Brando, Mr. Costanzo told The San Diego Union-Tribune 60 years later, “played very well as a nonprofessional musician.”
Jack James Costanzo was born on Sept. 24, 1919, in Chicago to Matteo and Virginia Sances Costanzo, both immigrants from Italy. He grew up in Chicago at a time when dancing, the kind done in hotel ballrooms, was studied and practiced by young people who envisioned making a career out of it. Mr. Costanzo, at 13 or 14, would go to places like the Merry Garden Ballroom — which had a main ballroom and an annex — to work on his steps.
“The girls came down in long, gorgeous gowns, spaghetti straps,” he recalled in an interview with Whittier College’s “Inside Latin Jazz” series several years ago. “Everybody that was dancing in the annex wanted to be a dancer, and I was one of those persons. And I was dancing with people that were eight, nine years older than I. I was just a young kid. In fact, that’s what they used to call me: ‘the Kid.’ ‘I want to dance with the Kid.’ But nobody kidnapped me.”
During one visit, a band from Puerto Rico was playing.
“The drummer on one song came out in front and played the bongos, and that was the first time I saw a pair of bongos,” he said. “And I went crazy.”
He wanted to learn the instrument, but there was a problem.
“There was nowhere to buy them,” he said. “You couldn’t buy bongos anywhere in Chicago.”
So he made a set out of butter tubs. Mr. Costanzo, though, had not yet abandoned his aspiration to be a dancer; for a time he and his first wife, Mary Margaret Myers, whom he married in 1940, were a professional dance team known as Costanzo & Marda. (They divorced in 1959.)