Violinist, vocalist Angelina Rivera is largely forgotten but she was an outstanding performer and a musical trailblazer.
She was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico in 1900 and hails from a musical family. Her father, Anthony Rivera was a clarinetist and her sister Santos “Lolita” Rivera was a double-bassist.
According to Basilio Serrano, “Anthony Rivera settled in New York (Manhattan) in 1905. His wife and daughters arrived in 1906.” Their arrival predates the Jones Act (1917), which imposed citizenship on the residents of Puerto Rico.
Angelina attended The Martin Smith School and was a member of the Martin-Smith School Symphony Orchestra in New York (1916-1918). She was a classically trained soprano but is mostly known as a jazz violinist.
In (1918) she was recruited by the African-American violinist, composer, and founder of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra (SSO) William Marion Cook. The SSO was, “an all-black group of 50 formally attired men, with a few women (Angelina and her sister, Santos “Lolita” Rivera), who played and sang a diverse repertoire of light classics, popular songs, ragtime spirituals, and waltzes. Just two generations after slavery, the orchestra aimed to encourage, preserve, and uplift African-American culture and to help obliterate racial discrimination by modeling democratic ideals through instrumentation, personnel, and programming.” Notable members of the group included the New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet and the British vocalist Evelyn Dove (aka Norma Winchester).
In 1919, at eighteen, Rivera, her father, and sister were part of a 14-member delegation on an SSO tour bound for Liverpool, England.
The same year Rivera married Pierre De Cailluaux (also known as the jazz pianist Lionel Jones, a member of the Jazz Kings) in London. While married she went under the name “Angelina and/or Angeleta De Caillaux.” After a divorce, she assumed her maiden name.
In 1921, Rivera traveled to Dublin, Ireland to join the SSO and miraculously survived the sinking of the passenger ship SS Rowan, which was struck by an American freighter and cut in two by a ship bound for South Africa. Of the 120 on board, 36 died including nine SSO members. Rivera and other survivors appear in the British Pathé documentary film, “SS Rowan Survivors in Dublin.” (https://youtu.be/Jxb8y4zlyVM).
She also performed with the jazz banjoist Freddy Guy and the pianist Fats Waller in the early 1920s. In the book, Music is My Mistress (Da Capo Press, 1976), Duke Ellington writes: “We first knew him (banjoist Freddy Guy) when he was the leader of a small band that played in a joint on 135th Street owned by Earl Dancer. He had Fats Waller in the band and a beautiful chick named Angelina Rivera, who was a fine violinist.”
1n 1926 she returned to Europe and recorded “I Love My Baby,” “I (‘ve) Found a New Baby,” “Skeedle Um” and “Always” with Spencer Williams and the American born French diva, Josephine Baker. The tracks appear on the album, Josephine Baker, Dinah, The Complete Recordings (Jazz Age, 2017).
According to researcher Anthony Barnett’s article titled, “The First Black Woman on Disc?” “Angelina’s solos are arguably the first jazz violin recordings by a woman, black or white.”
The Lord’s Jazz Discography documents one recording session in the States but does not provide details.
In May 1930 Rivera and her sister attended a breakfast party for Duke Ellington at Smalls, New York. For many years there was no information about her movements but thanks to the efforts of Basilio Serrano and historian, Richie Blondet (who communicated with me and made me aware of the following information), we know, “Like many of their Puerto Rican contemporaries with the pre-1930s U.S. Jazz circuit, who abandoned the ‘Hot’ Jazz scene and immersed themselves in other genres, the Rivera sisters, along with a third sister, transformed themselves into the song and dance team known as the Cordoba Sisters (think the Andrew Sisters, or the DeCastro Sisters). Also, they managed to crossover into U.S. mainstream society and were beneficiaries of the initial stages of U.S. foreign diplomacy towards Spanish-speaking Americans known as the ‘Good Neighbor Policy.”
In 1934, the sisters appeared in the film, Havana Cocktail with Cuba’s Orquesta Hermanos Castro, who interpret The St. Louis Blues. The Cordoba Sisters can be seen at the 4:57 mark (see below). The pianist is Anita Rivera (Cordoba), the woman seated on the piano is Santos Lolita (Cordoba) Rivera and the tall slender woman who does the dance routine is non-other than Angelina Rivera (Cordoba).
The 1940 U.S. Census shows that Angelina Rivera was working as a musician in a theatre, possibly with her father at the Teatro Hispano. She is listed under her maiden name, Angela De Caillaux.
I invite writers, researchers, historians and anyone interested in the subject matter to contact me, contribute information and assist me in creating a narrative that depicts Puerto Ricans as outstanding musicians, leaders, and innovators who enhanced and enriched the language of jazz.
Angelina Rivera died in October 1976 in Harlem, New York.
ABOUT THE RESEARCH: Historically, Puerto Ricans were routinely mistaken for African-American, Cuban and “other.” Also, names were often misspelled. With Angelina Rivera she was called “Angelita,” “Angelito” “Angeleta, “Angelinia,” and “Riviera.”
- Barnett, Anthony – The First Black Woman on Disc? (abar.net)
- Blondet, Richie (Communique: The Cordoba Sisters)
- Carter, Marver Griffin – Swing Along, The Musical Life of Marion Cook (Oxford University Press, 2008)
- Serrano, Basilio – Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz, 1900-1939, Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz (iUniverse, 2015).
- Serrano, Basilio – Puerto Rican Woman from the Jazz Age – Stories of Success (Author House, 2019)
- The Syncopated Times – http://www.syncopatedtimes.com
- Featured Photo: Angelina Rivera Passport Photo, Courtesy of the National Archives and Recordings Administration (NARA).
- Photo (Insert): SSO Survivors in Dublin, Courtesy of British Pathé(Angelina Rivera, far left).