1. For all that New Yorkers may have resented the presence of their Latin American neighbors, one would never have known it from the pop charts. The "new" Hispanics brought with them musical styles and sounds that culminated in the biggest dance sensation of the decade: the mambo craze. The mambo was the most popular of many Latin dance styles current in the 1950s, some of which found their way into West Side Story in various guises. All were descendants of older dances, which, in turn, formed part of a long tradition of Latin American influence in popular music. From the early 1920s to the late 1950s, all became more and more assimilated into mainstream American music.22

  2. Jelly Roll Morton goes down in history as one of the first non-Hispanic musicians to extensively adopt the "Latin tinge,"23 his term for the distinctive and pervasive syncopated rhythm which he felt was absolutely basic to the essence of jazz. However, Morton’s "tinge" had been around since the earliest days of jazz, but entered the American popular mainstream in the 1930s in the form of the rumba. Two musicians were instrumental in the dissemination of the style: Don Azpiazú and Xavier Cugat (Pictured). Both were among a growing number of dance band leaders regularly enlisting Latin American talent, especially musicians from Puerto Rico and Cuba. Juan Tizol, a Puerto Rican trombonist and composer who exemplified the Latin style in his recordings with Duke Ellington in the late 1930s (particularly "Caravan" and "Conga Brava"), was one of the most successful soloists, combining South American elements with current North American musical practices. The eventual fusion of big band instrumentation and arrangement with Cuban percussion and musical structures became known as Afro-Cuban jazz. Born from "Cubop," already a fusion of bop and traditional Cuban elements, the Afro-Cuban style was exploited most regularly by Dizzy Gillespie, who established an Afro-Cuban jazz orchestra in 1947.24 Although Cuban percussionists such as Arnando Peraza (who recorded "Poodle Mambo" with George Shearing on the latter’s Latin Escapade album of 1956) were very active during this period, strictly Cuban styles eventually gave way to more generically Latin ones by the late 1950s, when Afro-Cuban jazz was on the decline.25

  3. The vogue of Latin American styles into which the movement fell, however, did not wane for twenty years, and was so commonplace by the end of the 1950s as to be a standard part of the vernacular musical landscape. The methods of dissemination were a large part of the style’s success.Carmen Miranda Xavier Cugat, although leading the resident band of Manhattan’s Waldorf Hotel, gained most of his notoriety through his numerous appearances on film. Cugat appeared in a large number of B-grade movies of the 1930s, frequently alongside another icon of Latin Americanism, Carmen Miranda. (Pictured) Latin and Spanish themes had long been a feature of both Broadway musicals and film musicals, ranging from Latin numbers in Romberg’s Nina Rosa (1929) to scenes in such films as Rodgers and Astaire’s Flying Down to Rio (1933). But now the Hispanic was growing from an occasional romantic or humorous character piece within a primarily "white" context into the subject of full-length films. Movie makers did not jump on the bandwagon simply because the music was popular: this post-war boom came when European film markets were plummeting. Hollywood was looking southward for new audiences. Many of these films were ostensibly aimed at Latin Americans themselves, not an unexpected phenomenon since America was extending its "Friendly Neighbor" policy southward at this time. Musician and actor Desi Arnaz was one of a number of entertainers (and the only one who was actually Latin American) sent on a friendship visit to Mexico in 1941.26 Arnaz, who became one of the Latin stars of mainstream America, used film, live Broadway performances, and television to build his career and also a following for Latin American music. The exposure coming from both east and west coasts ensured that Hispanic music would reach a wide audience across the continent.

  4. One thing had not changed, though: for the most part, Hispanic culture and music were still portrayed inauthentically and humorously. Arnaz had had very little, if any, substantial contact with Latino musicians once he came to the U.S., and Carmen Miranda was certainly sending up herself along with South America. At the same time, more non-Latins were playing Latin American music, notably Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, and Stan Kenton. Eventually, white musicians and ensembles began taking over the style, releasing "cover" versions of these tunes and new compositions in the same vein. Perhaps Cugat’s explanation for his own style best addresses the phenomenon: "Americans know nothing about Latin music. They neither understand nor feel it. So they have to be given music more for the eyes than the ears. Eighty percent visual, the rest aural. To succeed in American I gave the Americans a Latin music that had nothing authentic about it. Then I began to change the music and play more legitimately."27

  5. The American public seemed less concerned than Cugat over the style’s authenticity, judging by the proliferation of publications aimed at the amateur musician. By the early 1940s, one could find instructional publications teaching Latin American rhythms to either white drummers or amateurs. In 1959 the Remick Music Corporation, in a series called "Music for Everyone" presented 37 Latin American Favorites, Including Examples and Explanations of Latin American Rhythms: Bossa Novas, Merengues, Cha-Cha-Chas, Rumbas, Mambos, Paso Dobles, Sambas. Of those musicians who provided the Hispanic sound to the general population, the big band leaders were among the most popular, and they were behind the largest growth period for Latin Music, the 1940s. It was also the era of the Mambo Kings: first Azpiazu, then artists such as Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, and Perez Prado (Pictured)Perez Prado gained in popularity during the late 40s and 50s. They also popularized what would become the three hottest dance styles of the time: the mambo, the merengue, and the cha cha cha. Prado is often credited with starting the mambo craze with his composition, "Mambo #5," but, ironically, he was not part of the New York scene in which the mambo reached its zenith of popularity. Instead, he made his mark from touring with his orchestra and from recordings made for RCA. Although some claim that Prado "invented" the mambo, it was in fact—like most other dance styles of the time—a permutation on what had come before, a kind of "melting pot" in which American dance tastes were combined with Latin styles.28 Prado himself was something of a musical hybrid: although his first success was within the Hispanic community, his tours and subsequent notoriety with white Americans led him into an ethnically suspect crossover realm which ultimately earned him the respect of neither group once the currency of the dance craze waned.29 Until it did, though, Prado and bands like his sold sexy Latin rhythms to an insatiable dance audience. Recordings of the mid 1950s such as Tito Puente’s Mambo on Broadway (Puente pictured) or Xavier Cugat’s Mambo at the Waldorf, presented entire albums of strictly Latin American dances. Prado himself published some of his favorites arranged for solo piano.30 But the most lucrative field by far for Latin music was in the dance halls, many of which offered instruction. Former bandleader Federico Pagani started "Latin nights" at the Alma Dance Studios on 53rd and Broadway in the early 40s, a time when Latin dance bands were drawing crowds of 5,000.31 Instructional dance records for home study abounded. The Arthur Murray dance empire offered an all-mambo record with cuts "personally recommended for dancing by Arthur Murray." The Fred Astaire Dance Studio Orchestra released a 1959 album of Merengues and Mambos, which included "Dance instruction booklet and one studio dance lesson"; one of Tito Rodriguez’s recordings bore the imposing title Mambo Styles Strictly for Dancing. Certainly, Latin dances were not new. But the 1950s provided the broadest consumer market yet for pleasure dancing and its attendant romance.

  6. Although the mambo itself was not an overtly lascivious dance, its association with the sensual lent it much of its glamor.32 Esy Morales’s Latin American Rhythms was pressed on red vinyl to further its exotic appeal. And, as an endless number of mambo compositions sprang up, they tended to focus on the alluring feminine: "Marilyn Monroe Mambo" and "Mambo Bardot" (the second from the soundtrack to And God Created Woman) venerated two stars who epitomized female voluptuousness in the 1950s. Hopeful males could find the appropriate date music on an album entitled She Adores the Latin Type, part of a series put out by Decca called Music for the Girl Friend. "Hot in Haiti" and "Penthouse Mambo" number amongst its cuts.

  7. To be sure, the mambo was not an intellectual genre. Titles such as "Ya ya ya cha cha cha" and "Merengue a la mode" reveal their inspiration in the frivolous. The style was everywhere and combined with seemingly everything. Perhaps the most stunning example was a collection released by Freddie Sateriale’s Big Band in 1956, entitled Broadway Latin American Party. This album consisted exclusively of Broadway show tunes adapted to cha chas, merengues and mambos. Selections included "Old Man River Cha Cha Cha", "On the Street Where You Live Cha Cha Cha," and "There’s Nothing Like a Dame Cha Cha Cha."33 The vogue of the Latin American even crossed religious and ethnic boundaries, with a bossa nova rendition of "Hava nagilah" appearing on a Columbia recording of 1962. All in all, unlikely candidates for Bernstein’s great tragic opera.


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22. The early stages of this development are chronicled in Ruth Glasser’s My Music Is My Flag: Puerto Rican Musicians and Their New York Communities, 1917-1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

23. Sometimes referred to as the "Spanish" tinge, this style appears in Morton’s works from the 1920s on.

24. Machito established the "Afro-Cubans" in the early 1940s in New York City, the first big band of this kind, but the style was associated with Gillespie throughout his career.

25. Gunther Schuller, "Afro-Cuban Jazz", New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Vol. I (London: Macmillan, 1988), 7.

26. John Storm Roberts, The Latin Tinge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 108.

27. Roberts, Tinge. 87.

28. The mambo was a variation on the rumba, and the cha cha cha was a further development of the mambo. The merengue was actually a dance hailing from Venezuela, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic but was influenced by Afro-Cuban dance styles.

29. Prado’s release of Rockambo in 1961 probably signaled the demise of the genre, along with its success in fusing with newer pop music styles.

30. Perez Prado, Mambos for Piano (New York: Southern Music Publishing Company, 1955).

31. Roberts, Tinge, 113.

32. The mambo is a couples dance in which the partners either stand completely apart or in an embrace with space between their bodies. It is characterized by forward and backward steps and a dance step which begins, rather unusually, on the fourth beat of a 4/4 measure. Contrast this with the style of and furor over the later lambada.

33. Freddie Sateriale’s Big Band, Broadway Latin American Party: Cha chas, Merengues and Mambos (Newark: Pirouette Records, 1956). Other titles from this album include "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes Cha Cha Cha" and "I Love Paris Cha Cha Cha."

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Ivan Raykoff:
Concerto con amore

Elizabeth Wells:
West Side Story

Robert Fink:
Orchestral Corporate

Sound Reviews


Central Avenue Sounds

Book Reviews

Vocal Authority

The Voice in Cinema

Refried Elvis


Billy Higgins

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