.A. 1926. Returned in Buenos Aires he became part of a duo with Gaston Bueno Lobo, who played the Dobro and Hawaiian guitar. They were rather successful with their duo Les Loups, or Los Lobos.
Sheet music of their composition: Hawayanita.
They even made several recordings and were selected to join the Harry Fleming revue as the Hawaiian Guitarist on tour. The tour brought the duo in Europe, but in 1929, due to financial problems, the group of Harry Fleming was dismantled and Gaston and Oscar had to earn a living in the cafés in Madrid. Josephine Baker, the well known revue star, asked Oscar to come and play with her Baker Boys. The Les Loups duo was broken and Gaston Bueno Lobo left Europe depressed and played suicide. Oscar Aleman becomes an essential element in Josephine Baker's Baker Boys and, although no Josephine Baker discography mentions Oscar Aleman he became a close friend, an intimate. Josephine Baker played in theatres in Paris for weeks and with her revues made tours for some months; most of the time Oscar joined her. He played the guitar in The Baker Boys; he even became the leader of it in the late 1930s, and played solo performances during the show. He also accompanied others, like Jean, Jack et Jo - a vaudeville group which featured Han Driessen, a Dutch violist, Jean Irace, a French guitar player and Enrique Juvet at the piano, originally from Switzerland. When Josephine Baker was not in the theatre or touring, Oscar played in clubs and accompanied Musette musicians like Louis Ferrari, a French accordion player, vocalist like Lina d' Acosta and swing-accordionist Gus Viseur, but also American musicians, who visited Paris.
Josephine Baker with, at her richt hand, Oscar Alemán. The men in black are two members of Jean, Jac et Jo.
He was friends with Django Reinhardt - they performed during the same festivals, but, as far as I know, they never were playing together on stage. It is said that Oscar sometimes replaced Django when he couldn't perform and there are some stories about Oscar and Django, who can't be verified anymore. In 1938 he visited Copenhagen with the Josephine Baker revue and some members of the Baker Boys like Bibi Miranda, who was the drummer. The other musicians for the band were selected in Denmark; members of the Svend Asmussen Quartet - a promising young group in the Copenhagen jazz scene. When the show was over, Josephine left for Stockholm, the next stop of the tour, but Oscar en Bibi stayed in Copenhagen for some days and joined Svend, who invited them to be present at a recording session on the 5th of December 1938. Both Oscar and Bibi joined the band during the recordings in a jam session which was later released on Danish HMV as a Danish Jam Session. Oscar played two solo tunes, he also performed on stage: Nobody's Sweetheart and Whispering. Both tunes were also part of a concert at the 7th Jazzwereld Feest in Scheveningen (near The Hague) in the Netherlands a half year later. Oscar played during these concerts with members of the Swing Papas.
As his Quinteto de Swing had a Hot Club du France line-up he asked Manuel Gavinovich on the violin and Luis Gavinovich on the bass. Guillermo Barbieri, the rhythm guitar player, and Ramón Caravaca continued playing in the "new" Quinteto de Swing. Oscar had developed into a well known artist thanks to his programs on the LR3 Radio Belgrano and Antena programs. He became a sought after soloist at dance parties. Hundreds of young Argentines loved to dance in the giant exclusive dance halls where Oscar performed. He was a pop star and his Quinteto de Swing had made space for a large orchestra that accompanied him. He recorded dozens of sides with this Orquesta de Jazz or Conjunto de Jazz (Conjunto means Ensemble). On the Saga Jazz record are 14 sides, with a great Ritmo Loco, the title song of this compilation, which is in English Crazy Rhythm, Gershwin's Tengo Ritmo ( I Got Rhythm) and the St. Louis Blues. But, new music styles, the Rock and Roll hype, didn't pass Argentina and the youth got new idols, new rhythms, new dances, new music .... and Oscar Alemán couldn't fulfil the needs of the youth anymore. Of course he tried to bring some Rock and Roll into his repertoire, like Bailando el Rock, Mortitat (= Mack The Knife) or Rock around The Clock. The Saga Jazz El Rey de la Guitarra Swing ends with the last side Oscar recorded for Odeón with his Orquesta de Jazz in the 1950s: Oscarinadas. (Buenos Aires 17th of June 1957).
Drawing of Oscar from a 1960s LP.
The next decade Oscar Aleman lived like a retired musician, earning a living as a teacher, teaching guitar players to play like the great maestro, and the people of Argentina forgot his successes. In the mid 1960s he's back, playing in some venues for his dedicated fans of the 1940s and 50s, who didn't forgot him. His band is named Los Cinco Caballeros with Mario Felic on clarinet; Albertao Barbera at the piano who also participated in his orchestra during the 1950s. In the 1970s Oscar makes a great album titled Aleman'72 and some more LPs on the Redondel label. In the fall of 1980 dies in a hospital in Argentina.