By Lydia M. Reid and Roberto A. Reid
We can, with all certainty, say that Victor Boa has had one of the profoundest effects on the Panamanian music scene; that is until the young Jazz virtuoso, Danilo Perez, came along to give our country some kind of cultural definition. But, even Danilo has genuflected to one of his most admired heroes, Victor Boa, and dedicated the 2005 Panama Jazz Festival to this enormously talented and unsung Maestro.
In 1995 about noon one day I saw the old Maestro standing in front of the building we now know as the Ministerio Público in front of old Parque Porras. I recognized him almost immediately despite the change in his appearance. I rushed up to him to see if I could be of help to him in crossing the street to the bus stop full of people but, before we could cross the busy Avenida Peru we got into an interesting conversation about the topic the Maestro loved best.
“Hey Maestro, you know I used to go up to the old radio station Radio Continental in the Chesterfield Building just to sit for hours and listen to the band practice.” “Yea!” he answered brightly, “I noticed some kids doing the same in those times.” “Then Maestro I have to confess that I don’t like what is happening to the path you and others mapped out for Jazz,” I said. “Yea,” he said kind of sadly and continued with, “Pelao don’t even call that Jazz because it’s all foolishness.” Soon we had crossed the street to the bus stop and I was helping him board a classical “Diablo Rojo” for his long trip past Rio Abajo. Sad to say it would be the last time I would get to see one of my favorite childhood musicians.
Before migrating to the states in 1957, in fact, I had the opportunity to run into his band as they were getting ready to board a boat to Panama from a trip to Costa Rica and that was in late 1955. Then again as I made ready for the first longest trip of my life, I renewed my visits to the old jazz band at the radio station until I left in 1957. I got to know personally the Maestros such as Victor Boa and Clarence Martin visiting the station and because was a neighbor of mine in Magnolia Building where I grew up in Calidonia.
Victor Boa was not alone, by any stretch of the imagination, in the sampling of excellent Jazz musicians that the Silver People have produced. His name is ultimately linked to such names as Clarence Martin Sr., Gladston “Bat” Gordon, Barbara Wilson (considered the Ella Fitzgerald of Panama), Harold “Zaggy” Berry of whom Boa said, “I never had to worry about the drums when he played”, Ricardo Staples, Danny Clovis, John “Rubberlegs” McKindo, Reginald Johnson and Carlos Garnett, who have achieved greatness on their own merits.
Victor Boa was born Victor Everton McRae in 1925 in “El Vaticano” a popular sector in the El Chorrrillo section of Panama City. He grew up in the Baptist Church and was lucky enough to have been born to two musical parents, Louise McRae, his mother, who played piano and sang and John McRae, his father, who played the organ. He learned to master the key board quickly at age fifteen and from there he was practically self-taught. Soon he became part of the blossoming jazz scene of Panama in the late 1940’s. Throughout his life he was variously known as “The High Priest of Jazz,” “The Master of the Key Board,” and “Electric Man.”
He became highly sought after for performances in the hotels and jazz clubs of both Colon and Panama City and would play just about anywhere; he was that versatile. His particular version of his complex expression of jazz was called Tambo Jazz or Pana Jazz, two terms which he himself coined. Just to mention a few places where Victor performed we can start with the Snake’s Pit and Kelvin’s in Rio Abajo, Club Windsor and Club Camelot, the Continental, Marriott, Hotel El Panama and Panama Señorial.
He also played with visiting jazz stars such as Avelino Muñoz, Woody Herman, Gerry Mulligan (one of my particular favorites) and Charlie Parker. Anel Sanders, who has been reputed to be the first to play the stand-up timbales in Panama, played with Victor in what later became Máximo Rodríguez’s Estrellas Panameñas in the 1950s; the group included famed singer Camilo Rodríguez, doubly famous Cab Calloway Jr. and Fermín Francisco Castañeda on bongos. Castañeda later became head of the Panamanian Symphony, and a professor at the Conservatory of Music.
Victor played piano professionally with Armando Boza in his big band “La Perfecta” in 1947, and left three years later to start his own orchestra, “La Sonora de Victor Boa,” in 1950. We will publish a review of Armando Boza’s life and musical contributions in an upcoming article.
Victor Boa recorded in various formats including many 45 rpm records under the labels Musa, Grecha and Tropelco. By 1970 he released “A Bailar con Victor Boa y Su Musica” (see image above) a complete LP recorded by him and his “Estrellas” on the Taboga / Discos Istmeños label- a local recording company. This instrumental recording was produced by Leroy Gittens, another great name in Panamanian music and author of the international hit “My Commanding Wife.” The album, in essence, is a wonderful compendium of Victor’s innovative compositions, including guarachas, bossa novas, boleros and boogaloo to which Victor adds his silky caresses over the piano keys.
Victor’s group, Las Estrellas de Victor Boa, was a remarkable ensemble with him directing on piano, Reginald Johnson on tenor sax, José “Tata” Pinto on alto sax, Jimmy Maxwell on bass, Danny Clovis on drums, and Francisco “Chino” Cho on congas.
Victor continued to play throughout the 70s and 80s, forming a number of trios and groups such as “Los Ejemplos” in 1989 and he recorded a CD entitled “Leyendas del Tambo Jazz” just in time for Panama’s centennial celebration in 2003. The CD features sax player Carlos Garnett and drummer Ricardo Staples.
Professor Gerardo Maloney’s documentary “Tambo Jazz“, which screened in New York City in 1992, was probable the first step in the process of revealing Panama’s rich Jazz history which is shamefully under-recognized.
In addition to his many delightful compositions in the realm of popular music, he is also well known for having played with Calypso legends like Lord Panama, Sir Jablonsky and Two Gun Smokey. He recorded several calypsos including, “Sausage,” “Nelda” and “El Negrito,” typical of the peculiarly Panamanian musical expression of Calypso.
Victor Boa was the subject of many awards and ceremonies in homage to his brilliant contribution but, as with most of the musical geniuses whose origins are tied to the Silver People of Panama, he was vastly unsung in Panama. Never fond of alcoholic beverages he was nevertheless an icon sporting the familiar cigar or pipe in his mouth. He was a worthy example for all the youth to follow.
Victor Everton McRae passed from this life on December 4, 2004 at the age of 80 from a heart attack. His earthly remains are buried in Jardin de Paz here in Panama City. Some notable Jazz musicians attended his funeral in Rio Abajo. He had resided in Juan Diaz for many years. He left behind his wife Arleen Humphrey whom he affectionately called Alicia, several children and a bevy of grand and great grand children.
You can view a memorial we have prepared for him here. Please leave a virtual flower offering and note on the memorial of this greatest of great musical geniuses of Panama.