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From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, Latin music was hugely popular in the Jewish community of this country. Whole albums were recorded as testaments to this phenomenon. One of them, which put a Latin beat to Jewish classics, has just been re-released. This weekend it'll be re-created in concert at New York's Lincoln Center.

Jon Kalish reports.

JON KALISH: In 1961, "Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos" was released by the venerable jazz label Riverside Records.

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: The record claimed to be the work of Juan Calle and His Latin Lantzmen but was actually recorded by some of the preeminent jazz and Latin music players of the time — including Doc Cheatham, Clark Terry, Ray Barretto and Charlie Palmieri. One Yiddish theater classic was done as a Dominican meringue; another about a cigarette seller done as a quick-step mambo.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ARTURO O'FARRILL (Pianist): This is an example of what happen when you mix cultures. It's not a novelty. It's rarified when it works so beautifully.

KALISH: Afro-Cuban pianist Arturo O'Farrill.

Mr. O'FARRILL: They end up doing this Latin record because it makes sense from a marketing standpoint. They think they're going to sell a lot of records. But the result is this beautiful mixture of jazz and Latino players at the prime of their powers doing stuff that is just musically amazing, let alone culturally transfixing. You can't look at this record and not go, wow! That's out. That is really amazing.

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: O'Farrill is the son of the late bandleader and composer Arturo Chico O'Farrill. The younger musician is the director for the one-time re-creation of "Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos" at Lincoln Center. He'll be joined onstage by 94-year-old pianist Irving Fields.

Mr. IRVING FIELDS (Pianist): The thing is, you have to take the right melody with the right Latin rhythm.

KALISH: Fields, who still plays six nights a week at a restaurant in Manhattan, was bitten by the Latin bug as a young man playing piano on a cruise to Puerto Rico and Cuba.

Mr. FIELDS: Now, if I played "Hava Nagila" as just a bolero rumba, it would be all right. But it didn't belong as a bolero rumba. It belonged as a merengue.

(Soundbite of humming)

(Soundbite of song, "Hava Nagila")

Mr. FIELDS: The rhythm and the tempo would just fuse beautifully into the melody. And that's what you have to do to do this successfully.

(Soundbite of song, "Hava Nagila")

KALISH: Irving Fields scored several hits with this formula. His album "Bagels and Bongos" sold two million copies in 1959. He and a bunch of Latin music performers found plenty of work in the Borscht Belt — the Jewish resorts in New York's Catskill Mountains. Nearly every hotel had a mambo night.

Tania Grossinger grew up at her cousin's hotel, Grossinger's. As a teenager and aspiring trumpet player, she sat in with the Latin bands and says there was never a problem with the cultures mixing.

Ms. TANIA GROSSINGER: I don't ever recall someone saying, don't dance with this person, he's Puerto Rican. There was very much interplay between the musicians and the dance teachers and the guests. Always. You had the dance teachers going out with the musicians. You had guests going out with musicians. Sometimes the husbands were happy; sometimes the husbands were not.

KALISH: In the years after World War II, Jews were just starting to get their American dream on, says music journalist Mark Schwartz.

Mr. MARK SCHWARTZ (Music Journalist): Within Latin music and the excitement of Latin music, they were able to distance themselves from the older generation that came over. This was their thing. You know, they wanted to be American, in all the things that that entailed. So they wanted fast cars, furs, cocktails. They wanted to have a good time. And this was sort of their ticket.

Mr. MARK WEINSTEIN (Trombone Player): This was the transition between swing or the foxtrot and rock 'n' roll.

KALISH: Mark Weinstein played trombone with Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente.

Mr. WEINSTEIN: I mean, rock 'n' roll was okay for the kids, but the older people didn't feel comfortable dancing to rock 'n' roll. It was too uninhibited. So, cha cha cha was a way to be a little bit trendy…

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WEINSTEIN: …without having to make a fool of yourself trying to do the twist in your girdle.

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: Other Jewish musicians who played in Latin bands in the 1950s and '60s included Harvey Averne, a.k.a. Arvito; Alfred Levy, a.k.a. Alfredito; and trombonist Barry Rogers, who didn't have an a.k.a. but grew up in the Bronx with Eddie Palmieri and played in the pianist's band.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. O'FARRILL: Barry Rogers had more soul in his trombone playing than a lot of Latinos.

KALISH: Again, Arturo O'Farrill.

Mr. O'FARRILL: Now, where the heck did this guy learn to play salsa, and why was he so good at it? You know, it's not a "Twilight Zone" episode, but there's a lot of mysteries about why some people have proclivities towards one culture.

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: One answer may lie in the similarities, both rhythmic and harmonic, between Latin and Jewish music. But it's a connection that's fading, says Larry Harlow. He's a Jewish musician from Brooklyn who went to Cuba as a college student in the mid-1950s and became the first artist to sign with the legendary Salsa label Fania Records. Harlow was dubbed El Judio Maravilloso — The Marvelous Jew.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LARRY HARLOW (Musician): The Hispanic people were supporting the music everywhere we went. We were working every single day. Between Palmieri and myself and Barretto, we controlled the Latin scene. And there must've been 200 bands in New York. There must've been 500 clubs to play in. Now there's none.

KALISH: That may not quite be true, and there are still the records. The same organization that reissued "Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos" plans to re-release an old LP that has the entire score of "Fiddler on the Roof" done with Latin arrangements.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Shalom, mi amigos. I'm Scott Simon.

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