‘You’re one of the legends . . . one of the legends of salsa, man.’
Sure it was a setup. The Master Blaster doesn’t hang out at the clubs anymore.
Twenty years after retiring his celebrity persona as the DJ of Rhythm and Blues on L.A.'s KGFJ Radio, the Master Blaster wears suits and pursues corporate dollars.
As executive producer of his own company, For Members Only, Tom Reed worries about things such as scheduling interviews, landing air time and submitting his work for awards.
His work is documentary video of a type not often seen on network television. Reed focuses his camera on thin slices of Los Angeles history that are overlooked by the mass media. His subject is Afro-American culture with an emphasis on music.
“You don’t have to be on NBC to make a contribution to your craft,” he told me once, philosophically, sitting in his living room and studio in a large apartment complex south of Los Feliz Boulevard.
His latest effort, “Salsa L.A. Style,” tells the story of the Mexican-American musicians who brought the Afro-Latin sounds of the Caribbean to Los Angeles 40 years ago. It will air next Wednesday on Sammons Communications cable, Channel 34, at 9 p.m. The broadcast seemed a good reason to renew an acquaintance and also give Reed a little ink.
The story would need some atmosphere, though, and Reed was ready to provide.
He said he’d be at Pedro’s, a club in his Los Feliz neighborhood.
Until recently, Pedro’s was an Italian restaurant on Vermont where the proprietor sang popular tunes. It’s a beautiful place, really, if you look carefully. It’s Mississippi Steamboat style, with fluted wooden pilasters spanned by leafy arches, under each a lighted oil portrait of a vaguely Victorian person. The bar is backed in real mahogany paneling.
Now it’s become a salsa club. The guy playing Monday night was Johnny Martinez, one of the stars of Reed’s “Salsa L.A. Style.”
Reed’s idea of a publicity stunt was to let the man who makes the music do the talking.
Martinez, who arrived early for the interview, was at no loss for words. He wore a navy blue gabardine suit, an open turquoise shirt and a black canvas fedora with a white band. Reed introduced him in the voice of the Master Blaster.
“He is the premier, the GIANT salsa music player in this city! Thirty years of salsa excellence!”
Martinez returned a warm smile under a sliver of gray mustache.
“I’ve been working for 33 years in Los Angeles without a week off,” he boasted. “Every two years or so, I get a three-day break.”
Martinez wove his own story with the story of salsa in L.A.
He studied at the Chicago Conservatory of Music and almost got sidetracked in the be-bop clubs.
“I was learning modern progression,” Martinez said.
Then a chance gig with a Latin band playing at the Glass Hat changed his life.
“A good jazz gig would pay me 15 bucks.” he said. “My first Latin gig, 45 stones. I immediately knew Latin was going to be my bag.”
After serving in World War II, Martinez said, he came to Los Angeles where Latin music counted 36 clubs between La Cienega Boulevard and Vermont Avenue.
“They were all packed. Then the Twist ran us out. Before you knew it, the owners said, ‘Let’s do the Twist.’ ”
“We had 40 great Latin bands. Then, all of a sudden, I found myself alone. There was still room for one Latin band in this city and that was me.”
“You’re one of the legends,” Reed interjected. “One of the legends of salsa, man.”
“They call me the legend,” Martinez mimicked. “They call me the old geezer, too.”
Shortly after 9, Martinez joined his 10-piece band on stage. The music started and people danced.
Between songs, Reed told how salsa came into his life. He was stationed in Havana with the Navy in the 1950s.
“I saw Machito and his group,” Reed said. “That was all it took. R&B; was my music, but I liked the sound of Latin salsa.”
Reed said he first saw Martinez in 1958 at Virginia’s. The club is gone now. But its story lives on as one small piece of “Salsa L.A. Style.”
Like an evening with the Master Blaster, Reed’s documentary is a wild ride. Sometimes the narrative thread becomes a tangle, racing through the names of dozens of groups and back and forth from Machito and Tito Puente in the clubs of New York to Eddie Cano and the birth of salsa at the Hollywood Palladium. Sometimes the narrator falls back into the Master Blaster voice, interjecting comments in sentences without verbs. Sometimes, in inconclusive repartee, the Mexican-American musicians bristle at Reed’s premise that salsa is an Afro-Latin form.
That’s Reed’s style, direct, rough at the edges perhaps, but always probing where others forget to look.
Its greatest aggravation may be the abruptness with which Reed ends the signature cuts of the groups in the film. You don’t want the music to go away.
The good news is that apparently, it’s still around and may be coming back. Johnny Martinez has a pretty good gig tonight. It’s at the Excess Club in Glendale. Be there or be square.