1880 - 1930's
Between 1880 and 1930, the Bronx was one of the fastest growing urban areas in the world. This literally sets the stage for the music that would come out of the borough. During the middle of the 19th century, many German immigrants migrated to the Bronx as they moved from the crowded Lower East Side, to the open farmland of the South Bronx in neighborhoods like Melrose. The crucial early turning point for Bronx growth was the construction of the Third Avenue Bronx extension of the Manhattan Second Avenue elevated line in 1886. The addition of elevated train lines and subways and increased building activity left dense urban areas in their wake.
Around this time, the piano manufacturing industry took hold in the southern areas of the Bronx. According to Bronx historian Lloyd Ultan, the southernmost Bronx neighborhoods of Mott Haven and Port Morris became the “Piano Capital of the United States.” (In 2015, real estate developers wishing to cash in on some Bronx “authenticity” tried – and failed - to rename the area near the Third Avenue Bridge as “The Piano District”).
At the same time, New York City became the epicenter for many Latin music trends. Tango, which originated in the dockside communities in Buenos Aires in the late 19th century, was introduced to NYC in 1913 with the Broadway musical comedy called The Sunshine Girl. Within months the tango was a national mania.
By the 1920s, the borough was home to 700,000 people, enough to make it the 9th largest city in the United States, if it had been a separate municipality. A New York Times article from June 11th, 1921 comments upon all the recent theater construction in the borough:
The recent growth in the residential section of the East Bronx is perhaps best illustrated by the steady increase in the number of theatres which have been built in that part of the city within the last few years.
The late 1920s and early 1930s also saw the rise of theater shows. Meanwhile, New York City is becoming the world’s capital for all things related to the recording industry: recording, sheet music, piano rolls, and the radio. By the late 1920s, though the piano factories were for the most part closed, the Bronx was known far and wide as the home of the New York Yankees, the Bronx Zoo, and Fordham University.
Musically, the Puerto Rican community, which would later play a major role in the growth of mambo and salsa, were now altering the City’s soundscape with the traditional narrative ballad from the island called plena. So as Puerto Ricans were migrating here, the musicians among them found a welcoming environment in which to perform music.