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Frank Emilio: 1921-2001
Frank Emilio

Born: April 13, 1921 in Havana, Cuba
Died: August 23, 2001 in Havana, Cuba

Late Recognition for Cuban Master

Copyright © 2001 


Frank Emilio was an important contributor to the development of Afro-Cuban Jazz. Along with several other major names in Cuban music, he enjoyed belated attention beyond his native island in the late 1990s. Blue Note issued his album Ancestral Reflections in 1998 (when the pianist was already 77), and he was invited to perform in several prestigious concerts in America and Europe.

They included a celebratory concert at Lincoln Center in 1998, in which pianist Chucho Valdes told the assembled crowd that "Frank Emilio is a pianist who has influenced every subsequent generation, and those to come, because he's kept up to date."

Usually known simply as Frank Emilio in music circles, he was born Francisco Emilio Flynn, and took the additional surname of Rodriguez when he was brought up by an aunt and uncle after his mother died when he was only 5 (his adoptive parents later died in a tuberculosis epidemic while he was still a teenager).

His eyesight was damaged by forceps at birth, and he was entirely blind by the age of 13. He taught himself to play piano from the age of ten, and studied classical scores in Braille versions. He worked as a music teacher for a time, while also leading his own radio band in the 1930s.

He worked with most ofthe significant Cuban musicians of the day during the 1940s, including Antonio Maria Romeo, Jose Antonio Mendez, Ignacio Pineiro's seminal Septeto Nacional, and the band Loquibambia, featuring Omara Portuondo, which specialised in a fusion music known as "filin", a combination of traditional Cuban bolero with jazz.

In the 1950s he played with many visiting American jazz musicians, and later co-led the Quinteto Instrumental de Musica Moderna with percussionist Guillermo Barreto, an important group devoted to exploring Latin jazz, as well as various incarnations of his own Los Amigos group.

He ratained his passion for classical music as well, and performed western classical repertoire with a symphony orchestra in Havana, using Braille scores. He learned Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue in that fashion, and collaborated with Armando Romeu Gonzalez to produce the first Braille transcriptions of the music of the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona.

He developed a technique for teaching the blind to write music rather than relying solely on learning by ear, and served as President of Cuba's National Association for the Blind from 1978-81.

Emilio played with saxophonist Jane Bunnett in her Spirits of Havana band, and was one of the pianists featured on her recording Jane Bunnett and the Cuban Piano Masters (1993). The concert at Lincoln Center in 1998 was his debut performance in the USA, and he also played in Canada and Europe.

He is survived by his wife of 47 years, Martha Montes Cobian; his son, Jesus; and a granddaughter.

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