Musical Arts

New Yorkers embraced the sounds of Spanish and Latin music as early as the 1920s. Talented musicians from throughout the Spanish-speaking world found inspiration, audiences, and paying gigs in the city’s music venues and its radio, recording, and film industries. They also found new sources for creativity in its rich mix of ethnicities and sounds. Music lovers enjoyed popular and classical styles—flamenco, zarzuelas, tango, plena, merengue, son, and rumba, to name a few—in cabarets, nightclubs, bars, ballrooms, dance halls, meeting rooms, hotels, theaters, and private living rooms in every borough.
 
Small bands and large orchestras played at social and political events for local audiences in Latino communities who knew and loved the music in all its complexities. At the same time, bands playing simplified styles of Latin music made it commercially viable and accessible to new audiences the world over.

Hilda Grillo in front of the Park Plaza, ca. 1940s. [Grillo was Machito’s wife.] Reproduction. Raíces Latin Music Museum, New York City, Courtesy of the Frank “Machito” Grillo family. Frank (Machito) Grillo and Xavier Cugat symbolized the Uptown/Downtown cultural worlds shaped by race and class. Machito held sway at the uptown dance halls, Cugat at the downtown ballrooms.
 
Machito and Mario Bauzá, both Cuban-born, together founded the first band to combine jazz arrangements with Afro-Cuban rhythms, creating a uniquely New York Latin Jazz style. Nuyorican legend Tito Puente began his career in Machito’s band before being drafted into the Navy. Spanish-born, Cuban-raised Cugat became a successful “society” bandleader, beginning with a decade-long engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria. His band was a stepping-stone for the likes of Desi Arnaz, Machito, Tito Rodríguez, and Miguelito Valdés. 
Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra, with Miguelito Valdés. Movie still from You Were Never Lovelier, Columbia Pictures, 1942. © SONY Pictures Entertainment. Raíces Latin Music Museum, New York City. Promised Gift of Louis Bauzó.
Hilda Grillo in front of the Park Plaza, ca. 1940s. [Grillo was Machito’s wife.] Reproduction. Raíces Latin Music Museum, New York City, Courtesy of the Frank “Machito” Grillo family.
 
Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra, with Miguelito Valdés. Movie still from You Were Never Lovelier, Columbia Pictures, 1942. © SONY Pictures Entertainment. Raíces Latin Music Museum, New York City. Promised Gift of Louis Bauzó.

Hilda Grillo in front of the Park Plaza, ca. 1940s. [Grillo was Machito’s wife.] Reproduction. Raíces Latin Music Museum, New York City, Courtesy of the Frank “Machito” Grillo family. At Simón Jou’s La Moderna Bakery in Harlem, a Latino percussionist could order a birthday cake for his kid while buying a drum for himself.
 
Virtuosic Cuban conguero, Cándido Camero, remembers: “All the Latin percussionists used to go to Simón for skins, congas, bongos, clave, maracas, cowbells. . . . He was also very famous on the bakery end as well.” 
 
Nuyorican percussionist Benny Bonilla recalls that “all the drummers would hang out in the back. That was the only place you could go for drums in the 1940s.” Jou started out on Lenox Avenue near 116th Street and moved to the address shown here.
La Moderna Repostería y Pasteleríaadvertisement. Reproduction. Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY.
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