1930's - 1960's
The 1930s saw a new round of subway and infrastructure construction. From a musical perspective, while the first decades of the 20th century saw the mainstream dipping its toes into Latin music during the tango craze, next Cuban music took hold in New York City and lasted into the next century. The Harlem Renaissance, which coincided with the Negritude movement in the Caribbean and lasted from the Roaring Twenties to the 1930s, also played a part in the popularity of Afro-Caribbean music. It sought to celebrate an African past and the New World experience shaped by slavery and struggle. In 1930, Don Azpiazu’s Havana Casino Orchestra performed at the RKO Palace Theater on Broadway and 46th St. They played “El Manicero” (“The Peanut Vendor”) and introduced the public to a type of Latin music with a more complex African element than that of the tango, the Cuban son.
Following World War II there were massive migrations to New York City of Puerto Ricans from the island and African-Americans from the South. At the same time, Bronx neighborhoods began to see major shifts. According to historian Mark Naison, by the late 1940s, Morrisania, once a largely Jewish, working class section of the Bronx had become the borough’s largest African-American neighborhood. The first generation of Blacks who moved to Morrisania from Harlem also included a large contingent of West Indians. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Morris High School was perhaps the single most-integrated secondary school in the United States. In 1940, Machito’s Afro-Cubans made their debut at the Park Plaza Ballroom in East Harlem—fusing big band jazz music together with Afro-Cuban rhythms. By 1949 mambo had broken out of Manhattan and was danced in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
The 1950s saw more new genres emerging in NYC, with the Bronx at the vanguard. Long before hip hop became the music of a generation, doo wop harmonies were part of the Bronx’s soundscape. A group of girls from the Bronx River Houses who went to nearby James Monroe High School and called themselves the Desires’ Debs met a young songwriter, Ronnie Mack, who also lived at the Bronx River Houses. Mack wrote a song called “He’s So Fine” (recognizable by the repeated line “doo lang, doo lang”), and the Desires’ Debs changed their name to the Chiffons and recorded his song. It became an immediate hit.
Morris High School on Boston Road in Morrisania was another hub of doo wop and R&B music. It was in its hallways that the Chords rehearsed their harmonies and would later record their hit “Sh-Boom.” Down the street at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic School, Arlene Smith organized her friends into a group called The Chantels and recorded their hit “Maybe.” A block away from “the Home of Mambo,” the Palladium in Manhattan, was the jazz club Birdland, where Latin music and jazz mingled. Birdland was also the venue where jazz’s avant garde performed, such as the leaders of the new genre be-bop: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane.
The Bronx at this time has its own jazz scene along Boston Road, and not too far away, be-bop pianist Elmo Hope lived on Lyman Place near another be-bop pioneer, pianist Thelonius Monk, who lived there for a short time. Be-bop found a home at the 845 Club located at 845 Prospect Avenue, where one could see be-bop legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey perform.