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“It’s peculiar,” says musician Eddie Drennon, an eclectic talent who played with Ike and Tina, toured with Bo Diddley, recorded a little disco, and made something of a name for himself in the ’60s with the New York charanga band Orquesta Novel. “I was raised in Newark, N.J., right across from New York, but I didn’t really listen to Latin music until I came to Washington.”
Now 63, Drennon was one of a number of D.C. musicians who found their way to Latin jazzincluding charanga, the danceable Afro-Cuban style that mixes jazzy flute and violin with percussive Caribbean rhythmsin the late ’50s and ’60s. He’d come to town in 1958 to study at Howard University and gotten himself a gig with bandleader Paul Hawkins. New York-based, Cuban-born flautist José Fajardo caught a gig, liked what he saw, and invited the young violinist to join him in New York.
“I don’t speak Spanish, and Fajardo didn’t speak English,” Drennon chuckles. But others in the band did, and “I really knew the music; it was intuitive even though I wasn’t part of the culture. I could fit in well.”
Could he ever: In short order, Drennon was arranging and producing material for Orquesta Novel, a cult-favorite ensemble that was his musical home for a solid 20 years. He toured with the band to Colombia, Venezuela, and through the Caribbean; finding himself in demand, he also played an African tour with percussionist Johnny Pacheco, backed Tito Puente, and recorded sessions with a who’s who of Latin performers, including Ray Barretto, Rubén Blades, and La Lupe.
But if he found a comfortable place in the Latin scene,
Drennonwho grew up listening to swing and bebopsimultaneously explored the era’s burgeoning rock and R&B scenes. In 1959, he met then-D.C. resident Bo Diddley, hit it off, and toured with the rock pioneer for 10 years. With Diddley, he pushed the boundaries of his instrument, bowing unusual
“guitar- and harmonica-like licks” that, he says, “sometimes sounded like the things [British ’60s rock bands] later did with sustain pedals….I don’t know if the Yardbirds or the Rolling Stones were mistaking [what I did with a violin] for a guitar with gadgets.” But he’s willing to believe maybe they did.
By 1976, Drennon was producing his own efforts. For the Casablanca label, home of Donna Summer and the Village People, he released the minor hit “Let’s Do the Latin Hustle.” In the late ’80s, eager for more “family time,” he scaled back his life on the road, focusing instead on his local teaching postsat George Washington University, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and the Levine School of Music, where he’s on the facultyand composing for area theater companies.
Drennon isn’t ready to stop completely, though. He’s got a ’70s-retro album in the works called Urban Suite, and is writing a book on “African-American musical scales”arguing that from spirituals to rap, African-American music employs a system of intervals unlike that used in European classical composition. He’d like to follow that with another book on African influences on stringed instrumental music, covering everything from Yoruban compositional patterns to the history of Noble Sissel’s Harlem orchestras to the life of his own Howard violin professor, Louis Vaughn Jones, who “played with orchestras in Paris but couldn’t get such a job here.”
And of course he still loves Latin jazzenough to take up his violin for a local Orquesta Novel gig this weekend. It’ll be his first outing with the band in nearly 20 years. Steve Kiviat
Eddie Drennon plays with Orquesta Novel on Saturday, March 29, at the Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 N. Kent St., Rosslyn. For more information, call (703) 228-1850.