Early Puerto Ricans in American Jazz

by | Oct 30, 2010

“Any history of jazz that doesn’t mention Puerto Ricans is leaving something out.”

Ned Sublette, Cuba and its music: from the first drums to the mambo, Volume 1

I recently watched Pamela Aguilar’s Latin Music USA and Ken Burnes’ JAZZ.  Both are acclaimed documentaries that seek to present viewers with an overview of the development of Latin music in the US, or the history of Jazz and its main figures.  I appreciated both documentaries as “table-setting” resources, but was dismayed by their portrayal of Puerto Ricans’ contributions to music, or lack thereof.

In fact, it is difficult to find information about the critical contributions that Puerto Rican’s have made to Jazz during its inception or the role they played in the early development of Jazz.   Through this brief blog-posting I offer some important background and resources regarding Puerto Ricans’ contributions to the development of Jazz music in the US during the early 20th century.

I begin with James Reese Europe’s Hell-fighters Band and the 18 Puerto Rican pioneers whom he personally recruited.  James Reese Europe was an important African-American composer, arranger, conductor, bandleader and recording artist during the first two decades of the twentieth century. He is credited by many as one of the founders of early Jazz.

During World War I, James Reese Europe joined the 15th Infantry of the New York National Guard, a regiment of “colored” men (later to become the 369th Regiment).  Europe was ordered by Colonel Hayward to put together the best brass band possible under the new regiment.  Europe began recruiting musicians in 1917.  In his book, Cuba and its music: from the first drums to the mambo, Volume 1, Ned Sublette writes:

“When “Big Jim” Europe needed to fill the ranks of his band quickly, he advertised nationally, but was concerned that “there was a great scarcity of reed instrument players in the United States among the colored people.”…”He needed crack sight readers who knew how to play in a section.  Europe held auditions for his band in Puerto Rico where a long tradition of municipal and military bands, similar to those of Cuba, meant there were plenty of skilled wind players who were good readers and experienced section players.”

In addition, in her seminal book My Music is My Flag, Ruth Glasser re-prints Colonel Hayward’s recounting of James Reese Europe’s “need” to travel to Puerto Rico:

“Jim Europe one day explained to me that the reed instruments, that is, clarinets, flutes, saxophones, and one or two other instruments, served the same purpose in a military band that string instruments serve in a symphony orchestra, and he said there was a great scarcity of reed instrument players in the United States among the colored people…I asked him what the answer was.  He said the answer was Puerto Rico. When I got over my astonishment over that answer, he explained to me that there were a lot of really good instrument musicians in Porto Rico, that their lips were all right, and that they were all well educated; that he had corresponded and found out about it, and then he unfolded a most amazingly ambitious plan…Europe suggested that if we could give him proper orders to go to Porto Rico and enlist musicians for his band, that he could get the pick of the crop and build the best band in the army, if I would permit him to pay some bonuses where needed for the key men for each set of instruments.” 

James Reese Europe recruited eighteen Puerto Rican musicians into the Hellfighters band, of which 17 are listed below:

Baritone HornFroilan Jimenez
Baritone HornNicholas Vazquez
BassoonPablo Fuentes
ClarinetArturo B. Ayala
ClarinetGregorio Felix Delgado
ClarinetRafael Duchesne Mondriguez
ClarinetRafael Duchesne Nieves
ClarinetAntonio Gonzales
ClarinetJesus Hernandez
ClarinetElige Rijos
ClarinetGenaro Torres
MellophoneEleuterio Melendez
MellophoneFrancisco Melendez
SaxophoneCeferino Hernandez
TromboneRafael Hernandez
TubaSixto Benitez
TubaJose Rivera Rosas

The historical significance of these musicians and what they accomplished cannot be overstated.  Not only was this the first time that highly trained Puerto Rican musicians participated in shaping African-American music, they also contributed to the early development of jazz, complex syncopated rhythms and – in addition – proceeded to introduce ragtime and early Jazz to continental Europe.

Since 18 of the approximately 32 musicians were of Puerto Rican ethnicity, I suggest that the United States Army’s first African-American band was virtually an Afro-Puerto Rican band.  In addition, according to Mr. Europe it was the sound of the brass and reed players – again largely Puerto Ricans – who shaped and created the Hellfighters unique and complex syncopated music.  The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz states the following to support this statement:

Although the few extant recordings of Europe’s compositions reflect the ragtime style that was prevalent at the time, contemporary descriptions of his band’s performance style indicate that he stood at least, on the threshold of jazz, this is confirmed by his recording of Memphis Blues. When asked about the unique sound of his music, he ascribed it not only to his wildly syncopated rhythms and use of black folk music materials, but also to a special way of producing tones on the wind instruments, particularly the “jazz spasms” of the trombones, the use of mutes, and his bandsmen’s desire to “embroider their parts in order to produce new, peculiar sounds.” Europe exerted considerable influence on the development of jazz in France and the USA, both through his performances and his role as the mentor of numerous jazz musicians.

So who were these Puerto Rican musicians who left the comfort of their tropical island, risked their lives during World War I and joined James Reese Europe in forming the first ever Afro-Puerto Rican big band to traverse dangerous territory in Europe?  For your reference, below you will find several links to existing online resource that describe the impact and influence that several of these musicians exerted on Jazz and music during their time.

From Rafael Hernandez (one of Puerto Rico’s most important song writers and band leaders) to Rafael Duchesne and Gregorio Felix (members of Noble Sissle Orchestra and Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra, respectively), these musicians went on to not only shape Puerto Rican music forever, but were also responsible in actively influencing American Jazz in important ways:

Rafael Hernandez Marin:


Rafael Duchesne Mondriguez and Rafael Duchesne Nieves:


In closing, there are many others Puerto Ricans who arrived in New York City during 1920 and 1930’s that had an immense impact on Jazz and Latin music.  Many researchers and collectors – like me – are very much aware of the impact that important Puerto Rican musicians made to the development of music, including:

  • Augusto Coen

Composer and bandleader, forms his own orchestra, Augusto Coen y sus Boricuas in 1934.

  • Juan Tizol

Long-time member of Duke Ellington band and composer of Jazz standards like Caravan, Perdido, Conga Brava, among many others

  • Rogelio (Roger) “Ram” Ramirez

Composer of the song Lover Man, made famous by Billie Holiday

  • Ramon “Moncho” Usera

A very significant pioneer, he was an arranger, bandleader and composer.

  • Fernando Arbello
  • Roberto Escudero
  • Julio Roque