Aleman, Oscar (Marcelo)
At the height of his Parisian fame in the 1930s, Argentine guitarist Oscar Aleman enjoyed success known to few black peformers in the era.
A contemporary and friend of Django Reinhardt, Aleman is different
from the Gypsy guitarist in that his playing reveals a subtle yet highly developed rhythmic sense, drawn from his knowledge of both tango and Brazilian music, which he combines with swing.
A former vaudevillian, bellhop and boxer who was orphaned as a child, Aleman first found musical success in the streets of Brazil. Later he moved to Paris, where he was the musical director and
companion of dancer and singer Josephine Baker at the peak of her career.
Aleman played without a pick, and his tone was warm, and his use of vibrato was melancholy. His attack was more soft than percussive and his rhythmic sense was loose - he played cat and mouse with the beat.
Aleman's original compositions, as well as his interpretations of North American and Latin standards, transport listeners to the glamour of prewar dance halls,
where men and women dressed to the nines and danced their butts off.
Oscar (Marcelo) Aleman was born February 20, 1909 in Resistencia, a province of El Chaco, in northern Argentina. His father, Jorge Aleman Moreira, was a guitarist who led the Moreira Sextet, a vaudeville
group consisting of a very young Oscar, his brother Carlos, and sisters Jorgelina and Juana.
Oscar danced in the group, and was billed as "El Campeon del Malambo." The family act toured around Argentina and Brazil for years until Jorge committed suicide not long after the death of his wife, while on
tour in Brazil in 1919.
The ten-year-old Oscar found himself stranded on the streets of Santos, a city in the state of Sao Paulo, and he danced, sang, boxed, and worked as a bellhop in order to survive. After a while he amassed
enough savings to buy a cavaquinho, a small 4-stringed Brazilian guitar, similar to the ukelele. Aleman's first composition, "O.A. 1926" was written for and performed on the cavaquinho, and can be heard on
the album Aleman '72 (Redondel).
It was in Santos that he made the acquaintance of a guitarist from Rio de Janeiro, Gaston Bueno Lobo. With Lobo he formed the group Les Loups, or Los Lobos (The Wolves), which performed original
arrangements of cavaquinho, Spanish six-string and Hawaiian guitar music.
In 1927 Los Lobos went to Buenos Aires where they played in local clubs, appeared on radio programs, and eventually secured a recording contract with the Victor record label. Between 1927 and 1929, the
group recorded seven 78 rpm sides before changing their name to Trio Victor after the addition of violinist Elvino Vardaro, who would go on to influence and eventually play with Astor Piazzolla. One of these early
sides was "Hawayanita", a Hawaiian tinged tango composed by Lobo, and released in December 1927
During this period, Aleman was listening closely to the music of American jazz guitarist Eddie Lang, who performed on the first recording of the standard, "Georgia My Mind" (1930), a song Aleman would go
on to record himself. Eddie Lang was one of the earliest guitarists to improvise leads, and helped make guitar an integral rhythmic and melodic contributor to jazz.
Another aspect of Aleman's jazz education in Buenos Aires came when he met the Caribbean tap dancer, entertainer and sometime gigolo, Harry Flemming. According to Aleman, "He brought several
coloured soloists who showed me the meaning of improvisation, of playing according to the feeling one has at the moment".
Los Lobos joined Lemming's 15 piece revue in Argentina and then traveled to Europe with the company in February of 1929. They played primarily in and around Madrid for the next two years, billed as Hawaiian
musicians. They dressed in all white, and wore flower leis
In 1931, Los Lobos disbanded. After a few months of working in Spain, Aleman moved to Paris. After meeting Josephine Baker, American expatriate singer, dancer, and actress, Aleman joined her group, The Baker Boys
During this period Aleman was exposed to various American jazz musicians in jam sessions and gigs throughout Paris. Among these were trumpeter Bill Coleman, who had worked with Fats Waller,
Coleman Hawkins, and Django Reinhardt, and Freddy Taylor, tap dancer and trumpeter. Also during this period, Aleman was introduced to Duke Ellington. Ellington offered Aleman a chair in his orchestra, but his
commitment to Baker?s group kept this from happening.
Aleman led various bands of his own, performing primarily in Paris, at a club called the Chantilly. Across town, at the The Hot Club, Djano Reinhardt held court. While there are no known recordings of the two
men together, it is said they were friends who shared mutual respect. As a listener one can perceive certain stylistic similarities in their playing, but it is also clear they were very different kinds of players.
A contrast of recordings of "Jeepers Creepers" by the two men, Reinhardt's from 1937, Aleman's from 1939, reveals diverging musical personalities. Django, who played with a pick, employs a rapid-fire,
often staccato approach when he solos, replete with sweep arpeggios, and the trebly sound that results from playing close to the bridge.
Aleman, who played with his fingers, employs more space between his lines, and lets his vibrato, less frenetic than Django?s, ring out. His melodic approach is less precise rhythmically.
His attack is softer and his timbre, darker.
Aleman himself mentioned Charlie Christian, who played in Benny Goodman's big band starting in 1939, and Oscar Moore, who played in the Nat King Cole trio from 1937 to 1947, as his favorite guitarists.
With Baker, Aleman danced, sang, played guitar, percussion and eventually led the band. Although he does not figure prominently on her recordings, he did record with other musicians during this period in Europe,
as both a sideman, studio musician and leader.
In November 1933, he recorded with French accordionist Louis Ferrari; around the same time he appears on a recording of French vocal trio Jean, Jac & Jo. Between 1935 and 1939, Aleman appears on dates by
Freddy Taylor, Eddie Brunner and Bill Coleman.
In 1938, he made a number of recordings in Copenhagen with varying configurations of Danish musicians and Brazilian drummer Bibi Miranda.
"Just A Little Swing", an original composed by Aleman, was recorded by the Oscar Aleman Trio in Paris in May of 1939. John Mitchell plays rhythm guitar, and Wilson Meyers plays bass.
After a two-bar intro featuring guitar and bowed bass, the tune launches into a playful head over the familiar changes to "I Got Rhythm". Aleman's solo features bends, syncopations, and an ample use of
the guitar's lower register. Meyers follows with a rumbling bowed bass solo. After Meyers pass through the form, Aleman is back, this time with increased brio, utilizing chromatic chordal lines reminiscent of
dramatic big band syncopated hits. Aleman's rhythmic insouciance is infectious, engaging and joyful.
Aleman, like other black expatriates, suffered humiliations after the Nazis occupied Paris in May of 1940. Aleman moved back to Buenos Aires and started the Quinteto de Swing, which utilized violin, rhythm,
guitar, bass and drums. He recorded 10 sides with this group between 1941 and 1943 for the Argentine Odeon label, among them "Hombre Mio, "I Got Rhythm", "In the Mood" and "Sweet Georgia Brown".
In 1943??, Aleman added a piano to the gorup, and recorded 40 sides, among them standards like "Tea For Two", "Blue Skies", "Paper Doll", and "Swing on A Star" and Aleman compositions such as
"Scartunas", "Como Te Llamas" and "Swing En La".
Also in these sessions is a fascinating hybrid rendition of the Brazilian samba classic "Negra de Cabelo Duro", on which Aleman sings in Portuguese. The tune is an amalgam of samba and swing. The
percussion and piano voicings bring the flavor of carnaval, while his guitar playing and overall rhythmic sense are jazz informed. It is easy to imagine couples dancing either samba or swing to this rendition.
In 1951, with the addition of a clarinet and three violins, Aleman formed the Orquesta de Swing. This group recorded 50 sides between 1951 and 1959, drawing from a similar repertoire of his earlier groups.
After a tour of the Iberian peninsula in '59, the Orquesta de Swing disbanded. The following decade was a period of relative inactivity for Aleman. During this time he taught guitar and made occasional radio broadcasts.
It wasn't until 1971 that Aleman's career experienced a renaissance, sparked by the EMI/Odeon reissue album, entitled "Ritmo Loco". A series of reissues, new recordings, television appearances and
collaborations kept Aleman busy for the next decade. Among these collaborations was an album with Argentine composer/arranger Jorge Anders: "Oscar Aleman Con Jorge Anders y Su Orquesta", (1973).
The song "Gabilu", an Anders original, is a ballad with a bossa feel. Aleman is featured here in an intimate setting, one in which his use of space, and his warm, languid vibrato take center stage.
The leading melody is breezy and bluesy; Aleman's take on it is at once gothic and soulful. The arrangement provides a cool, modern backdrop for Aleman's acoustic guitar. The juxtaposition of the
band's swinging atmospherics and Aleman's manner of drawing the listener into his aural world is satisfying and bizarre: as though a sentient being from another planet touched down on earth briefly
with good news from contiguous worlds.
Other recordings in the 1970s include Aleman '72 (Redondel), and En Todos Los Ritmos ( 1974 Redondel). His last recording consists of radio transcriptions from 1975 which were reissued in 1981.
Aleman continued to make public appearances and perform on radio broadcasts until his death on October 14th, 1980.
The best single-edition collection of Aleman's work, which contains many of the tracks mentioned here, is the two-CD set "Swing Guitar Masterpieces 1938-1957", released on the Acoustic Disc label.