Home PR Project Boricua Jazz Pioneer: Angelina Rivera (1899, 1902-1976)

Boricua Jazz Pioneer: Angelina Rivera (1899, 1902-1976)

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If Hollywood made Angelina Rivera’s life story into a biopic, the all-star cast would include jazz legends William Marion Cook, Sidney Bechet, Freddy Guy, Fats Waller, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, Duke Ellington, and Josephine Baker among others. The classically trained violinist, soprano, dancer, actress, and trailblazer made significant contributions to early jazz. Yet, like many women artists of her time, she is mostly forgotten.

Angelina Rivera was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, in 1899 or 1902. Her father, Anthony Rivera, was a clarinetist, and her sister, Santos “Lolita” Rivera, was a trailblazing double bassist. Anthony Rivera moved from Puerto Rico to New York in 1905. His wife and daughters followed one year later.

Boricua Pioneer Angelina Rivera
Boricua Pioneer · Angelina Rivera

The sisters attended the Martin-Smith School in New York. Also, from 1916 to 1918, Angelina and Santos were members of the Martin-Smith School Symphony Orchestra.

In 1918 William Marion Cook founded the Southern Syncopated Orchestra (SSO), an all-star group of men and (few) women that performed and sang a diverse repertoire of light classics, popular songs, ragtime, spirituals, and waltzes. The orchestra’s overarching mission was to “encourage, preserve and uplift African American culture and obliterate racial discrimination by modeling democratic ideals through instrumentation, personnel, and programming.” In keeping with those ideals, Cook recruited musicians from the U.S., Cuba, Haiti, and Puerto Rico. Notable members include the acclaimed New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet and the British vocalist Evelyn Dove (aka Norma Winchester).

In 1918 Angelina, her father, and sister were part of a fourteen-member delegation on an SSO tour bound for Liverpool, England. The same year she married Pierre De Caillaux (aka Lionel Jones), a member of the Jazz Kings (maiden name: “Angelina de Caillaux”).

In 1921, Angelina traveled to Dublin, Ireland, aboard the SS Rowan to join the SSO, and miraculously survived a horrific collision. According to various newspapers, “On October 8, 1921, the American steamer West Camak rammed the SS Rowan from astern in fog in the North Channel. Her passengers were mustered on deck. The British Steamer Clan Malcolm then rammed her from starboard and cut her in two. Rowan sank with the loss of 22 of the 97 aboard, including many members of the African American jazz band Southern Syncopated Orchestra. Survivors were rescued by the Clan Malcolm, West Camak, and the Royal Naval destroyer HMS Wrestler.”

Angelina Rivera (far left)

Angelina also accompanied the jazz legend Freddy Guy and the pianist Fats Waller. In the Duke Ellington biography titled, “Music is My Mistress” (De Capo Press, 1976), Ellington writes: “We first knew him (banjoist Freddy Guy) when 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 black chick named Angelina Rivera, a fine violinist.”

In 1926, she returned to the States and recorded the songs “I Love My Baby,” “I Found a New Baby,” “Skeedle-Um,” and “Always” with Spencer Williams and the American-born French diva, Josephine Baker. The recordings can be heard on the album, “Josephine Baker, Dinah, The Complete Recordings” (Jazz Age, 2017).

The American dancer, jazz singer, vaudevillian, and owner of the nightclub Chez Bricktop in Paris, Ada “Bricktop” Smith writes in the book, “Bricktop,” “I had a new girl violinist named, Angelina. I hired Angelina because she played the violin very well and it was something a little bit different. She was exactly right for Bricktop’s, and I made it my business to introduce her myself.”

In May 1930, the Rivera sisters attended a breakfast party for Duke Ellington at “Smalls” in New York. Afterward, they disappeared. Thanks to the author Basilio Serrano and the historian, Richard Blondet, I learned, “Like many of their Puerto Rican contemporaries in the pre-1930s jazz circuit, who abandoned the ‘hot’ jazz scene and immersed themselves in other genres, the Rivera sisters, Angelina, Santos, and a third sister, reinvented themselves as the song and dance team, the Cordoba Sisters. Also, they crossed over to U.S. mainstream society and were beneficiaries of the “Good Neighbor Policy.”

The sisters appear in the films, “Havana Cocktail” (1931) with Cuba’s Orquestra Hermanos Castro (who interpret the St. Louis Blues). Also, in 1936, the musical Going Native featured the sisters. A copy of the film was released in 2013 as part of a Classic Showbox Collection. The production also features Bill Baily (Pearl Bailey’s brother) and Don Alberto and his Orchestra.

In the article titled, “Angelina Rivera and Other Early Jazz and Vaudeville Women” (2006), Anthony Barnett poses the question, is “Angelina Rivera the first woman, black or white to record hot solo improvisations or the first black violinist in any genre on record?” He  answers the question by stating that it would be “rash to state this categorically as there remain 1920 recordings that include as yet unidentified violinists.” In 2012 Barnett updated the article but he has not discovered new information to suggest otherwise.

The featured photo (date and photographer unknown) speaks volumes about Rivera as a female trailblazer. In the photo (fifth from right), she is surrounded by a sea of men (members of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra).

Angelina Rivera died in October 1976 in Harlem, New York. Her contributions to early jazz, ragtime, and music in general, are immeasurable. As Sherrie Tucker eloquently expresses in her seminal writings on the subject, “women have been ‘invisibilized’ in jazz and pushed out of jazz’s icon despite their formidable contributions.”

A word about misidentification; the sisters were often identified as Black, Spanish or Mexican. According to Basilio Serrano, “Misidentification of Puerto Ricans by the media is a phenomenon that often occurred in the past and does to a lesser extent today.” Also, their names were often mispronounced and misspelled.

In March 2021, Angelina’s granddaughter reached out to the author, Basilio Serrano, purportedly to share information about her grandmother. Regrettably, she died before they were able to speak.

SOURCES

  • Barnett, Anthony – The First Black Woman on Disc? (abar.net)
  • Blondet, Richie – La Blonde Archives
  • Bricktop, Ada Smith Bricktop (Welcome Rain Publishers, 1983).
  • 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
  • Wikipedia
  • Photo of Angelina Rivera (Passport Photo), Courtesy of the National Archives, and Recordings Administration (NARA).
  • Featured photo: SSO Survivors in Dublin, Courtesy of British Pathé.

All Rights Reserved, 2020.

SOURCES

  • Barnett, Anthony – The First Black Woman on Disc? (abar.net)
  • Blondet, Richie – Research
  • Bricktop, Ada Smith Bricktop (Welcome Rain Publishers, 1983).
  • 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
  • Wikipedia
  • Photo upper left: 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).

All Rights Reserved, 2020.

A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Editor-in-Chief Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject. His writing appears on Latin Jazz Network; Chamber Music America magazine and numerous other publications.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Tomas,

    Excellent article. The Puerto Rican community is indebted to you and Dr. Basilio Serrano for highlighting and consistently “resurrecting” forgotten Puerto Rican legendary trail blazers like Angelina Rivera, her sister Santos aka “Lola,” Noro Morales and so many others not yet given a platform.

    Dr. Basilio Serrano figured out what happened to the Rivera sisters and detailed their post-1920s careers in his “Puerto Rican Jazz Puoneers” study. Like many of their Puerto Rican contemporaries within the pre-1930s U.S. Jazz circuit, who abandoned the the then “Hot” Jazz scene and immersed themselves in other genres, the Rivera sisters, along with a 3rd sister, transformed themselves into the song and dance team known as the “Cordoba Sisters.” Think the Andrew Sisters or the deCastro Sisters, only 1930s style. Santos married a Mr. Cordoba and began identifying herself as “Lola” or “Lolita” Cordoba. They managed to crossover into U.S. mainstream notoriety and were early beneficiaries of the initial stages of U.S. Foreign diplomacy towards the Spanish-speaking Americas known as the “Good Neighbor” Policy.

    In 1934, these Puerto Rican Women were captured on U.S. Film as part of a feature entitled A HAVANA COCKTAIL, in which the sisters headlined along with Cuba’s own Orquesta Hermanos Castro. The latter whom interpret an incredible rendition of “St. Louis Blues” at the 1:26 mark here: https://youtu.be/p84FgJxqkQs. An example of many that broadens or expands the discussion on the History or roots of the Afro-Cuban Jazz movement in the 20th century, as 1934 predates what I believe is a misconceived agenda of Afro-Cuban Jazz being birthed in the early 1940s or having been a phenomenon exclusive to Harlem and the United States. North American music had as much impact outside of the U.S. as it did locally. Wherever there were excellent musicians you could find them providing the popular sounds of the era that made its way to other cultures via radio and the greatest ambassador of all exposing the Americas to one another. Sound Recordings.

    The Cordoba Sisters can be seen at the 4:57 mark: https://youtu.be/p84FgJxqkQs According to Dr. Serrano, the pianist is Anita Rivera/Cordoba, the Woman seated on the piano is Santos Rivera/Lolita Cordoba, and the tall slender Woman who engages in a brief dance routine is none other than Angelina Rivera (Cordoba). Early pioneering Jazz instrumentalist and later Pop song and dance entertainer, born as a colonial citizen of the island of Puerto Rico.

    Saludos!…. Richie

    • Richie, Thanks for this. I am constantly updating the information. With your permission, I’d like to update the piece with some of the information you provided. Long time no speak. Hope all is well. Best, Tomas

      • Certainly! Again, that information comes courtesy of “Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz, 1900-1939: Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz,” by Dr. Basilio Serrano. Within the chapters that touch on the Rivera/Cordoba Sisters.

        FWIW, I have promotional material of Angelina Rivera within a “Spanish Theater” context under the name “Angelina Rivera.” Based on Dr. Basilio Serrano’s well-researched timeline of Angelina Rivera being in Europe during the late 1920s and returning in 1930 (in time to attend Duke Ellington birthday party mention in Duke’s “Music is My Mistress” and cited by Dr. Serrano), it seems that Angelina went into the song and dance route during this period within the relatively small, but well established local NYC “Spanish Theater” industry. An industry that began in 1926 with the first weekly Spanish language presentations at the Apollo Theater, and was still growing by 1930. In 1931 the San Jose Theater on the corner of W. 110th Street and Fifth Avenue was established by an Afro Cuban named Jose Antonio Miranda, who was responsible (along with several other “sponsors” of Puerto Rican and Spanish descent) for the earlier “Teatro Apolo” shows. Miranda was the first Latino to literally ‘own’ and operate a Theater in New York City when the San Jose launched. A 1932 announcement at the Teatro San Jose promoted a musical review presented by Fernando Luis (who would later become integral to the Teatro Hispano on 116th St & 5th Avenue) entitled MEXICANADAS that featured the Mexican dance teams of Ojeda y Imbert & Lorris y Fermin; A Chinese Acrobat named [Frances] Ming Toy. And Ms. Angelina Rivera. All of whom comprised a revue of 25 artists. Two years later, she is appearing in the Hollywood film A HAVANA COCKTAIL.

    • Thank you, Richie. I will incorporate the information into an updated version of the article. I owe a debt of gratitude to Basilio his tireless work in this area. Also, for infecting me with his enthusiasm for the subject matter.

      • It’s an extremely wide and deep subject that has much documentation in the form of primary sources (oral history, photography, newspaper references, census, migration/immigration records, etc.) but very scant scholarship on. Anyone who is a student of history and has a sense of cultural pride will become immediately hooked.

  2. What a wonderful story. Thank you Tomas for your research and for writing this blog post. I will share this with my students in Knights of Jazz String Band. Angelina Rivera is an OG Knight of Jazz!!

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