Daily Picture Show

The Best Unknown Music Photographer

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, NPR Producer Felix Contreras will be presenting photographers with significant portfolios for the next three Fridays. Be sure to check out NPR's special series, Alt.Latino. Today the spotlight is on Martin Cohen, a jazz photographer with an unheralded archive.

One of the little known byproducts of the U.S. embargo of Cuba in 1960 was that Cuban musicians living and performing in the U.S. no longer had access to hand-crafted, high-quality percussion instruments.

In fact, the Afro-Caribbean musical renaissance that took place in New York during the 1940s and '50s was mostly played on congas, timbales and maracas made in Cuba.

Martin Cohen was a fan of New York-styled big band Latin dance music, and would seek out the music in ballrooms and nightclubs after his day job as a skilled machinist for the Bendix Corp.

When that embargo went into effect in the early '60s, Cohen took it upon himself to make a pair of bongos for percussionist Mongo Santamaria after the musician complained of the changes.

Eventually Cohen's company, Latin Percussion Inc., would become a multimillion-dollar instrument manufacturing company. His instruments are played the world over, and are also notable for many design innovations.

Cohen was also an amateur photographer. His relationship with the musicians as an instrument manufacturer also earned him unfettered access to shoot performances, rehearsals and jam sessions.

NOTE: Martin Cohen's first-person captions have been supplemented to provide contextual information.

  • Dizzy Gillespie in my photo studio in my home in Hillsdale, N.J. During this period in the mid-1970s, Dizzy traveled with a set of LP congas that he himself played on stage.
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    Dizzy Gillespie in my photo studio in my home in Hillsdale, N.J. During this period in the mid-1970s, Dizzy traveled with a set of LP congas that he himself played on stage.
    Martin Cohen
  • A rare photograph of Afro-Cuban music pioneer Arsenio Rodriguez in a performance in New York City. I took this shot sometime in the 197s.
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    A rare photograph of Afro-Cuban music pioneer Arsenio Rodriguez in a performance in New York City. I took this shot sometime in the 197s.
    Martin Cohen
  • Vitin Gonzalez, Tito Rodriguez's bongocero, who was my first contact with Latin musicians. This photo was taken in the Palladium Ballroom in 1962.
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    Vitin Gonzalez, Tito Rodriguez's bongocero, who was my first contact with Latin musicians. This photo was taken in the Palladium Ballroom in 1962.
    Martin Cohen
  • This is an early shot of musician and arranger Johnny Pacheco leading his band at the Palladium Ballroom in New York City in 1962. Pacheco would later go on to become a pivotal figure in the creation of Fania Records, the seminal salsa label.
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    This is an early shot of musician and arranger Johnny Pacheco leading his band at the Palladium Ballroom in New York City in 1962. Pacheco would later go on to become a pivotal figure in the creation of Fania Records, the seminal salsa label.
    Martin Cohen
  • Percussionist Carlos "Patato" Valdes in his apartment on Timpson Place in the South Bronx caught in midstep while he performs a traditional Afro-Cuban rumba dance. It was at these apartment parties that I came to learn so much about the Afro-Cuban culture and the sound that percussionist needed.
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    Percussionist Carlos "Patato" Valdes in his apartment on Timpson Place in the South Bronx caught in midstep while he performs a traditional Afro-Cuban rumba dance. It was at these apartment parties that I came to learn so much about the Afro-Cuban culture and the sound that percussionist needed.
    Martin Cohen
  • Carlos "Patato" Valdes onstage in Tokyo when he appeared with the group I founded, Latin Percussion Jazz Ensemble, in 1979, which also featured Tito Puente.
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    Carlos "Patato" Valdes onstage in Tokyo when he appeared with the group I founded, Latin Percussion Jazz Ensemble, in 1979, which also featured Tito Puente.
    Martin Cohen
  • Bongocero Jose Mangual Sr. and bassist Bobby Rodriguez chat during a break in the recording of Mangual's album "Buyu" in New York City, 1977. Both musicians were veterans of many bands including probably the most important band of them all, Machito and His Afro-Cubans.
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    Bongocero Jose Mangual Sr. and bassist Bobby Rodriguez chat during a break in the recording of Mangual's album "Buyu" in New York City, 1977. Both musicians were veterans of many bands including probably the most important band of them all, Machito and His Afro-Cubans.
    Martin Cohen
  • Manny Oquendo performing on the first recording I produced, "Understanding Latin Rhythms, Vol. I" recorded at Broadway Recording Studio in 1974. Manny's forward-looking technique and style has been influential on timbaleros who came in his wake.
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    Manny Oquendo performing on the first recording I produced, "Understanding Latin Rhythms, Vol. I" recorded at Broadway Recording Studio in 1974. Manny's forward-looking technique and style has been influential on timbaleros who came in his wake.
    Martin Cohen
  • Machito in my basement photo studio/workshop in the 1970s.  Machito liked the plastic maracas that I made because they were loud and he performed in front of a large band.
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    Machito in my basement photo studio/workshop in the 1970s. Machito liked the plastic maracas that I made because they were loud and he performed in front of a large band.
    Martin Cohen
  • Jose Mangual Sr. (from left), Milton Cardona and Carlos "Patato" Valdez in Broadway Recording Studio during the creation of "Understanding Latin Rhythms, Vol. I"
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    Jose Mangual Sr. (from left), Milton Cardona and Carlos "Patato" Valdez in Broadway Recording Studio during the creation of "Understanding Latin Rhythms, Vol. I"
    Martin Cohen
  • Legendary Puerto Rican songwriter and musician Rafael Cortijo in the early hours of the morning in the South Bronx in the early 1970s.  Cortijo's writing was a major influence on many of the writers of the powerful Fania recordings of the 1970s.
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    Legendary Puerto Rican songwriter and musician Rafael Cortijo in the early hours of the morning in the South Bronx in the early 1970s. Cortijo's writing was a major influence on many of the writers of the powerful Fania recordings of the 1970s.
    Martin Cohen
  • Johnny "Dandy" Rodriguez was responsible for exposing so many percussionists worldwide to the fiberglass LP conga that was the standard drum through the 1970s recordings of Fania records.
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    Johnny "Dandy" Rodriguez was responsible for exposing so many percussionists worldwide to the fiberglass LP conga that was the standard drum through the 1970s recordings of Fania records.
    Martin Cohen
  • Carlos "Patato" Valdez (from left), Jerry Gonzalez, Dizzy Gillespie and Andy Gonzalez during recording on the album, Portrait of Jenny at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., sometime in the 1970s.
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    Carlos "Patato" Valdez (from left), Jerry Gonzalez, Dizzy Gillespie and Andy Gonzalez during recording on the album, Portrait of Jenny at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., sometime in the 1970s.
    Martin Cohen
  • Jose Mangual Sr. (left) and Carlos "Patato" Valdez in a Bronx bar.
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    Jose Mangual Sr. (left) and Carlos "Patato" Valdez in a Bronx bar.
    Martin Cohen
  • One of my favorite photos of Carlos "Patato" Valdez, taken in my photo studio in Hillsdale, N.J., circa 1975.
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    One of my favorite photos of Carlos "Patato" Valdez, taken in my photo studio in Hillsdale, N.J., circa 1975.
    Martin Cohen
  • Papi Pagani, the son of Federico, along with Julian Dino with the Tito Rodriguez band at the Palladium Ballroom, New York City, circa 1962. Federico Pagani was a dance promoter who often booked the bands that appeared at the Palladium. Tito Rodriguez was considered one of the Big Three that dominated the Palladium sound, along with the orchestras of Tito Puente and Machito.
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    Papi Pagani, the son of Federico, along with Julian Dino with the Tito Rodriguez band at the Palladium Ballroom, New York City, circa 1962. Federico Pagani was a dance promoter who often booked the bands that appeared at the Palladium. Tito Rodriguez was considered one of the Big Three that dominated the Palladium sound, along with the orchestras of Tito Puente and Machito.
    Martin Cohen
  • Willie Bobo photographed with timbales in San Francisco. Bobo's soul-infused recordings of the late 1960s were picked up by musicians a generation later who incorporated his music in Afro-Cuban influenced hip hop.
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    Willie Bobo photographed with timbales in San Francisco. Bobo's soul-infused recordings of the late 1960s were picked up by musicians a generation later who incorporated his music in Afro-Cuban influenced hip hop.
    Martin Cohen
  • The first photo I ever took of Tito Puente. It was in 1962 in the Palladium Ballroom. Puente remained a friend and LP endorsee until his death in 2000.
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    The first photo I ever took of Tito Puente. It was in 1962 in the Palladium Ballroom. Puente remained a friend and LP endorsee until his death in 2000.
    Martin Cohen
  • Tito Rodriguez's last recording at Media Sound (later converted into a nightclub). The recording was produced by Louie Ramirez and took place 1972
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    Tito Rodriguez's last recording at Media Sound (later converted into a nightclub). The recording was produced by Louie Ramirez and took place 1972
    Martin Cohen

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His photo archive is an unheralded collection that rivals the work of jazz photographers like Francis Wolff, Roy DeCarava and Herman Leonard.

Cohen's intimate portraits reflect pride, camaraderie and joy.

And for die-hard fans of the music, like me, Cohen's collection offers a visual window into a world we can only imagine and often fantasize about.

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