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Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz – 1900-1939 – Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz by Basilio Serrano


Musicians from Puerto Rico played a substantial role in the development of jazz during the early years of the twentieth century, before and during the years surrounding the Harlem Renaissance. These jazz pioneers, including instrumentalists, composers, and vocalists, were products of the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States and contributed to the early history of this uniquely American genre.

In this study, author Basilio Serrano provides a detailed look at the lives of these men and women and their contributions to the development of jazz and Latin jazz. Serrano explores how the music of Puerto Rico helped to shape them and offers a comprehensive review of the bands in which they played, studying specialists in a variety of instruments as well as bandleaders and composers. This group included notable figures such as Fernando Arbello, the Bayron sisters, the Rivera family, Louis King Garcia, Joe Loco, Juan and Paco Tizol, Augusto and Willie Rodriguez, Augusto Coen, and Cesar Concepcion.

Covering a period from 1900 to 1939, Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz, 1900–1939 presents the stories of early Puerto Rican jazz musicians whose contributions to the genre have been overlooked.

From the Jazzdelapena Archives: Juan Tizol  – His Caravan Through American Life and Culture (Xlibris, 2012)

In the opening pages of his enlightening and informative book, Juan Tizol- His Caravan through Life and American Culture the author makes it clear that his purpose in writing the book is, to set the record straight and “give credit where credit is due.”

Basilio Serrano is a seasoned educator and historian who is familiar with the plight of Puerto Ricans whose contributions to jazz have been ignored or lost to the sands of time. In 2000, he wrote a series of articles on Juan Tizol’s cross-cultural collaborations with Duke Ellington, Harry James, and other nationally known orchestras. Also, he has written articles about Boricua Pioneers in Latin Jazz, Puerto Rican Musicians of the Harlem Renaissance and essays on pianist Noro Morales, actress Miriam Colón and political activist Lolita Lebrón among others.

During a recent conversation with Serrano, I asked why he chose Juan Tizol. “I chose Tizol because when he arrived in the U.S from Puerto Rico he spoke no English and was not familiar with American culture. Tizol knew little of jazz, and he played an unusual instrument (the valve trombone) that was considered best for marching bands than orchestra ensembles. Many would say that Tizol had three strikes against him, if not four,” said Serrano, “yet despite the odds, he went on to have an extremely successful life in music.”

Juan Tizol was born in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico where he grew up in a musical environment. His first instrument was the violin but he switched to the valve trombone at an early age, and it became his instrument of choice. In large part, he received his musical training from his uncle, Manuel Tizol, who was the director of the municipal band and symphony in San Juan however he also gained experience playing local operas, ballets, and dance bands. Ironically, Tizol came to the U.S. as a stowaway in 1920, aboard a ship traveling to Washington, D.C., where he set up residence and established himself at the Howard Theater and played for touring shows and silent movies. It was at the Howard Theater that Tizol met Duke Ellington.

Tizol is known as a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. However, he was also a consummate musician, sight reader, composer, arranger, and transcriber and the first significant musician to use the valve trombone in a jazz setting, thus revolutionizing the instrument and adding a new dimension to Ellington’s sound.

Also, he was responsible for incorporating Latin influences into Ellington’s repertoire with compositions such as “Moonlight Fiesta”, “Jubilesta”, “Caravan” and “Perdido” among others. As a senior and highly respected member of the Ellington orchestra, Tizol was also responsible for rehearsing and integrating new musicians into the band during Ellington’s absence. In his autobiography, Ellington describes Tizol as “A tremendous asset to our band, a very big man, a very unselfish man and one of the finest musicians I’ve ever known.”

Lesser known but no less significant, Tizol was also a racial trailblazer who paved the way for the next generation of Latin musicians. During his lifetime Tizol endured the indignity of being called a “blob of sour crème in a black bowl of caviar,” and was forced to adhere to “color codes” by blackening his face for the films Black and Tan (1929) and Check and Double Check (the 1930s). The fact that Tizol made a conscious choice to work with primarily black jazz orchestra’s, married Rosebud Brown-Tizol, an African American and lived in a mostly African-American community in Washington, DC during a time when racial inequities were the order of the day speaks volumes about Tizol’s determination and moral fiber. When the Duke Ellington Orchestra toured the South and restaurants refused to serve African-American members Tizol’s response was, “If you don’t serve them, you don’t serve me because I am with them.” Ironically, his detractors accused him of “trying to pass for black.”

One of the most compelling sections in the book is titled The Progenitor of Latin Jazz: Trombonist Extraordinaire. Prior to reading Serrano’s book, I shared the opinion that Mario Bauza’s “Tanga” was the first Afro-Cuban (Latin) jazz recording but according to Tizol, not so, “Tizol is often credited as a pioneer in Latin jazz. More often than not, however, credit is denied to the roles played by him and Duke Ellington in the development of the Latin jazz genre. For example, some consider “Tanga”, credited to the trumpeter Maria Bauza and Frank “Machito” Grillo recorded in 1943, almost nine years after “Porto Rican Chaos” and eight years after “Caravan”, which many consider the first Latin jazz recording. Others suggest that the first Latin jazz genre recording “Manteca” by Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie however, both “Tanga” and “Manteca” were recorded during the bebop era, almost eight and twelve years after Tizol’s 1935 “Porto Rican Chaos.” According to Serrano, Tizol is described as the “Progenitor of Latin jazz” because he experimented with Latin rhythms most often and was a founding father of Latin jazz.

During his long and illustrious career Tizol also worked extensively with Harry James, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle, Louie Bellson, Billy Strayhorn, Woody Herman, Sy Zentner, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Durante, B.B. King, Rosemary Clooney, Billy Holiday, Ethel Waters, Ben Webster and Sarah Vaughan among others.

Serrano also devotes a chapter to Tizol’s contemporaries, Rafael Hernández, Rafael Escudero and Rafael Duchesne among others and another chapter to Tizol’s compositions.

As the conversation came to a close, I asked Serrano if he was aware of the following excerpt from Ned Sublette’s book, Cuba and its Music, From the First Drums to the Mambo. “As soon as Puerto Ricans were Americans, they were helping transform its music. From 1917 on, there is no African American music in New York in which Puerto Ricans don’t figure. They have been a natural part of jazz in New York since before cats were taking improvised solos, and as the Latin Jazz hybrid developed, they provided critical links between the African American and Cuban styles, because they were the ones who understood them both; and made them their own, in their own way. The unique bicultural sophistication of the Puerto Rican is a profound topic – for another book – but it can’t be left unmentioned in talking about the development of music in New York.”

“I’ve not seen this quote ever,” said Serrano, “It is timely. Sublette realizes that the Puerto Rican participation in jazz is important and unique. It resulted in a new hybrid. I agree with him.”

Serrano is currently working on a follow-up to Puerto Rican Musicians of the Harlem Renaissance and other projects include biographies on Puerto Rican pianists Noro Morales and Joe Loco.

Basilio Serrano is originally from Puerto Rico. Educated in New York, he holds a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from New York University. He has been a faculty member at Brooklyn College and the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. He has published numerous articles in journals and trade magazines in the United States and Puerto Rico, with a focus on the Latin American immigrant experience in education and acculturation and the world of American music.

Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz, 1900-1939 – Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz is published by iUNiverse 

Photo: www.jibaros.com

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.


  1. Prior to 1917, Puerto Ricans were already contributing to musical development within “Black” (African-American, West Indian, etc) musical organizations. Rafael Escudero is a highlighted example, having been recruited and given room and board by the New Amsterdam Musical Association in NYC circa 1912, while comprising its New Amsterdam Brass Band. In fact, Puerto Rican musicians are part of the earliest development of Black American Music at the turn of the century (19th into 20th) through their presence at such institutions at Tuskegee and Hampton. One of the instructors at Tuskegee in 1904, when the school begins to receive an influx of students hailing from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Philippines, and West Indies, was none other than James Reese Europe.

    The reality is, as soon as the island of “Porto Rico” became a U.S. possession, that is where this story truly begins. The U.S. media was profiling the USA’s newest island possession from 1899-1902 with stories of its musical culture, specifically revolved around the municipal bands. On top of Jim Europe’s exposure to their musicianship (of “Porto Ricans”) at Tuskegee, that is how Jim Europe discovered Puerto Rico was an oasis of “music stand” musicians. Because EVERYONE knew. The U.S. media had been reporting on it since Puerto Rico was invaded.

    There is also a Puerto Rican and Caribbean presence of both music and dance artistry within the All-Black traveling vaudeville circuit (companies such as Williams & Walker and Cole & Johnson). Of which Lt. Europe was involved in as a musical director, prior to establishing himself as a founder of N.A.M.A, as leader of the Clef Club and, later, as head of the Tempo Club.

    All roads to this story lead back to 1898.


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