Field of Drums

Seminal Nuyorican Musicians Steal Home a Half-Century After Stickball, to the South Bronx Blocks That Spawned Them

On Kelly Street in the South Bronx, amid the low-flying tenements and scattered bodegas, sits a junior high called Public School 52. Done in red brick, neo-Gothic frills, turreted columns, and sweeping concrete steps, the building looms over an expanse of asphalt with that royal solemn look shared by all old public institutions, but the real monumentality comes from inside. In the late 1940s and early '50s, the place graduated a roll call of young Puerto Rican students who went on to sculpt Afro-Cuban music in New York in their own image.

The list is dizzying: Manny Oquendo, Ray Barretto, Tony Pabón—the guy who wrote the 1966 boogaloo hit "I Like It Like That." Eddie Palmieri banged the piano at 50-cent dances in the gym with timbalero Orlando Marín. Hector Rivera thumped car hoods in the schoolyard with Rudy Romero and "Long" Joe Rodríguez, who drummed in Charlie Palmieri's charanga La Duboney, the first such combo in New York. Across the street, where the park is now, Charlie Palmieri himself went to record hops during the summer. They all played high-stakes stickball games in front of the school, on teams called the Lightnings, the Rockets, and the Sparks. Johnny Pacheco rehearsed flute in a classroom. Willie Colón, Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez, Ray Santos, and Barry Rogers played there. Colin Powell graduated in 1950.

On September 13, for the first time in almost 50 years, some of these musicians return to the park across from their alma mater for a massive descarga—a jam session. The show is the latest triumph for an urban history group called City Lore, which, teamed with tireless music archivist David Carp and the Municipal Art Society, has been recovering the Latin music past of Hunts Point for more than a year. "Altogether in the South Bronx there were literally hundreds of musicians," says Elena Martínez, the City Lore researcher spearheading the project. "I was interviewing people, and P.S. 52 just kept coming up."

Of course, the greats found their grooves later. But 52 sketched the blueprint. Eddie Palmieri had given up timbales in the early '50s and gone back to playing the piano, developing the dense, percussive approach that made his group La Perfecta swing a decade later. The neighborhood was like a big drum: Kids beat on the mailboxes, on the car hoods, on bottles in the schoolyard. Manny Oquendo was mentoring all the percussionists dreaming dreams. They listened to the rhythms floating over the shortwave from Cuba. Mambo clubs like the Hunts Point Palace, the Caravana, and the Tropicana glittered down the avenues. Stickball games ended in heavy bets from local gamblers and brawls between rival teams. It was all right there.

"They called P.S. 52 'The Friendly School,' " says Eddie Palmieri, over a sketchy phone connection from Queens. He's just returned from shows in Mexico and Puerto Rico. "But my first day there I saw them beat a guy half to death with umbrellas. There were the Lightnings, the Rockets, and the Huns. The Huns were Italian. If you did not belong to one of them, you had no business leaving the house."

It was around World War II that families like Palmieri's moved up to Hunts Point from El Barrio in East Harlem. The sons of Navy Yard warehouse workers, seamstresses, electricians, carpenters, steelworkers, boxers, and Supercold salesmen, they fell into what was already a multiethnic neighborhood—and, as Puerto Ricans, sometimes had to fight their way to school. Palmieri worked as a soda jerk at his father's luncheonette, El Mambo, and made the jukebox locally famous by spinning the Cuban imports his brother Charlie, nine years older, was discovering as a pianist with Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez. "It was an all-boys' school then," says Joe Quijano, on the phone from his condo in Isla Verde, Puerto Rico, where he played the hotels for years before a motorcycle accident. Back at P.S. 52, he sang in a group with Eddie Palmieri. "Orlando Marín was 14, myself 13, Eddie Palmieri was 12, and we all lived on Kelly Street. I lived at 935, Orlando at 909, and Eddie was up at Kelly and Longwood. From there we started the quintet."

Palmieri had gone back to the piano, which he'd played as a kid, only a little while before. He'd been playing timbales with his uncle, until his mother bought him a metal case that weighed as much as three drums. "Don't you see how beautiful your brother looks going out to work and not bringing an instrument?" she'd say as Charlie left to play the piano. "When are you going to learn?" He learned that year, when the boys played dances at the school. Their group only knew three songs. "We just kept playing them over and over," Quijano says. "We didn't worry about a bass player at first because Eddie had a very good left hand. He still does."

"I started a small school band with them," says Eddie Palmieri, now 63. "But my brother told me that if I was going to make my reputation, I had to go play with professional orchestras. So I left, and Orlando Marín kept developing that group. I had to go pay my dues."

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