Graciela Perez Grillo, known as simply Graciela, was born in Havana, Cuba in 1915 and grew up in Jesús María, an Afro-Cuban neighborhood. She began singing from a young age at the encouragement of her adoptive older brother, Frank “Machito” Grillo, and was inspired by musicians who would come through the area. At 17 she joined the pioneering all-female group Anacaona, recording and traveling abroad to places like Puerto Rico, New York and Paris.
In 1943 she was summoned to New York City by band leader Mario Bauzá to perform with the band Machito and his Afro-Cubans, temporarily replacing Machito, who was drafted into the U.S. Army. When he returned one year later Machito and Graciela began to share the role of lead vocalist, forming a collaborative relationship that would last over three decades.
With Machito and Bauzá, Graciela became nationally recognized, playing with mainstream jazz artists like Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie. Machito and his Afro-Cubans were one of the first big bands to incorporate Latin rhythms into jazz arrangements, bringing a new mambo style to popular recognition.
Graciela was perhaps the first female to infiltrate the male-dominated world of Latin jazz. In the 1950s Machito and Graciela owned the stage at New York’s famous Palladium Ballroom with the likes of Tito Rodiriguez and Tito Puente, playing to unsegregated crowds. After recording numerous albums with Machito and his Afro-Cubans she made her solo debut in 1963 with Esta es Graciela and followed up with 1965’s Intimo y Sentimental, both albums gaining mainstream success.
In 1973 Graciela and Bauzá split from Machito forming a new big band that would garner multiple Grammy nominations throughout the 1970s and '80s until Bauzá’s death in 1993.
Graciela continued to record sporadically after her retirement in 1993 and her 2005 album Inolvidable garnered a Grammy nomination. In 2007 Graciela was honored with a Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Known as both the “First Lady of Latin Jazz” and the “Queen of Afro-Cuban Jazz,” Graciela died at age 94.