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.
Rivera and her sister attended a breakfast party for Duke Ellington at Smalls, New York, May 1930. For many years there was no information about her movements after that year but in 2012 Anthony Barnett wrote: “We know now what happened to Angelina Rivera after 1930, courtesy of her granddaughter Christina Hall, details will be posted shortly.” For reasons only known to Barnette, he did not follow-up. The research is ongoing.
Boricua Jazz Pioneer, Angelina Rivera, and her family were unique in that 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.”
- Barnett, Anthony – The First Black Woman on Disc? (abar.net)
- 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
- 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).