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VITÍN AVILÉS

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Trumpeter, composer, arranger and bandleader Rogelio “Kito” Vélez was born in the southwestern harbor town of Guanica, Puerto Rico, on January 14, 1923. It’s no hyperbole when those in the know say that Vélez was one of the greatest, most prolific, and legendary Puerto Rican trumpet players of the 1950’s and 60’s, despite not always attaining the same level of public recognition as his contemporaries who were orchestra leaders and singers. With his inimitable trumpet style, prodigious arranging skills, and agreeable disposition, Vélez was highly sought after by musicians and record labels alike, managing to leave an indelible mark on an entire era, helping to usher in the transformation of Puerto Rican dance music that led to the salsa explosion of the 1970s. Self-taught and a natural talent like few others in his peer group, he brought the heavenly tone of his instrument to the fore, all the while seamlessly integrating it with the brass section in exciting ways that had not been tried previously. Though he was not a showy soloist, Kito could blow a mean bar now and then and he seemed to complete every band with his magical presence.

 

Moving to Mayagüez from Guanica at a young age, Vélez played in military and municipal bands as well as briefly joining Los Ases Del Ritmo before relocating to San Juan and entering the lucrative hotel ballroom circuit with César Concepción and his orchestra. Kito is however best known for his crucial contribution to the sound of the original Cortijo Y Su Combo, where he was lead trumpet and arranger from its inception in 1954 until its initial breakup in 1962 when singer Ismael “Maelo” Rivera was arrested for drug possession in Panama. The distinctive brass sound and rhythmic clarity of the band was engineered through Kito’s sophisticated yet natural sounding arrangements, many created by the trumpeter from scratch. Kito would collect basic song ideas from Maelo, band leader and percussionist Rafael Cortijo, pianist and musical director Rafael Ithier and bassist Miguel Cruz, and then figure out the best way to orchestrate them for the band. Vélez also composed several popular tunes for Cortijo Y Su Combo, and historians agree he was an integral ingredient in the chemistry of the group, helping propel them to stardom in the second half of the 1950’s. 

-Pablo Yglesias

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