In 1940, the Joe Azcona Band performs in costume with a female guest singer.  The band was well-known in the 40s and performed at different area venues and the El Fenix Ballroom.

In 1940, the Joe Azcona Band performs in costume with a female guest singer. The band was well-known in the 40s and performed at different area venues and the El Fenix Ballroom.

Dallas Mexican American Historical League/

The year is 1957, and 17-year-old Henry Muñoz is a busboy at the El Fenix Tex-Mex restaurant in the Casa Linda neighborhood of Dallas.

One day after school, Muñoz checks into his shift as usual. He dons his uniform, makes his way to the kitchen, and everything is moving along -- again, as usual -- until it's suddenly not: The evening's entertainment, a local musical trio, hasn't begun to perform yet. Customers are antsy, staff members are confused. It's getting pretty late. But the music can't start without a pianist, and the trio's happens to be missing.

Luckily, a piano player was working in the kitchen that very same night.

Muñoz wasn't, and still isn't, a formally trained pianist. He's self-taught on a secondhand piano, and rather than reading music, he's guided by the advice of his blind father: Each note is "one step up or one step down" the keyboard, and the black keys are sharps and flats.

But that didn't keep him from getting onstage. That was the first show Muñoz ever performed. It would not be the last.

Henry Muñoz sitting on a marimba with his band in the summer of 1975. Muñoz grew up in Little Mexico, in a family of 11, and became a self-taught vocalist, pianist and marimba player.

Henry Muñoz sitting on a marimba with his band in the summer of 1975. Muñoz grew up in Little Mexico, in a family of 11, and became a self-taught vocalist, pianist and marimba player.

Dallas Mexican American Historical League/

An impressive history

"His story is pretty incredible," says Juanita Nanez, president of the Dallas Mexican American Historical League. "I think musicians [like Muñoz] are looked up to for playing a big role in enjoying life and for helping us do that, too."

Muñoz's journey is featured in the historical league's "¡Musica! Our Rhythm, Our Heart, Our Soul" exhibition, which opened Sept. 8 at the Latino Cultural Center. His story is just one of many in the show, as "¡Musica!" focuses on the musical legacy of Dallas' Mexican-American population, a rich history that spans generations of artists who found inspiration in their heritage of music and performance.

"Rhythm, heart, soul," says Nanez. "That's what music is for our community."

Over the next 60 years, Muñoz (who is pictured on the Guide cover with his band in a 1975 photo) became a successful, well-respected musician in North Texas. The spirit of his career is alive and well in the "¡Musica!" exhibit, which celebrates stories of music and culture from across Dallas.

"Every time I'm up there [onstage], it's just fun -- it's been a lot of years of fun," Muñoz says. "There's a passion for music, for learning something new with every performance. I'm 78 years old, and I'm still learning."

Dennis Gonzalez, right, and son, Aaron Gonzalez (bass) performing at Dallas' Kessler Theater in April 2017.

Dennis Gonzalez, right, and son, Aaron Gonzalez (bass) performing at Dallas' Kessler Theater in April 2017.

Dallas Mexican American Historical League/

Educating North Texas

Like Muñoz, the hundreds of other musicians pictured on the Latino Cultural Center's walls have compelling histories of their own. On display for the duration of Hispanic Heritage Month, the show features more than 130 images collected from artists and families who live and work in the Mexican-American neighborhoods scattered across the city. The framed photos are accompanied by recorded interviews, a video documentary and live performances.

"With our exhibit, we want to educate the whole Dallas community about who we are," says Albert Valtierra, a league board member. "We're not a cookie-cutter kind of community."

"¡Musica!" covers 100 years' worth of music by local Mexican-American artists, including some well-known names like Trini Lopez, Domingo Samudio (better known by his stage name "Sam the Sham") and Ray Vielma.

The exhibit also includes artists such as Carmen Cervantes and Chick Ramirez, whose popularity was more local. For artists who worked primarily in the greater Dallas area, ties to families and local neighborhoods were very strong, and they'd pass down the tradition of music between generations.

"In the show, you see there's musicians whose grandfathers were musicians, whose fathers were musicians, and whose grandsons or granddaughters were also musicians," says Valtierra.

Within that history, "¡Musica!" is also showcasing how diverse the local Mexican-American music scene has been over the past century.

"The only consistency here is the theme of the show," says curator Scott Tucker. "There's so many different kinds of music that Dallas Mexican-American people have been a part of, and that's part of what makes this so interesting."

Ray Vilema was a popular radio announcer in the 1960's. Vielma lived in Dallas but was based out of the KTER Radio Station in Terrell.

Ray Vilema was a popular radio announcer in the 1960's. Vielma lived in Dallas but was based out of the KTER Radio Station in Terrell.

Dallas Mexican American Historical League/

Bringing people together

The divergence from strictly traditional Mexican music to more widely accessible, popular American styles is clearly mapped out across this exhibit. Dallas' next generation of Mexican-American musicians aren't necessarily playing tejano, conjunto or boleros -- rock 'n' roll, hip-hop and pop music are all extremely influential for the next wave of local musicians. The Dallas Mexican-American community continues to grow, spread and diversify -- and over time, so does its music.

Tucker is a living example of this. His great-grandfather, featured in the show, was a popular local musician named Marcelino Marceleno, who played mostly traditional Mexican music in his career. By contrast, Tucker's preference is rock.

But he finds comfort in the idea that his love of music is inherited -- and that while their styles may differ, both Tucker and his great-grandfather recognize the meaning of their craft.

"Music helps bring people together," he says. "I hope this exhibit does that, too, especially for younger generations that need to see where they come from."

Marcelino M. Marceleno (front row, center) with his band in Malakoff in 1935. Mr. Marceleno later moved to Dallas in 1939, where he formed and fronted several orchestras.

Marcelino M. Marceleno (front row, center) with his band in Malakoff in 1935. Mr. Marceleno later moved to Dallas in 1939, where he formed and fronted several orchestras.

Dallas Mexican American Historical League/

"Musica! Our Rhythm, Our Heart, Our Soul" runs through Oct. 14 at the Latino Cultural Center, 2600 Live Oak St., Dallas. Free. lcc.dallasculture.org.

What's Happening on GuideLive