You have to give Latin Jazz credit, because it never lost its popularity with dancers. Bop and free jazz became the stuff of serious listeners, but Latin Jazz had people dancing the mambo, son, and cha-cha-cha, eventually morphing into salsa—and if you’re not dancing to salsa, there’s something wrong with you. New York gets a lot of attention in Latin music histories, but the Bay Area also had a distinctive scene that gets its due credit in Rita Hargrave’s The Last Mambo, which screens virtually as part of the 2020 NY African Diaspora International Film Festival.
Those who know their jazz history recognize San Francisco’s Fillmore District ranked alongside LA’s Central Avenue and New York’s 52nd Street. Hargrave and musician Wayne Wallace (the associate producer) make a case for Oakland too, especially the beloved Sweet’s Ballroom, where terrific local talent like Merced Gallegos, Carlos Federico & the Panamanians ruled the roost. It is actually surprisingly entertaining to watch Wallace’s walking tour of the former Raider town’s old musical haunts.
Sadly, Gallegos and Federico can only be seen in archival footage now, but Hargrave incorporates (relatively recent) interviews with the legendary Pete Escovedo (you might also recognize his percussionist daughter, Sheila E.), as well as the late, great Benny Velarde (the percussionist with Cal Tjader’s breakout group).
Last Mambo’s one short-coming is that it feels way, way too short (at 55 minutes), but in a way, that just shows how quickly it flies by. It tightly packs in a great deal of music history into an authoritative package. Fans will want to see Hargrave further document this music, because The Last Mambo is tons of fun and also quite informative. Very highly recommended, it screens virtually through Wednesday (12/2), as part of this year’s online ADIFF.