There is a 1910 poster for a masquerade ball given by the Orleans Athletic Club at Economy Hall in New Orleans, admission 25 cents, featuring the "popular favorite" Imperial Band, led by Manuel Perez. A few steps away hangs a dignified photograph of Pedro Stacholy's Cuban Jazzband, taken in Havana circa 1920.
There's the familiar (Dizzy Gillespie's unmistakable bent trumpet) and the surprising (a rare marimbula, a wooden box with metal resonators that functioned as the bass of rural Cuban music). There is a black-and-white clip of a young Tito Puente, already a superb musician and showman, and a 1960s segment featuring Andy Williams presenting "a wild and wonderful new group" -- Cuban conguero Mongo Santamaria playing "Watermelon Man." Nearby, Xavier Cugat and his orchestra, one of the great popularizers of Latin music in the United States, is playing on an old Philco radio, via a recording of a 1930s broadcast from the Statler Hotel in Chicago.
The images, the names, the artifacts and the sounds -- all part of "Latin Jazz: La Combinacion Perfecta," a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition that opened Saturday at the Arts and Industries Building -- tell a remarkable story that has been hidden in plain view.
For more than a century, Latin jazz has been playing on the great American soundtrack. How could it not? It's a music fiitng for a country of immigrants -- a music of possibility, born of loss and reinvention, of pain transformed by hope. It's a music of deep roots, but always new; a paradox of big muscles and nimble feet, street savvy and worldliness.
All of those qualities are there in the sounds -- in the easy grace of "The Peanut Vendor," the insolence of "Manteca" and the simple, contagious joy of "Oye Como Va."
"Many things surprised me in doing the research, but what really struck me was how important and how deep the presence of Latinos in jazz has been all along," says Raul Fernandez, curator of the exhibition and author of the accompanying book "Latin Jazz: The Perfect Combination/La Combinacion Perfecta." "I was surprised to find how many Latinos -- mainly Mexicans and Cubans -- were playing in New Orleans in the early years, for example."
He cites, as one instance, a visit to New Orleans in 1884-85 by Mexico's Eighth Cavalry Military Band, on the occasion of the World's Cotton and Industrial Exposition. "The Mexican band," as it was called, introduced New Orleans to the saxophone.
"From the beginning," says Fernandez, a professor of social sciences at the University of California, Irvine, "there is a presence and a continuity."
As music historian John Storm Roberts simply stated in "The Latin Tinge," his influential book on Latin music in the United States, "Latin American music [is] the most important outside influence on U.S. popular music in the last 100 years."
Even a cursory look back reveals that every decade of the last century was been marked by a significant Latin music trend, from the tango in the 1910s and '20s and the rumba in the '30s up to the latest "Latin explosion." Every time, mainstream American culture reacts as if it had made a startling social and ethnomusicological discovery.
Livin' la vida loca once meant doin' the mambo. There was a Carmen Miranda well before a J-Lo, and a Ricky Ricardo before a Ricky Martin. In the late '30s, Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton was already saluting the Latin influence in his dictum: "If you can't manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning . . . for jazz."
Including film (a documentary featuring interviews and vintage performance footage), audio stations, wall panels with text in English and Spanish and photographs, sheet music and a few musical instruments, the exhibition offers a concise but entertaining and useful historical overview of Latin jazz and its creators. While the space feels cramped, there's a flow to the displays.
An opening section, on the beginnings of the music in Havana and New Orleans, brings into focus such figures as the Mexican clarinetist Thomas Tio and his influential family. His grandson Lorenzo, also a clarinetist, tutored master jazzmen Sidney Bechet, Barney Bigard and Jimmie Noone.
Acknowledging the central role of percussion in Latin music, another area of the exhibition is reserved for drummers, including Luciano "Chano" Pozo, Armando Peraza, Mongo Santamaria, Francisco Aguabella, Carlos "Patato" Valdes and Candido Camero.
"The music was built on their shoulders," says Fernandez. "And I don't think they have received the recognition they deserve. I'm partial to them."
The panels identify and summarize important figures like trumpeter Mario Bauza, the music director and mastermind of Machito and His Afro-Cubans, the high-water mark of Latin big bands. A formally educated musician with a deep knowledge of, and practice in, popular Cuban music, Bauza steeped himself in jazz and went on to become the director of Chick Webb's orchestra and a member of Cab Calloway's band. It was Bauza who organized Machito's band and best articulated the fusion of American jazz harmonies and improvisation with Cuban rhythms.
Other panels pay tribute to composer and arranger Arturo "Chico" O'Farrill, who dressed the music in black tie (as in his classic "Afro Cuban Jazz Suite"), and contemporary Cuban pianist and bandleader Chucho Valdes.
What emerges from this exhibition is a logical progression from the proto-jazz of New Orleans to the Latin jazz of today.
Although they are not covered by this show, early pieces such as Morton's "New Orleans Blues" and W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" already contain the "Spanish tinge." It exploded into full view in the 1940s, and toward the end of the decade Gillespie brought it to the attention of beboppers.
He asked Bauza, his former Cab Calloway band mate and lifelong friend, for someone to play "them tom-tom things," as he then called the conga drum. Bauza recommended a newly arrived Cuban percussionist and dancer, Chano Pozo. The Gillespie-Pozo collaboration was cut short (Pozo was shot dead in December 1947) but left a legacy of gems like "Manteca," "Cubana Be Cubana Bop" and "Tin Tin Deo."
Bassist Al McKibbon, who worked with Miles Davis in the "Birth of the Cool" sessions and later with pianist George Shearing and vibist Cal Tjader, among others, was a member of Gillespie's band in 1947. Bandleader Stan Kenton had already been experimenting with Latin music and musicians (recording with Machito's rhythm section, for example), but the Latin and jazz worlds still largely moved on parallel tracks. The idea of adding Pozo, an Afro-Cuban conga player, to one of the elite bop bands was not received with great enthusiasm.
"When Dizzy mentioned to me that he wanted to hire a conga drummer I was against it," McKibbon recalled with a chuckle in a recent interview. "I had been watching Machito and [pianist and bandleader] Noro Morales . . . and I'd realized that the accents were in a different beat than we were playing, so I told him, 'Man, it's going to be a real train wreck when we get together.' And Dizzy said, 'No, it's going to be fine. You watch.' And it was. He was a visionary."
The audio stations offer a sampler of different artists and styles. It's a teaser selection, small and broad. It would have been fun and educational to set up stations directly linked to the panels that show the major figures. (Be sure to check Rene Touzet's "El Loco Cha Cha Cha" and listen for the bass in the background. Yep, that groove is the source of "Louie Louie.")
Finally,there is a glance at the present and future of Latin jazz.
The work of a new generation of musicians (including Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez, Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sanchez, Argentine big-band arranger and composer Guillermo Klein, Puerto Rican trombonist William Cepeda and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, among many others) is one of the most promising developments in contemporary jazz. Furthermore, as they have drawn freely from indigenous rhythms and styles throughout Latin America, they have exploded the conventional notions of Latin jazz as mainly a fusion of Afro-Cuban and jazz elements.
"Latin Jazz: La Combinacion Perfecta," which will remain in Washington until Jan. 18 before embarking on a four-year, 11-city tour across the United States, is the final installment of the America's Jazz Heritage program, a 10-year initiative funded by the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund.
Andy Gonzalez, arguably the top bass player in Latin music today, is also a collector and avid student of the music. He recalled being "fascinated" as a kid by the sound of a Cal Tjader record.
"What I want with this exhibit is to give some recognition to a music that has not gotten its due," said Gonzalez, who was an adviser for the show. "I feel it's important that its place in history be secured. This is a most important genre of music because it involves a fusion of cultures -- and that's part of what America is supposed to be about."
Added Fernandez, the curator: "I want people to come out of this exhibit with a smile. If not dancing, at least moving. I want them to have a good feeling. This music is such a joy."
In association with the exhibition, the Smithsonian will present a Latin jazz film festival and various performances.
For more information on this exhibit, visit www.smithsonianlatinjazz.org or call 202-357-2700.