Ask anyone where Afro-Cuban jazz was born and they would probably answer with the perfunctory, “Cuba”. Little do they know that they would be completely wrong. The answer is a small neighborhood that would transform New York City into a place whose pulse is defined by a uniquely American-born music.
by Bobby Sanabria – East Harlem at the turn of the century was an ethnically diverse neighborhood with enclaves of Germans, Italians, Irish and Jews. In 1916, when Bernardo Vega, the cigar maker who later wrote his widely read memoirs, arrived there he recalled there were about 50 Puerto Rican families living in what later became known as “El Barrio”.
Between the two world wars this community grew. By 1926 60% of the Puerto Rican migrant population lived there. The Jewish vendors, who sold their wares at the open-air market, began to sell Caribbean products and food for this burgeoning community. Though there were other Puerto Rican settlements in the city during the ‘20s-30s, East Harlem became the largest and most important. It was here where the emerging Latin popular music scene really took off.
In the ‘20s the Jewish hall for hire at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue was rented by political and civic organizations for various affairs. Later the Park Palace (named for its elegant decor) featured Latin music entertainment. Located on the second floor, it was a large hall which held 1,500 people; downstairs was the Carlton Club, later renamed the Golden Casino.
During the ‘30s the Golden Casino often hosted Puerto Rican bandleader Augusto Coen’s orchestra, which played boleros, guarachas, son (or what was popularly and erroneously called “rumba”) from Cuba, plena from Puerto Rico, pasodobles from Spain and Swing tunes (what every Latin band at the time included in their repertoire). The building, standing at the crossroads of Black and Spanish Harlem, became the focal point of the Latin music scene, so much so that Puerto Rican pianist Noro Morales composed a song, “110th St. and 5th Ave.”, in tribute.
The neighborhood was bordered by Lenox Avenue – the dividing line between Black and Spanish Harlem. It was on Lenox that most of the Black Cuban immigrants took a foothold. Between 115th and 116th and Lenox Avenue, Simon Jou, a white Cuban of Catalan descent, had the most popular bakery in the neighborhood. Its name was La Moderna, but locals called it simply Simon’s. It was unique not only for its delicious wares but as the only place in the United States, at that time, one could buy authentic Afro-Cuban percussion instruments which he would import. Jou would only sell instruments to knowledgeable players, most of whom were Cuban immigrants. They would in turn teach the youngsters eager to learn, like New York-born Puerto Rican Ernest Anthony “Tito” Puente.
Jou’s La Moderna also had one unique feature – a backyard patio. Here the sounds of congas, timbales, bongo, maracas, claves, guiros and quijas would resonate as local players would play rumba. Thus it was a gathering place for knowledgeable percussionists and their apprentices. The building’s geography – on the border of Black and Spanish Harlem – also reflected the community and the interaction between African Americans and Latinos.
The Park Palace also benefited from its geographical closeness to Black Harlem and one of its residents. Prudencio Mario Bauzá was a child prodigy on clarinet born in Cuba and raised in La Habana’s Pogolloti barrio. Raised with the rumba and son tradition and trained in classical music, he came to NYC in 1926, playing clarinet with the flute and string (charanga) orchestra of pianist Antonio Maria Romeu. He was exposed to Harlem through his cousin René Endreira, who played trumpet for the Harlem-based Santo Domingo Serenaders, whose musicians were of Cuban, Dominican, African-American and Puerto Rican descent. Bauzá fell in love with Harlem’s nightlife and as he said, “Harlem back then was incredible. I saw Black people running their own business, dressed sharp, walking with pride and the music, incredible! I vowed I would return to play jazz. I was only 15 back then and had to return to Cuba.” By 1930 Bauzá had returned to New York and made a remarkable switch to trumpet to perform on a recording session for Cuban vocalist Antonio Machin as a last minute replacement. Machin was also part of the legendary Don Azpiazu Havana Casino Orchestra who had come to NYC the same year to expose US audiences to authentic Cuban music through their appearance in a film short and their hit recording of “The Peanut Vendor” (El Manisero).
Bauzá began playing house parties with stride pianist Lucky Roberts and by 1933 had become the lead trumpet player for the acknowledged “King of Swing”, dynamic drummer Chick Webb’s big band. Bauzá would be partially responsible for bringing vocalist Ella Fitzgerald to the Webb organization and remarkably takes both a clarinet and trumpet solo on Webb’s hit “Stompin’ At The Savoy”. During this period as Webb’s lead trumpeter and Musical Director Bauzá would also record with notable big band leaders Noble Sissle, Don Redman and Jimmie Lunceford. In 1938 Bauzá would join the Cab Calloway Orchestra and bring Dizzy Gillespie to the band. Bauzá and Gillespie would form a lifelong friendship, which started the latter’s love affair with all things Latin.
By 1939 Bauzá had begun discussing with his brother-in-law, vocalist Francisco “Machito” Grillo, his vision of forming an orchestra combining the harmonic sophistication of a jazz orchestra, virtuosity of the jazz soloist and intensity of authentic Afro-Cuban rhythms. That same year it would become a reality. The Machito Afro-Cubans would debut at Spanish Harlem’s Park Palace Ballroom. The band became the first Afro-Cuban/Latin jazz orchestra, completing the fusion that had began at the turn of the century.
“…you see, this was a new concept in interpreting Cuban music with as much harmonic richness as possible… (The Machito Afro-Cubans)… the other orchestras that came were (just) followers.”
– Maestro Chico O’Farrill – from the documentary, Notes from The Mambo Inn – The Story of Mario Bauza’ – PBS