That romantic era in Cuba is known for the mambo and the danzon, the bolero and pasodoble. It was the 1940s and 1950s in Havana, the so-called segundo Paris, or second Paris. Tropical nights, hot music and fancy clubs.
Such was the life of a young trumpet player, Luis Manuel Gonzalez.
Now 94 years old, Gonzalez lives in the red-brick row house that he and his wife bought 37 years ago in Northwest Washington's Brightwood neighborhood. On one wall, there is a small plaque honoring him for his commitment to Latin music. On another hangs a large black-and-white portrait of the man playing his trumpet.
Gonzalez still has some of the posters that announced his appearances around town: an outdoor summer concert on the steps of the Library of Congress as part of an American Folklife Center series; a big dance in the Regency Room of the Shoreham Americana. He also performed at the Escuela de Rumba, organized by a well-known Cuban-born bassist, Luis Salome, who lived in Washington until his death four years ago.
But even before those events in the late 1970s and early '80s, Gonzalez and the band he joined after arriving in Washington in 1962 played big Hispanic galas at the Hotel Washington. The dances were sponsored by the so-called godfather of the District's Latino community, the late Carlos Rosario.
"The 31st of December there were dances . . . and so many tickets were sold, they didn't fit everyone," Gonzalez recalled with a chuckle. "There was a big scandal, people fighting each other to get in."
The members of the band, the Victor Aponte Orquesta, were emblematic of Washington's diverse Latino community: a Peruvian band leader and a Peruvian singer, two Dominican guitarists, a Panamanian percussionist, a Mexican bassist and Gonzalez, the Cuban trumpeter. They played small venues, too, like the old El Sombrero Cordobes on Mount Pleasant Street NW, where Latinos gathered to eat and dance.
It was a more innocent time in Washington. After finishing a gig at the restaurant one night about 1 or 2 a.m., Gonzalez got home only to realize he had forgotten his trumpet. He hopped a southbound trolley on 14th Street and went back. "And there it was," he said, in its case, on the sidewalk where he had left it.
Gonzalez worked days in construction and played music at night. He kept playing, at least occasionally, until he was 81. He stopped when Daisy, his wife of 58 years, died in 1986.
Born in 1905 in the coastal city of Camaguey, Gonzalez learned to play the trumpet from his father, who ran a music academy. His nine brothers and sisters also were taught various instruments and played in the town's municipal band. He moved to Havana in 1937, and it was there that he got a taste of the big time--playing in exclusive private clubs for elite society and in famous cabarets where Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey also starred. He met and became friends with Perez Prado, the pianist who popularized the mambo.
When Gonzalez and Daisy left Cuba, the political situation was tense and the economy failing. Fulgencio Batista was still in power, but the young Fidel Castro and his followers were threatening revolution from their mountainside strongholds. By then, a band might play all night at a cabaret and walk out empty-handed. "It was a bad economic situation. Many musicians had to play for free," he said.
So he, his wife and her mother boarded a plane in Havana on June 6, 1959, and landed in Miami 30 minutes later. The planes departed almost every hour in those days. They settled in Washington three years later, where their only child, Estela, had lived since 1952.
Gonzalez became a U.S. citizen in 1972 and has voted diligently ever since. He will not return to Cuba "until Castro is gone--even if they give me platters of money and pay my fare."
In a century that has seen an array of technological advances, Gonzalez's memories are of deliveries from the ice man before refrigerators existed, wind-up Victrolas, a scarcity of radios and the first time he saw a car or an airplane. He also remembers the trauma of his young sister's death in the 1920s. She was stricken with appendicitis and died because a doctor would not come to the house unless the family hired a horse-drawn buggy for him. By the time the Gonzalez family got medical help, peritonitis had set in.
The lucky few who had a telephone or a television set in Havana in the 1950s shared. "If you needed to receive a message, the neighbor would come to get you," he said. Likewise, when he and his wife bought a TV, the neighbors dressed up and came over to watch Cuban wrestling or American programs such as the "Hit Parade."
Gonzalez turns 95 on Jan. 10 and plans to welcome the new century with an age-old Cuban tradition: taking a sip of sparkling cider or champagne, eating 12 grapes--one for every month of the year--and throwing a bucket of water out the front door to expel any bad spirits left over from the old year. His millennium hopes are for "no war, peace, food for everyone, love among all."
His New Year's and birthday wish: "I would like to visit the White House."
CAPTION: "It was a bad economic situation," Gonzalez said, of his decision to leave Cuba.
CAPTION: Luis Manuel Gonzalez learned to play the trumpet from his father in Cuba and continued his career after immigrating to the United States.
CAPTION: One of many gigs Gonzalez, with horn, played in Washington was an American Folklife Center event in 1980, when he played on the steps of the Library of Congress. During Havana's days as segundo Paris, Gonzalez was part of the city's booming club life.