The following is an excerpt from the book Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz, 1900-1939, Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz (iUniverse, 2015) by Basilio Serrano. Specifically, the chapter titled “The 369th Regiment, Harlem Hellfighters; Boricua Jazz Pioneers in Europe & USA,” and the section dedicated to Rafael Hernandez (Pages 35 to 41).
Rafael Hernandez y Marin was born in Aguadilla on October 24, 1891. H was often called El Jibarito, an endearing term that alludes to his campesino, small-town upbringing. His initial employment may have been as a tabaquero, a cigar roller. He received his musical training in Aguadilla from Jose Ruellan Lequerica and Jesus Figueroa. He migrates to San Juan where he became a member of various bands including one led by Manuel Tizol. Herandez was a bandmate of several would-be Hellfighters. He also participated in the earlies recording sessions ever held in Puerto Rico with the Tizol orchestra and his band.
In 1917 he and his younger brother Jesus were recruited by James Europe. The band members were both musicians and combatants and earned their names and citations because of their skills as fighters. Lt. James Reese Europe played an instrumental role during the Harlem Renaissance. He organized musicians and sought ways to improve their employability. Reese Europe was also an accomplished musician, composer, promoter, and bandleader. He left an indelible memory in the mind of Rafael Hernandez and other musicians who recalled the World War I hero with the highest respect.
Rafael Hernandez was an outstanding trombonist and was recruited because of this. He was the only trombonist recruited from San Juan. He also played the violin, tuba, euphonium, piano, guitar, and cornet. A 1917 photography of San Juan-based 11-piece Jolly Boys band captures Rafael Hernandez sitting and holding a valve trombone similar to that played by Juan Tizol. In that same year, Hernandez is also credited as a violinist with the Orquesta Tizol that recorded 12 numbers for the Victor Talking Machine.
Music historian Pedro Malavet Vega in 2002 described Hernandez as the leader of the Jolly Boys in 1917. They recorded 3 instrumental numbers as the 12-member Orquesta Hernandez for Victor in San Juan. Malavet also confirms that several members of the Jolly Boys enlisted and became members of the Hellfighters band including Arturo Ayala, Leonardo Cruz, Gregorio Felix, and Jesus Hernandez. Bassist turned tuba player Jose Rivera Rosa also joined the Hellfighters. These instrumentalists are pictured in a 19197 photograph.
It is said that Hernandez’s family wanted him to learn to play the cornet or trumpet but he passionately disliked the instrument and refused to master it. Instead, he developed into a violinist and a fine trombonist.
Years later, Hernandez was best known as a composer, bandleader, guitarist, and singer. According to several sources, his first composition was a 1912 Danza titled Mary y Victoria. His first recorded composition appears to be July 22, 1916, Mi Provisa by Quinteto Borinquen in New York for Victor Records. This composition has an early 1915 copyright registration implying that it was composed in 1914. Saxophonist Carmelo Jari is credited as the co-composer.
Hernandez arrived on Ellis Island on July 23, 1917, where he indicated that he was 24 years old. His younger brother and fellow musician Jesus “Pacholo” Hernandez accompanied him along with Eligio Rijos. All three indicated that they were headed for the 15th Infantry of Harlem. The three had boarded the legendary SS Carolina in San Juan. When recruited, Hernandez chose not to leave with Reese Europe in May when 12 of his compatriots left. This was an indication of Hernandez’s fiercely independent nature.
Curiously, the SS Carolina was the same ship that would be sunk by the Germans the following year on the 2nd of June, 1918. On that day, as the ship approached New York harbor, it was attacked by the submarine U-151.
Prior to the sinking of the SS Carolina, all 218 passengers and 117 crew members secured lifeboats, however, 15 people drowned. The sinking of the Carolina was one of six vessels sunk on that day that became known as “Black Sunday.” The SS Carolina was originally built to be part of the 1898 Spanish-American war campaign. Afterward, it as sold to private hands. It made its way to New York and Puerto Rico Steamship Company in 1906.
Many Puerto Ricans were brought to New York throughout the years of service of the Carolina.
The 1918 survivors held reunions, if not banquets, to commemorate their survival and the sinking of the legendary steamer. With the passing of time, the loss of the SS Carolina acquired a folkloric, if not mythical, quality as recordings recalled its significance. Many years later, bandleader Rafael Cortijo with singer Ismael Rivera brought back the significance of the Carolina when it recorded a swinging guaracha titled Carolina. Although the lyrics do not make reference to the disaster, they make reference to the anchoring of a ship named Carolina at the port of San Juan.
A photograph taken at the waterfront of 14 Puerto Rican musicians who were members of the 369th Regiment includes Rafael Hernandez. Hernandez is almost squatting to the right of the center, behind the brass instruments. He appears to be the leader of the group and is clearly looking at the camera. Although recruited as a trombonist, it appears as if he is directly behind the euphonium that he may have played. The 1918 picture comes from an enormously respected magazine of the previous century, Puerto Rico Illustrado. Unfortunately, the original photograph was small and the details are difficult to decipher. One interesting feature is that a pictured soldier is holding a flute. This musician may be the first Puerto Rican to play that instrument in a jazz environment. Other musicians are holding a clarinet and another a bassoon.
When the Hellfighters returned to the US, Hernandez participated in the first ragtime, jazz recordings sessions of the band. He was decorated and honorably discharged as a band sergeant on February 24, 1919. In the spring of 1919, he was listed as a member of a four-piece trombone section. Among the recordings was one titled The Moaning Trombone. A careful listen of the trombone section and solos leave the listener totally impressed with the talents of these outstanding slide trombonists. Rafael Hernandez played the valve trombone while in San Juan; it is not certain that he played the valve or slide trombone when with the Hellfighters. The trombones are also impressive in the recording of Memphis Blues that was recorded on March 7, 1919.
After Hernandez was discharged from the military, he had opportunities to play with several jazz groups thanks to the contacts established and the reputation he enjoyed. For a time, he the C. Luckyeth (Luckey) Roberts’ band. Roberts was considered significant among the Harlem Renaissance “stride pianists” although he did not leave many recordings. The stride piano style was adopted by several early jazz pianists. Duke Ellington developed into one of the most important exponents. Roberts was also a composer and a writer of musical comedies. He enjoyed a considerable reputation, for example, in 1922 he was one of the pianists from the very successful Broadway production of Shuffle Along and earned a higher salary of $125 per week. It is plausible that Hernandez left a permanent influence on Roberts because the pianist subsequently composed several Latin tinge numbers including those titled Spanish Suite, Spanish Venus, Spanish Fandango, and Puerto Rican Maid.
In the Spring of 1920, Hernandez was still a resident of New York when he was counted in the US census. The Victor Talking Machine discography has Hernandez as the composer of two that were recorded in 1921 by the Francisco Tizol band. We do not know if Hernandez participated in those recordings. Sometime after the 1920 census was taken, Hernandez left for Cuba where he served as the director of a band and a trombonist for the original Teatro Fausto in Havana. The Teatro Fausto was among the most impressive and important cultural institutions of that city to this day; it has been reconstructed several times.
According to the Ellis Island Museum archives, Hernandez returns to New York on August 4, 1923, to live in El Barrio. After his 2 year stay in Havana, he remained in his adopted home of New York for an extended period. He organized numerous musical groups, composed many tunes and participated in many, many recordings. The Victor Recording Discography confirms that he participates as a guitarist in 18 recordings in 1924. Ruth Glasser informs us that in 1925, Hernandez forms an ensemble, Trio Borinquen, which had a triumphant debut at the prestigious Palace Theatre. In 1925, Trio Borinquen records for Columbia Records and remains with that company until 1931.
With his sister Victoria, he started a recording company. It was known as Hispano and this also provided him the opportunity to record his compositions in 1927. Many of Hernandez’s compositions were penned in New York: these included the classic Lamento Borincano in 1929. The Hispano label did not last but not long thereafter fellow Boricua Gabriel Oller started his own recording company that existed for several years.
Rafael and his sister collaborated on several projects. She was very encouraging and an excellent money manager. Shortly after arriving on Ellis Island in 1919, she began a business as a piano teacher. In fact, she maintained this small business for some and was a teacher who gave Tito Puente his first music lessons. Hernandez is believed to be the first Latina to open a music store in New York. She is also credited with starting the first recording company that also served as a kind of employment agency for musicians. Victoria Hernandez was a trailblazing community-oriented person and probably served as a role model for other Puerto Rican women who became active in their community. The Puerto Rican community has been blessed with pioneering women such as Victoria, Antonia Pantojas, Yolanda Sanchez, Miriam Colon, and Evelina Antonetty among others. Although Victoria was 5 years younger than Rafael, she served as a mentor. She may have played a role in encouraging both Rafael and the younger Jesus Hernandez to seek opportunities in San Juan when they were living in Aguadilla. She may have also played a role in encouraging her two brothers to follow the advice of Lt. James Reese Europe who she tagged al americano de color when he actively recruited her siblings.
In the 1930s, Rafael Hernandez made his way for an extended stay in Mexico where he married a second time and started a family. He achieved substantial recognition as a composer and/or bandleader in Mexico where he also hosted radio programs and appeared in feature films. In August and September of 1939, Hernandez made a brief trip to serve as director of the Alfredo Brito orchestra in Havana that recorded a number of tunes; almost all authorized by him. In October of the same year, he also returned to New York and recorded at least four of his compositions. After many years in both, the United States and Mexico, he returned to his homeland.
Hernandez was incredibly versatile. In fact, he is considered Puerto Rico’s greatest composer of popular music and his compositions reflect his varied musical experiences. His early experiences with the Hellfighters and the jazz venues of Harlem became part of his foundation that led to his incomparable career in music. Many of his compositions and arrangements such as El Cumbanchero and Cachita reflect how he was influenced by the big band sound that was typical of jazz bands.
Rafael was an extremely prolific composer. He composed hundreds of songs starting in 1912 and he wrote both the music and the lyrics for most. Many of the compositions manifested a profoundly patriotic fervor. He loved his homeland and he hated the colonial status. Despite his serving in the US military, Hernandez was very critical of the US presence in Puerto Rico. He described the US government involvement as tyrannical and the treatment rendered as one full of ‘black malady’ – the lyrics were so anti-American that he was asked to tone down his animosity by the Governor, Luis Munoz Marin. Hernandez ignored the request. He was influenced by the Nationalist Party teachings of the 1920s, 30s, and beyond. The Nationalist Party was led by the Harvard educated Pedro Albizu Campos who was also a former member of the military and World War I. The military experience for both Albizu and Hernandez heightened their patriotic feelings and their animosity towards US colonialism. While Albizu fought US intervention with patriotic speeches and political activism, Hernandez fought through his songs of love for the homeland and its culture. Ironically, they spent most of their lives in exile. Albizu was jailed in the States by government leaders who felt threatened by his speeches and militancy. Hernandez lived in Mexico where he enjoyed the prosperity of a successful artist. Eventually, they both returned to the homeland; Albizu was released from jail in November 1964; he died in San Juan on April 21, 1965. Hernandez returned to live in San Juan in the 1950s. Rafael Hernandez y Marin died seven months after Albizu, on December 11, 1965.
Hernandez’s music has been recorded by too many artists to mention here. His music continues to be recorded to this day. We can appreciate the accomplishments of this remarkable musician and composer thanks to several documentaries and books that trace his development and accomplishments.
Unlike most of the Hellfighters, he does not repose in a military cemetery. Instead, his remains are in Old San Juan’s Maria Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery. This cemetery is the permanent home for many of Puerto Rico’s most distinguished civic and artistic leaders; it serves as a national pantheon.
Basilio Serrano’s books are available on most digital platforms.