Field of Drums

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

"Those dances at 52 only showed me that I knew not," he says. "Then I knew that I knew not and that I had to get my shit together."

They met at the Palmieri Luncheonette like teenagers of Charlie's generation had, on Friday nights before hitting the dances. "They call me Peanuts," says Peanuts, 71, "because I was at camp when I was nine years old and my friend looks down from a balcony and says, 'Tony, my God, you look like a peanut.' I was the smallest guy in camp and when we got back to New York it hung to me like superglue." Peanuts, whose real name is Tony Aubert, was a hotshot social dancer at P.S. 52 in the late 1940s, when they threw record hops in the schoolyard. "I still have the picture from our graduation," Peanuts says. "It has Charlie Palmieri and Ray Barretto in back, and I'm in front 'cause they put the small people in the front. In school, no one other than Charlie knew how to play piano. To this day, Ray Barretto is still the only guy who calls me Anthony."

Timbalero Joe Rodríguez played with Charlie Palmieri in his band La Duboney in the '50s and '60s, and on Ray Barretto's jumping 1963 proto-boogaloo hit "El Watusi," but he hadn't known them at the school. "Ah, 52!" he says, answering the door to his apartment on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan in shorts and suspenders, as two TVs blare over a tape by the Fania All-Stars."I hardly ever saw it!"

"I was the biggest hooky player," he explains. "Finally they kicked me out of there. I used to bang on fenders when I was a kid in the street. At 52 I used to find anything I could to get out of the classes, and there was this music teacher and he said he was forming a rumba band."

"Long" Joe, named for how he towered over his drums, joined the group on maracas. "One day we have this auditorium show and we're accompanying the music teacher," Rodríguez says. "I was waiting in the vestibule, beating a rhythm on the side of this snare drum with a drumstick. The music teacher comes up and says, 'Joe, I didn't know you knew how to play timbales.' I didn't even know what timbales were. I was just doing what I did on the car fenders. The teacher said, 'Why don't you play the drum in the show?' I went out there and cooked the shit out of that group."

With pianist Hector Rivera and percussionist Rudy Romero, he started a small group, playing Latin-flavored renditions of "Witchcraft," "Night and Day," and "Begin the Beguine." "Every time we were outside, we used to go nuts on the cars," says Romero, now 68. "We'd get different tones on the fenders, on the hood, off the top. In the schoolyard, we'd find a bottle and beat on that. Pencils, combs, pens, anything we could find."

Stickball and music went hand in hand. "I was cocaptain of the Hurricanes, and we played either on Dawson Street, or right in front of P.S. 52," says timbalero and bandleader Orlando Marín, 65, who released his hit charanga record Se Te Quemó la Casa in 1961, and who now lives in an apartment in Kew Gardens, surrounded by sleeping gold timbales and stickball trophies. "Eventually we made a team called the musicians' team. Eddie Palmieri was on the team. The team was great. They called us Los Músicos. That was the basis of how I created my following as a musician. It was mostly guys from stickball who'd come with their girlfriends."

The school and the streets provided the public space where this first generation of Puerto Ricans born in New York hammered out identities. Quijano remembers sitting in a music-appreciation class with Palmieri, bored out of their skulls. "Our teacher had a phonograph," Quijano says. "He had one Mozart record and that's all we used to hear. We used to fall asleep on him. So we started doing our own thing." They went out and they found their own records: the secret rhythms coming over from Cuba, the mambos by Machito, informed by African American jazz. They were Puerto Ricans listening to other Spanish speakers in an English-speaking city, and they went back and rehearsed Latin jazz in the same classrooms where they had nodded off to the lulling drone of the Western canon. They marked the school as their own.

Everyone remembers 52's first bilingual teacher, Miss Cruz. She ran the play, helped them with English pronunciation, and taught piano. But to Quijano, "Miss Cruz was Puerto Rican and she had a big ass."

"We used to put our elbows out when she'd walk down the row from front to back so we could feel her behind," he recalls, laughing. "We had a song about her, to the tune of another song then, called 'Madrid.' It went, 'Miss Cruz, Miss Cruz, she had a big ass in 52.' "

The musicians from 52 are getting old. An era is slipping by. Eddie Palmieri recently released an incredibly nuanced and dynamic collaboration with Tito Puente, the mambo king's final work, called Masterpiece/Obra Maestra. Next year, he puts out two more records: one with Branford Marsalis, and another volume with Puente, and that's it. "I'm picking up and I'm out of here," Palmieri says. "Now that the old man died, there's no challenge from the bandstand, no elation. The only challenge is to develop as a pianist." He plans to adapt his compositions for symphony orchestra. He won't make the show at 52. "I don't do that," he says. "I need to save my energy."

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