Max Salazar: Historian, Journalist, Fan

My first trip to New York didn't feel complete until I heard the late Max Salazar on the radio.

It was 1981; I was from California, and much of what I had learned about Afro-Cuban music in New York was from Salazar's writing. There were interviews, historical overviews, concert and record reviews in The Village Voice, Billboard, Latin N.Y., numerous other newspapers and publications. Max Salazar was The Source in my quest to learn about a music that most jazz and popular music publications ignored.

Salazar wrote books and articles based on meticulous research, interviews with musicians and his own memories. He was a musicologist, a journalist and a fan. He died on Sunday morning after a long illness, according to his family. He was 78 years old.

It's mainly through his writing that I can imagine what it must have been like to be in the Palladium Ballroom on 52nd and Broadway in midtown Manhattan,  soaking in bands that were redefining Afro-Cuban music and creating the first true Latino cross-cultural hybrid in this country.

Many of the publications he wrote for initially are not completely archived online, so a complete bibliography of his work is difficult. Fortunately, we do have his one book, Mambo Kingdom: Latin Music In New York (Omnibus Press), a meticulously detailed account of what he saw and heard. He was also a featured lecturer and speaker at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., UCLA and many other colleges and universities.

For an example of his history chops check out this fascinating interview of Max Salazar by Joe Hernandez for Latin Beat magazine. It's about Salazar's personal history with Tito Puente, but within those stories is Salazar's own history. It's chock full of juicy historical and first-hand tidbits.

Back on that cold December Saturday afternoon, when I finally heard his thick New York accent on WBAI, I remember asking my friend to just drive around so I could soak it all up. I called in to the radio station that afternoon to speak to him and express my appreciation for his writing. He surprised me by mentioning my name, thanking me for my call over the air and playing a cut from the fabulous Machito orchestra in my honor.

Hearing Max Salazar say my name across the airwaves in New York City over that music remains one of my proudest moments on the radio. Thank you, Max Salazar. Que descanses en paz.

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