Field of Drums
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 Pabónthe 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 descargaa 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 neighborhoodand, 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."
"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."
But for the others, the 52 reunion will be a different kind of landmark, a nonmaterial monument to a bygone era. Organizers behind the South Bronx Latin Music Project hope shared cultural memory can help rebuild an alternate meaning for the neighborhood, which symbolized urban destruction for a generation of presidents. The site of the upcoming show, the park that local activists rescued from junkies and junked cars 20 years ago, drums the message home.
On a recent afternoon, Benny Bonilla, one of the hardworking sidemen who fueled the South Bronx scene in its heyday, guided his cream-soda-colored Grand Marquis to the curb in front of his home in the North Bronx. Bonilla played on "I Like It Like That," but he still remembers slinging his conga over his shoulder and heading to 52, one of his first regular gigs.
"Sometimes I write things down that I read," Bonilla says. "The other day I came across something. Louis Armstrong once said, 'Musicians don't retire. They stop when there's no more music in them.' That's how we feel. I'm 66. I'm going to be 67. I didn't retire. I'd do a gig tomorrow. But it's like the major league. You've got to step back and let the younger guys do it. If someone asked me to do a gig tomorrow, I'd do it tomorrow. Musicians who say they're retired are full of shit. 'Want to do a gig tomorrow?' "
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