Machito played a huge role in the history of Latin jazz, for his bands of the 1940s were probably the first to achieve a fusion of powerful Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz improvisation. At its roaring best, the band had a hard-charging sound, loaded with jostling, hyperactive bongos and congas and razor-edged riffing brass.
Machito was the front man, singing, conducting, shaking maracas, while his brother-in-law Mario Bauza was the innovator behind the scenes, getting Machito to hire jazz-oriented arrangers. The son of a cigar manufacturer, Machito became a professional musician in Cuba in his teens before he emigrated to America in 1937 as a vocalist with La Estrella Habanera. He worked with several Latin artists and orchestras in the late '30s, recording with the then-dominant Latin bandleader Xavier Cugat.
After an earlier aborted attempt to launch a band with Bauza, Machito founded the Afro-Cubans in 1940, taking on Bauza the following year as music director where he remained for 35 years. After making some early 78s for Decca, the Afro-Cubans really began to catch on after the end of World War II, appearing with - and no doubt influencing - Stan Kenton's orchestra (Machito played maracas on Kenton's recordings of "The Peanut Vendor" and "Cuban Carnival") and recording some exciting sides for Mercury and Clef.
Upon Bauza's urging, Machito's band featured a galaxy of American jazz soloists on its recordings from 1948 to 1960, including Charlie Parker (heard memorably on "No Noise"), Dizzy Gillespie, Flip Phillips, Howard McGhee, Buddy Rich, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Mann, Curtis Fuller and Johnny Griffin.
Playing regularly at New York's Palladium, Machito's band reached its peak of popularity during the mambo craze of the 1950s, survived the upheavals of the '60s and despite the loss of Bauza in 1976, continued to work frequently in the '60s, '70s, and early '80s when the term "salsa" came into use. The band recorded for Pablo (in tandem with Gillespie) and Timeless in its later years, and was playing Ronnie Scott's club in London in 1984 when Machito suffered a fatal stroke.
A documentary film by Carlo Ortiz, Machito: A Latin Jazz Legacy, was released in 1987.
Machito was somewhat short in stature, at 5 feet 4 inches (1.63 m) in height. A lifelong Roman Catholic, he married Puerto Rican Hilda Torres on January 17, 1940, at which time he changed his nickname from "Macho" to "Machito". The cross-cultural marriage served as a sign to New York Latinos that it was possible to attain a sense of pan-Latino brotherhood. Frank and Hilda Grillo produced five children: Martha (1941), Frank Jr (1943), Barbara (1948), Mario (1956) and Paula. The family lived in Spanish Harlem at 112th Street and Second Avenue, where Machito enjoyed cooking for his children, writing the occasional song such as "Sopa de Pichon" while working in the kitchen.
Machito suffered a stroke before a concert in London, England in 1984, collapsing while waiting to go on stage at Ronnie Scott's club. He died four days later on April 19, 1984, at University College Hospital in London. His son Mario carried forward the legacy by leading The Machito Orchestra after his father's death. His daughter Paula, though dedicating her life to scholarly studies, has occasionally fronted the group as its singer.
Mario Bauza died in 1993. Hilda Grillo, a patron of Latin music after her husband's death, died in July 1997. Having never married, Graciela died in April 2010 at the age of 94.