Mention the name Angelina Rivera to the average person and you are likely to draw a blank. Yet, during her lifetime, the classically trained violinist, soprano, dancer, and actress was a musical and racial trailblazer.
Angelina 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 double-bassist.
According to the author, Basilio Serrano, “Anthony Rivera settled in New York in 1905. His wife and daughters arrived in 1906.” Angela and Santos attended the Martin-Smith School and were members of the Martin-Smith School Symphony Orchestra from 1916 to 1918.”
The African-American violinist, founder and musical director of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra (SSO) William Marion Cook recruited Rivera in 1918. “The SSO was “an all-star group of fifty formally attired men, with a few women, who played and sang a diverse repertoire of light classics, popular songs, ragtime spirituals, and waltzes.” The orchestra aimed to encourage, preserve, and uplift African American culture and obliterate racial discrimination by modeling democratic ideals through instrumentation, personnel, and programming.
In keeping with that, 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 (a.k.a. Norma Winchester), among others.
In 1918, at eighteen, Angelina, her father, and sister were part of a fourteen-member delegation on an SSO tour bound for Liverpool, England. The same year Angelina married Pierre De Cailluaux (a.k.a. Lionel Jones, member of the group, the Jazz Kings) in London. While married, she went under the names, “Angelina and Angeleta de Caillaux.”
In 1921, Angelina 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 another ship bound for South Africa. Of the one-hundred-twenty passengers on board, thirty-six perished, including nine members of the SSO. The incident is documented in the British Pathe Film, “SS Rowan Survivors in Dublin.”
Angelina also accompanied the jazz banjoist Freddy Guy and the pianist Fats Waller. In the Duke Ellington biography, “Music is My Mistress” (De Capo Press, 1976), Ellington writes, “We first knew him (banjoist Freddy Guy) when he was the leader of a small band that played in a join on 135th Street owned by Earl Dancer. He had Fats Waller in the band and a beautiful 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 nightclub Chez Bricktop in Paris (1924-1961), Ada Bricktop writes in the book Bricktop (1983) “Jascha Heifetz would often borrow a violin from one of the musicians and play. I’ll never forget the night he was in the club and I had a new girl violinist named Angelina. I liked changing the acts around. 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. That night she couldn’t help noticing there was a very distinguished gentleman at a front table who applauded her longer and more loudly than anyone else when she played. She finally signaled me to meet her in the ladies’ room. ‘Who is that man?’ she wanted to know. “Jascha Heifitz, I answered. I watched Angelina faint dead away.”
In May 1930, the Rivera sisters attended a breakfast party for Duke Ellington at Smalls in New York. Afterward, they disappeared. Thanks to Basilio Serrano and 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, 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 film, Havana Cocktail (1931) with Cuba’s Orquesta Hermanos Castro, who interpret The St. Louis Blues. The Cordoba Sisters appear at the 4:57 mark. The pianist is Anita Rivera (Cordoba), the woman seated on the piano is Santos Lolita (Cordoba) and Angelina is the tall, slender dancer.
In 1936, the sisters were featured in a musical short titled Going Native. 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,” sub-titled, “Angelina Rivera, the first Black woman on disc?” (2006) Anthony Barnett asks the question, “Was Angelina Rivera not only the first woman violinist, black or white, to record hot solo improvisations, but also the first black woman violinist in any genre on record? Probably, although it would be rash to state this categorically; there remain 1920s recordings that include as yet unidentified violinists.” Barnett updated the article in 2012 but does not arrive at a conclusion.
A word about misidentification. The sisters were sometimes identified as black, Spanish, or Mexican. According to Serrano, “Mis-identification of Puerto Ricans by the media is a phenomenon that occurred often in the past and to a lesser extent today.”
The featured photo above (date and photographer unknown) speaks volumes about Rivera’s status as a racial and female trailblazer. In the photo (first row, fifth from right) she is the only woman in a sea of men of color, yet she is dressed to the nines, seated comfortably (her father and sister, who were members of the SSO are not pictured).
Angelina Rivera died in October 1976 in Harlem, New York. Her contribution to early jazz, ragtime, and the music, in general, is immeasurable. Still, to date, neither she nor her father and sister have received the recognition they rightfully deserve.
This article is a work-in-progress. New information will be added as it becomes available.
- 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
- 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).
Article Updated: September 28, 2020
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