Conga drums and collaboration: A peek inside our Afro-Cuban Jazz concerts

On October 16 and 17, the museum's own big-band-in-residence, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra (SJMO) will kick off their 25th season with a night of Afro-Cuban jazz. At its largest a 17-member big band, or in smaller iterations, SJMO concerts feature the music and jazz masters who contributed to the development of American jazz and defined the music's character.

In recognition the recent developments in U.S. and Cuban relations, the SJMO will kick off this special season celebrating a sound that was created nearly 70 years ago. To get us all in the mood, musician and journalist Felix Contreras, who will be joining the SJMO onstage as a guest percussionist both nights, graciously agreed to write the program notes for the evening, and we wanted to share them with jazz lovers near and far. Read on to learn about the birthplace of Afro-Cuban jazz and the stories behind some of the music we'll hear on October 16 and 17. – Megan Salocks

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The marriage of Afro-Cuban music and jazz has Cuban roots but its birthplace was the ballrooms of New York in the late 1940s. Ground zero for Latin music back then was the Palladium Ballroom, which was located right around the corner from a stretch 52nd Street known as "Swing Street" because of the numerous jazz clubs dotting the block. In between sets the jazz musicians would check out the Latin big bands and the Latin musicians killed time soaking up the bebop that was changing the sound of jazz. It was one of the most fertile periods of American music that has rarely been matched in terms of innovation and cross collaborations.

The music you will hear this Friday and Saturday is from that time and place. In interviews musicians who played during that era speak of the music as if they were speaking of an offspring. They are both proud and protective. They often don't even call it Latin jazz but instead refer to it as "our music". The music was of course influential and laid the ground work for many, many careers. But at the time it was played by very young men who were eager to explore their Caribbean roots as well as the white hot intensity of jazz. It was new, it was innovative, it was danceable, and it was theirs.

This week, you can share that passion. On October 16 and 17 you will hear, among a fine program of genre-defining classics, pieces including:

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Manteca – A composition that is arguably the best example of the seamless integration of Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz. Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie integrated Cuban percussionist Luciano "Chano" Pozo into his band in 1947 and together they penned this now classic Latin jazz anthem.

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Afro Blue – John Coltrane might have made this song famous among jazz fans, but it was Ramon "Mongo" Santamaria who wrote it. Santamaria’s grandfather was born into slavery in Cuba so the young Ramon Santamaria grew up steeped in the culture of West Africa, the ancestral home of most of the slaves delivered to the so called New World.

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Oye Como Va – The world's most famous cha-cha-cha. Written by band leader and multi-instrumentalist Ernesto "Tito" Puente in 1963, it was a staple of his big band dance performances at venues like the Palladium Ballroom. Puente would create a frenzy on the dance floor by repeating the now famous chromatic climb that would explode into a chorus of saxophones and brass. Rock musician Carlos Santana would later transport the song from the Palladium Ballroom to the Fillmore Ballrooom in 1970s San Francisco and beyond making it one of the most recognizable Afro-Caribbean songs of all time.

October's program is an homage to that golden moment in time when musicians ignored the preconceived boundaries of style and genre to create a sound that is as exciting and fresh today as it was over five decades ago.

The SJMO will hold performances of their concert, "Afro-Cuban Jazz: Back in Full Swing," at the National Museum of American History on October 16 and 17, 2015, at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are still on sale or check out some of their other upcoming concerts for the 25th season.

Want to learn more about the American experience through the transformative power of jazz? The museum’s Smithsonian Jazz team strongly recommends you check out their website to explore our jazz oral history collection, get tickets to performances by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month, and more. Or sign up to receive a monthly jazz e-newsletter from the museum for regular reminders.

Felix Contreras is a musician and journalist. Meg Salocks contributed to this blog post. She works on jazz and food history at the museum and recommends you sign up for the museum's jazz newsletter for more jazzy stories.