Home PR Project Boricua Pioneer, Angelina Rivera

Boricua Pioneer, Angelina Rivera

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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 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).

Boricua Jazz Pioneer, Angelina Rivera, and her family were unique the majority of their contributions to North American jazz took place in Europe.

I invite writers, researchers, historians and anyone interested in the subject to contact me, contribute information and assist me in creating a narrative that depicts Puerto Ricans as outstanding musicians, leaders, and innovators who enhanced the language of jazz.

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.”

SOURCES

  • 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).
  • The Syncopated Times – http://www.syncopatedtimes.com
  • Wikipedia
  • 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).
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.

5 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.

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