Irving Fields, pianist, still had a few months left in the army when he landed his gig at the Versailles Hotel in Miami Beach. The year was 1945. He was stationed in Alabama. But he had been a piano prodigy since the age of eight and had played on cruise ships between Puerto Rico and Cuba before he was eighteen, so he already had an agent, Lenny Green. Lenny took him to the hotel during one fateful furlough.
"The Versailles was the swankiest hotel in Miami Beach at that time," recalls Fields. "[Green] said, 'Why'ntcha play a couple songs. I want somebody to hear you.' I sit down to play the piano, and after four or five songs, Lenny says, 'I want to introduce you to Max Malimut. He's the owner of the Versailles Hotel.' So I said, 'Pleasure to meet you.' And the next few words Max says are, 'When you get out of the army, I want you to be the musical director of my orchestra.' I was shocked!"
Fields is 90 years old now, but he still plays weekly at a joint called Nino's in New York, where his gigs are frequented by the likes of Tony Bennett and Regis Philbin. He's a charismatic man to begin with, but ask him about Miami Beach in the Forties and he gets even warmer. "Oh, it was wonderful! It was like Paris with palm trees. They had gambling then, every hotel had two orchestras -- a Latin orchestra and an American orchestra -- Miami Beach was booming. All the stars were there entertaining in Miami Beach, and the hotels were jam-packed. It was unbelievable.... It was like Las Vegas."
A glamorous life for a man and his piano, but Miami Beach would eventually be overtaken by condos, gambling would become illegal, and a clever idea would pop into Fields's head while he was doing something much more mundane: eating breakfast. In 1959, about fifteen years after his first job at the Versailles -- and enough requests to twinkle his fingers in rumba tempo -- he recorded an album of classic Jewish songs reinterpreted through his love of the Latin rhythm.
The album would be released by Desco and become an instant hit, a banner album demarking the Jewish-Latin craze that overtook the Forties and Fifties, particularly in cities with high Jewish and Hispanic populations, like Miami, New York, and Los Angeles. "I happened to be having smoked salmon for breakfast. I love salmon. I'm having lox on bagels; bagels are known as a Jewish food. A fan approaches and says, 'What are you up to?' I tell him I've just finished an album of Jewish-Latin music. 'What's it called?' he asks. At that point I was taking a bite of the bagel. And as soon as I did, it hit me: It should be called Bagels and Bongos. If I didn't take a bite of the bagel at that moment, it would've never occurred to me."
This past week, Bagels and Bongos was the premiere reissue of the nonprofit record label Reboot Stereophonic, whose tagline is "History sounds different when you know where to start listening." Founded by Jules Shell and Roger Bennett, and bolstered by label heads and audiophiles -- including Interscope's Courtney Holt, Birdman's David Katznelson, and scholar/critic Josh Kun -- the label operates with the loose goal to "rescue" obscure and unexpected Jewish music. The future roster includes an incredible release from electronic music pioneer Gershon Kingsley (Moog legend, composer of "Popcorn") and a burner called Fiddler on the Roof Goes Latin, but Bagels and Bongos was the ideal first release for a label whose love for music is so consciously broad: Jewish classics reimagined through a Latin backbeat and wearing punny titles that bridge the culture gap: "Havannah Negila," "Mazeltov Merengue," "Miami Merengue (Rabbi Elle Melech)."
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"In general many people documented the so-called Latin craze as a period of the Thirites through the Fifties, when various versions of Latin American popular music hit the U.S. and became popular with audiences outside the Latino population," comments label cofounder Josh Kun. "There was a sub-moment in all of this where a large number of American Jews became obsessed with Latin music, particularly in cities like New York, where you have a number of Jews and Latinos living near each other and interacting on the streets, going to each others' parties and listening, in many cases, to ethnic radio. There were these opportunities from crossing and affiliation. So you get weird offspring."
By reintroducing these historical albums, the Rebooters hope to provoke cross-cultural, cross-generational conversation. Since hybridity defines this era of postmillennial music, particularly of Latin music -- think of reggaeton, the Puerto Rican amalgam of reggae and hip-hop; or funk carioca, the Brazilian interpretation of booty bass -- it's a ripe time to encourage this type of dialogue and to use the past as a window into who we might become -- how people of different ethnicities and cultures coexist, cross over, and ultimately self-define. Notes Kun: "I've been collecting old records as a way to figure out my Jewishness.... I never found most available modes of being Jewish to be that appealing or make sense of my politics, but these old records could be a fun way to be progressive. Everything I do in any format [is] really to mine that territory between what we listen to and who we think we are."
As for Irving Fields, he became a sort of cross-cultural connoisseur, following up Bagels and Bongos with Champagne and Bongos (French and Latin), Pizza and Bongos (Italian and Latin), and of course Bikinis and Bongos (hello, Hawaii). Fields says, "In three weeks [Bagels] was a smash hit all over the world -- because there's no language barrier in music. It's international and universal." It's a broad explanation, but the man's got a point.