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'Nothing Less Than A Treasure Trove': Joe Castro Box Set Features Hidden Jazz Gems

Joe Castro with Louis Armstrong and Teddy Wilson, backstage at Basin Street in 1956.
Whitestone Photo
Courtesy of James Castro
Joe Castro with Louis Armstrong and Teddy Wilson, backstage at Basin Street in 1956.

Just before he died in 2009, Joe Castro sat down with his son James to listen to some tapes. The reel-to-reels were full of Castro's own decades-old recordings, in which the jazz pianist jammed with his contemporaries.

"It was kind of like a shock," James says, "because right when we put the first tape on, it sounded like it was recorded yesterday."

Father and son went through more than 40 hours of tape. James says he was used to hearing his dad back up other musicians.

"He was being reserved for others," he says. "He always played down for others because, you know, he was just that way. But when he wanted to go off, he could go off."

Joe Castro was part of the jazz scenes on two coasts in the 1950s and '60s. He led his own small groups and played with some of the top names in jazz. Dave Brubeck was a fan.

And yet, most of the music Castro made for his label was never released — until now. This winter, Sunnyside Records unveiled Lush Life: A Musical Chronology of Joseph Armand Castro, a career-spanning box set of the musician's work.

Joseph Armand Castro was born into a Mexican-American family in 1927, in a small mining town near Phoenix, Arizona. The family moved to northern California and Joe started playing piano. By the time he was 15, he was in the musicians' union.

In 1951, Castro was leading his own group when he met the millionaire heiress Doris Duke, and began a relationship with her. James Castro says that while his father enjoyed the perks of their union, his career stalled.

An usher stands with billboards advertising performances by Louis Armstrong and Joe Castro outside Basin Street in New York.
Chuck Lilly / Courtesy of James Castro
Courtesy of James Castro
An usher stands with billboards advertising performances by Louis Armstrong and Joe Castro outside Basin Street in New York.

"With Doris caging him, wanting him to be with her at all the times — 'Let's go here, let's go to Switzerland, let's go to Morocco,'" James says, laughing. "He was caught in between, 'I'd love to travel and see these places and spend time with the woman I love,' or play jazz. I mean, there were so many conflicts."

In 1953, Duke purchased Falcon Lair, a Beverly Hills mansion formerly owned by Rudolph Valentino. She financed a state-of-the-art recording studio; Castro invited many of his musician friends to jam there, and recorded them.

These recordings became the stuff of legend among musicians and jazz aficionados, says Kirk Silsbee, who writes about jazz for DownBeat magazine.

"People would look at the data," Silsbee says. "They would look at the names: Zoot Sims, Lucky Thompson, Oscar Pettiford — all the great people who played at Falcon Lair when Joe presided over the music there and, as we now know, recorded it. They could only imagine what was recorded for history. But now we have this box set, and it's nothing less than a treasure trove."

Castro made his New York debut in 1956, and before long landed a deal with Atlantic Records. And while Castro wasn't necessarily an innovator, he made up for it in other ways, says Daniel Richard, a former executive at Universal Jazz France and co-producer of the box set.

"He has a great technique, and he swings all the time," Richard says. "That's very, very important. For him, it was the purpose of playing music, swinging."

Joe Castro and Duke Ellington backstage at Birdland.
Jerome Lee / Courtesy of James Castro
Courtesy of James Castro
Joe Castro and Duke Ellington backstage at Birdland.

By the early '60s, the relationship between Joe Castro and Doris Duke had soured. Duke threw him out of Falcon Lair. He sued, and she counter-sued. Richard says when the dust finally settled, the two tried to salvage their relationship by creating a record label.

"At the end of this fight, they wanted to have something in common," he says. "And they start the label Clover — in that purpose, just to have something to do. But it was not enough to keep the couple together."

After Castro and Duke separated, she kept the recordings until 1992. A year before Duke died, she called her old flame.

"She said, 'I'm going to start giving you what you deserve,'" James Castro says. "My dad said, 'No, no, you don't need that. But the Clover stuff would be great.' And the next day, all the Clover stuff was on the doorstep."

It was more than 200 reels of tape. But by then, Joe Castro's career as a jazz soloist was pretty much over. He married singer Loretta Haddad and they moved to Las Vegas. Castro got a secure job as music director of the Tropicana Hotel so they could raise their children, including James.

"He was a very underrated musician," James says. "I think this first box set shows who he is. But there's so much more music still to be heard."

James Castro says he wants his father to be remembered as a man with the highest integrity, who was caught up in a world of money but was also accomplished in the art form he loved most: jazz.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Betto Arcos
Betto Arcos is a freelance music journalist. He writes stories about music from around the world, with an emphasis on Latin America. He has been a contributor to NPR programming since 2009, when he began reviewing music for All Things Considered on the weekends.