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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.

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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.

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.