Kansas City’s musical heritage includes hot jazz and cool swing, but it also had a Latin flavor.
By MATT CAMPBELL
The Kansas City Star
A new exhibit opening Saturday at the Kansas City Museum sheds light on an often overlooked aspect of local culture with a remembrance of the Lupe M. Gonzalez Dance Orchestra.
The local band was a premier attraction in Kansas City and traveled regionally in the 1950s and 1960s, specializing in swing music and show tunes, often with a Latino flair.
“Most people think of Mexicans and Mexican food,” said exhibit curator Gene T. Chavez. “They don’t think of Mexican music and a cultural life that was very vibrant and changed with the times.
“It wasn’t all just mariachi music. It was a lot of things.”
The exhibit includes photographs, sheet music and other family-collected treasures, including Gonzalez’s alto saxophone. The materials, along with newspaper columns and other writings by Gonzalez, reflect a period in time as well as a culture.
It is the first full-blown exhibit to come out of a project begun two years ago by the Kansas City Museum called Nuestra Herencia, or “our heritage.”
“It’s a commitment the museum has to collect a portion of our Kansas City history that really hasn’t been collected,” said museum director Denise Morrison. “If we want to be the museum of all Kansas City, it made sense to do that.”
The display runs through Dec. 29 and occupies part of the second floor of the museum’s home at Corinthian Hall, which is in the midst of restoration. Because of that, visitors are escorted to the exhibit on the hour by museum officials.
A loop of Gonzalez’s music, selected by his family, plays in the background throughout the exhibit. The recordings were digitized by the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Gonzalez, who died in 2008, was born in 1935 to parents who immigrated separately from Mexico to the Turner area of Kansas City, Kan.
He grew up in the Argentine area. His father, Juan, had a band called the Gay Rancheros, and Lupe was professionally trained in music. Members of his orchestra, which ranged from eight to 10 players, typically worked in the rail yards or packing houses by day and played music at night and on weekends.
The band recorded a single for the local Kan Kan label. The A side was a Gonzalez composition called “Vamos a Kansas City,” and the flip side was a song about Primitivo Garcia, a local boy who was killed defending one of his teachers from attack.
The band was a regular at local fiestas and other events. They played popular gigs at clubs along 24th Street on the West Side, which was the Latino version of the 18th and Vine jazz scene.
“There was a high demand for their services within their ethnic enclave,” said Chavez, who is an instructor at Webster University and a historian of the Latino experience in the United States.
But the Lupe Gonzalez Orchestra had crossover appeal as well.
Gonzalez once told the story of an invitation the band received to play a pool party in Leawood. When they arrived, they discovered it was a western theme and the host wanted to hear Gene Autry-like music. The band improvised a country style and was a big hit, scoring several more gigs from the show.
The orchestra’s repertoire even included a Beatles song.
Gonzalez was a civic leader as well as a musician. He was appointed by Kansas Gov. John Carlin to an advisory committee on Hispanic affairs, and he once ran for office in Kansas City, Kan.
He also wrote columns about Latino issues for The Kansas City Kansan and other publications. Many of those clips are bound in books for exhibit visitors to peruse.
Chavez said he hopes the exhibit transcends the experience of a single orchestra.
“People are going to take away (from this) that the Mexican-American community is more than just Mexican laborers coming over to the United States to take jobs from American workers,” he said. “Mexican-Americans have been in Kansas City since the days of the Santa Fe Trail.
“It is a very diverse community and very rich, and it contributed a great deal to the cultural life of the city.”
To reach Matt Campbell, call 816-234-4902 or send email to email@example.com.