Panama’s Favorite Mambero Remembers The Golden Era of Dance Music In New York City
ROSELAND: Where Cuban Rhythms once went toe to toe with Ballroom Jazz
I first set foot inside the ROSELAND BALLROOM dance hall in 1978, lured by a long forgotten tribute to Cuban Music legend Miguelito Valdés. No one seems to remember this event, but to me it was an unforgettable night, and I could not get over how huge the place was, especially the dance floor. I knew little of its long history in regards to New York style Latin American music. It was, after all, the traditional gathering place for so many senior citizens whose sole purpose was to relive the good old days (at least it was that way until 1977). Directly adjacent to Roseland was Local 802 of the Musicians Union, and since I was always looking for work back then through the union, I would often see the old timers waiting on line, dressed to kill, ready to enter into their own private dance heaven. Since I came out of the rock and roll era, it seemed totally the opposite of what my own generation would have considered a night out. Nonetheless, I was curious, and it may have been because the place reminded me so much of all those film noir flicks that I had grown up watching on television or in the movies.
Initially, Roseland conjured up images of the Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn up in Harlem – which were popular venues for white audiences – or even of “Rick’s Café Américain” in the film “Casablanca”, the upscale nightclub and gambling den that attracted such a mixed clientéle: Vichy French, Italian, and Nazi officials; political exiles desperately seeking to reach America. Such was the power of Hollywood to implant certain images in our subconscious. Once inside Dance City (that was another name they had for it), I realized that the old place had nothing to do with the nightclubs that had been depicted in so many of those Hollywood films. Roseland was, after all, an elegant ballroom right smack in the middle of midtown Manhattan, and not some juke joint (before 1953 and even for some years thereafter, most bars and nightclubs used a jukebox or live bands). I recalled that only a decade before, I too had stood in such lines, outside venues like the Brooklyn Paramount, Academy of Music and the Brooklyn Fox, and even Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theatre – but not to dance in them – those theaters were the domain of the doowop kings (and queens), showcases for the great vocal R&B groups that thrilled my generation with their gospel tinged harmonies. I’m referring to the great rock ‘n’ roll soirées presented by Allan Freed and Murray The K. But even that phenomenon had its precedent.
SWING JAZZ: A Chronology of The American Dance Floor
It is fabled that the first “nightclub” in the United States opened in 1912 in New Orleans (why would we think otherwise?). Aptly called “The Cave”, because it was located in the basement of the Roosevelt Hotel. Prior to that, from about 1900 to 1920, working class Americans would gather in honky tonks or juke joints and dance to the riffs of a lone piano player, or, they would dance to the sounds of small territory bands as their music vibrated from jukeboxes. Territory bands were dance bands that crisscrossed specific regions of the United States, playing one-nighters, 6 or 7 nights a week at venues like the VFW Hall, Elks Club, Lions Club and hotel ballrooms. These bands typically had 8 to 12 musicians. During Prohibition the nightclubs went underground as illegal bars, known as speakeasies. The emerging new style of jazz actually dated back to that epoch, when the various black communities, dancing to the contemporary sound of their time, discovered the charleston and the lindy hop. The charleston was a dance named for the city of Charleston, South Carolina and its rhythm was popularized in mainstream dance music by a 1923 tune called “The Charleston”, written by the Afro-American composer and pianist James P. Johnson. As far as the lindy is concerned, legend has it that a local dance enthusiast named “Shorty” was watching some of the dancing couples at a local club when a newspaper reporter asked him what kind of dance they were doing. The story goes on to say that there was a newspaper sitting on the bench next to Shorty with an article about Lindbergh’s historic flight to Paris. Since the title of the article read, “Lindy Hops The Atlantic,” Shorty simply replied: “Lindy Hop”. Although no one has ever corroborated this tale, the name stuck, and that’s how the dance got its name.
But as fate would have it, on March 26, 1926, an event took place in New York City that would ultimately change the history of jazz. The Savoy Ballroom, located between 140th and 141st Streets on Lenox Avenue opened its doors, and that changed everything. The music played at the Savoy on opening night was largely swing jazz, and because of its infectious rhythm, the venue enjoyed immediate success. It boasted a block-long dance floor and a raised double bandstand. It was owned by Moe Gale, a Jewish businessman and managed by an Afro-American by the name of Charles Buchanan.
The operative word at the Savoy may have been “swing”, but the first word that comes to my mind is “big”. The ambience was further stimulated by the presence of fantastic dancers. All of the great black jazz bands played there at one time or another. Ultimately, it attracted some of the best dancers from the greater New York area, both black and white. When Repeal kicked in during February of 1933, the nightclub scene was once again revived. New York’s Stork Club, El Morocco and the Copacabana were all nightclubs that featured live big bands, dedicated exclusively to playing for a dancing crowd. But the Savoy was by far the most popular of these clubs. To its credit, the ballroom participated in the 1939 World’s Fair, presenting “The Evolution of Negro Dance”, and it was immortalized in song by the classic 1934 tune “Stompin’ At The Savoy” (performed by just about everyone and their grandmother). The head bouncer at the ballroom was Herbert White, who formed a lindy hop dance troupe called “Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers”. The “Hoppers” were showcased in such Hollywood films as “A Day at the Races”, “Hellzapoppin”, “Sugar Hill Masquerade” and “Killer Diller”. This group formed the creme de la creme of the Savoy. They were the top dancers during the swing era. With Whitey’s entrepreneurial skills, these Harlem youngsters were catapulted into world recognition through both live performance and film. Their swing dance innovations had permanent impact on the social dance styles of the United States, Europe, Australia, and even Latin America and parts of Africa. Early mambo dancers in Mexico City, (pre-Palladium era) have stated that both the lindy and the jitterbug influenced much of their choreography. Certain moves which they added to the basic steps taken from the Cuban son and danzón enhanced those dance forms.
Savoy, the home of sweet romance,
Savoy, it wins you with a glance,
Savoy, gives happy feet a chance to dance.
And, almost as if on cue, a variant of the lindy hop was introduced by bandleader Cab Calloway, who tagged it the jitterbug (this was actually the title of a catchy six beat tune which Cab had recorded in 1934). It was never meant to be the moniker for a dance form, it just happened that way. History certainly does have a way of repeating itself, doesn’t it? When mainstream America (read – white folks) discovered these dances, it got the snowball rolling. Subsequently every ethnic community in the United States embraced the popular black dances, as well as tap and jazz. Clarinetist Benny Goodman led the big parade, and soon the native Chicagoan became the leader of the so-called swing era. Why, there was even something called country swing. Can you imagine?
TRANSCULTURATION & THE RIP-OFF: The New Orleans, Hollywood, Paris and New York Connection
Around the same time as Calloway’s tune was hitting the nightclubs of Harlem, a Jewish dancer by the name of Dean Collins was learning to dance like a black man. Collins grew up in Newark, New Jersey and by the age of 13 he was already dancing at the Savoy. In 1935, he was named “Dancer of the Year” by The New Yorker. He arrived in Hollywood in 1938 and between 1941 and 1960 had danced in, or helped choreograph over 100 movies which provided at least a 30 second clip of some of California’s best white dancers performing lindy hop, jitterbug, lindy and swing. Throughout the 1940’s these terms were used interchangeably by the news media to describe the same style of dancing taking place on the streets, in the night clubs, in contests, and in the movies. In 1938 Donald Grant, president of the Dance Teachers’ Business Association, stated that swing music was “a degenerate form of jazz, whose devotees were the unfortunate victims of economic instability”. Shaw ’nuff.
During the Second World War, swing jazz, and particularly the dance known as the jitterbug were banned in occupied France by the Nazis, due to their decadent American influences. This music literally went underground, hidden in basement dance clubs called discothèques where young French men and women danced to hot jazz played by a DJ on a single turntable whenever a jukebox was not available. So-called “latin” music was also banned, but to a lesser extent. For some reason, it did not classify as degenerate art, a term the Nazis had coined to rid Germany of any African based music. It became a catch-all phrase that included music with any link to jews, communists, jazz, and anything else thought to be dangerous to the master race.
Meanwhile, back in the USA, dance instructors were getting hip to the fact that the lively and boisterous jitterbug could no longer be ignored. Its fun-filled romp could be refined to suit a crowded dance floor. The two main dance schools at the time were the New York Society of Teachers and the Arthur Murray Studios, and they did not formally begin documenting or teaching the African-based dances until the early 1940’s. The “established” dance community was more interested in teaching the old European-based dances, such as the quickstep and the waltz, with an occasional fox-trot and peabody thrown in. Later, they incorporated such Latin American and Spanish dances as the tango, pasodoble, samba, merengue, mambo and cha cha chá, many of which were also African-based, only they didn’t see it that way. Arthur Murray and his associates looked at what was being danced in the urban centers and directed his teachers to teach what was “popular” in their respective cities. As a result of this profiling, the Arthur Murray Studios taught different styles of swing in each city, according to the demographics. Lauré Haile, a swing dancer and competitor, documented what she saw being danced by the white communities in America (for a more in depth look at the proliferation of these styles, I recommend the following website: http://www.kclindyhop.org/history_b.htm
“Part 2 – Decline and Remission: 1945 -1983” is an informative essay posted by the Kansas City Lindy Hop Society. The aforementioned Dean Collins, along with Lenny Smith and Lou Southern led the action in the night clubs and competitions throughout southern California. Haile began teaching for Arthur Murray in 1945 and gave the new style the name of “Western Swing”. Collins taught Arthur Murray’s teachers in Hollywood and San Francisco in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.
In 1953 Paris, at the “Whisky À Go Go” nightclub (founded in 1947), a Belgian Polish-Jew by the name of Régine Zylberberg – better known as “Régine, Queen of the Night” – laid down a dance-floor, suspended coloured lights and replaced the juke-box with two turntables which she operated herself so there would be no breaks between the music. This is what set into place the standard elements of the modern discotheque-style nightclub.
Immediately following the Second World War, a nationwide economic boom was created. New York emerged as the leading city of the world, with Wall Street leading America’s ascendancy. Anglo soldiers and sailors returning from Europe and the Pacific continued to dance in and around their military bases, doing the jitterbug to country and western music in small town bars, well into the 50’s. Meanwhile, the legendary Savoy Ballroom finally closed its doors in 1958, and shortly after the building in which it was housed was demolished. During the 60’s New Yorkers suffered race riots, gang wars and a certain amount of population decline. The demographics of an entire neighborhood would suddenly change. The transition away from an industrial base toward a service economy picked up speed. Americans who traveled stayed at modern motel chains like Holiday Inn and TraveLodge, which provided air-conditioning, swimming pools, restaurants, color TV, direct-dial phones and, above all, consistency.
The large shipbuilding and garment industries declined sharply, ports converted to container ships, costing many traditional jobs among longshoremen and many large corporations moved their headquarters to the suburbs, or to distant cities. There was still enormous growth in services; especially finance, education, medicine, tourism, communications and law. New York remained the largest city, and the largest metropolitan area in the United States, and continued as its largest financial, commercial, information, and cultural center. Despite all the hardships, the city’s vibrant music scene was still very much at the heart of it all, and people of all nationalities still went out dancing.
In the early 1960’s, Annabel’s, a members-only discothèque nightclub opened in Berkeley Square, London. In 1962, the Peppermint Lounge became the popular night spot here in New York City for guys like me. This was the spot where go-go dancing originated. Go-Go Dancers were dancers who were employed to entertain crowds during the early 1960’s at such venues as the Peppermint Lounge. Female dancers began to get up on tables and dance the twist. Joey Dee and The Starlighters were undeniably the stars of a movie titled “Hey Let’s twist”, which put that club on the map. Simultaneously, and as if by design, the dance scene in most urban centers was also beginning to change, but the folks at Roseland were not buying into it – at least not yet.
AMERICA’S HIT PARADE: Land of a Thousand Dances
By 1960, seventy million children from the post-war baby boom had become teenagers and young adults. The new generation was no longer content with just being mirror images of their parents, they wanted their own image. Across the country changes took place that affected education, values, lifestyles, laws, and entertainment. Many of the revolutionary concepts in music which began in the sixties are continuing to this day. But it was also a time for fads, and new dance fads appeared almost every week. The majority of them were commercialized versions of new steps created by Afro-American dancers who frequented the clubs and discothèques in cities like New York, Philadelphia and Detroit. Dancemanias swept the country (and the world for that matter) during this fertile period. The new dances had names like the Madison, Swim, Mashed Potatoes, Twist, Frug Watusi, Shake, Hitchhike, Pony, Dog and Chicken. The one thing that they all had in common was that they were not a couple dance, and each partner could do their own thing, separately. It seemed that “touch dancing” was on the verge of disappearing. For a brief time during the beginning of the decade a Cuban rhythm known as Pachanga (actually a variant of the son montuno) became popular among the youth. Percussionist Ray Barretto recorded a tune called “El Watusi” in 1962. It was a fluke, but it soared to the top of the charts (hitting the Billboard playlists in April of ’63), catching the ear of many non-hispanics. Other “latin” tinged music forms crossed over and made it into the charts as well, and before long young Hispanic-Americans began to catch the “bug” for latin music as well.
Meanwhile, the “older” generation was still dancing up a storm, enamored with mambo, bolero and tango. In fact, any type of couple dancing that would bring them a bit of intimacy was embraced (so to speak), and for a while it looked as if the generation gap was closing. By 1965 I was totally hooked on Cuban dance music, aka “latin” music. But it would be another ten years before I had my taste of a bona fide ballroom. My generation preferred rough and tumble bars and taverns to nightclubs, and the mainstream “latin” youth was attracted to large large marathon dances at such venues as the Manhattan Center and the Hunts Point Palace. The now legendary Palladium Ballroom would close its doors in 1966, and I was only privileged to have gone there during the last two years of its existence. I remember that I didn’t dance that much in the Palladium (except when I was trying to pick up a girl) because my main focus was on the bandstand and the musicians who played their hot Cuban music. Nightclubs, or rather discothèques as they were already being tagged by then, did not grab my attention until the mid 1970’s.
As the seventies rolled around, street activists and minority groups like the Black Panthers and Young Lords organized rent strikes and garbage offensives, demanding city services for poor areas. “Power to the People” was the phrase most often heard in the streets, and by the middle of the decade the city had gained a reputation as a crime-ridden asphalt jungle, a relic of history. In 1975, the city government avoided bankruptcy only through a federal loan and debt restructuring by the Municipal Assistance Corporation and they were also forced to accept increased financial scrutiny from the state capital. In 1977, the city was struck by twin catastrophes; the Great Blackout and Son of Sam serial killings.
And Roseland? The old ballroom continued to attract a much older, mature crowd, mostly non-hispanic, whose only joy was to step out with the “latin” dances. Many were regulars, who had been going there since the early forties, when their hearts were young and their libidos were lively. And they each had a competitive spirit to them too. From 1930 up until 1984 The Harvest Moon Ball Dance Championships were held every year at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The ball was supposedly for “amateurs” only. It was usually held on a Tuesday or Wednesday in August or September and was sponsored by the Daily News in New York.
But wait, it seems that I am getting ahead of myself. I do believe that we were talking about the early history of dance, correct? So, hold that thought for a moment, while I rewind the tape. Let’s take it back, say about fifty years or so.
1927: Dance Fever Hits New York City
The first unofficial dance contest was held at the Central Park Mall in 1927, but to the surprise of the organizers over 75,000 people showed up to watch the contest, all contests in the future were to be postponed in the name of public safety until Madison Square Garden could be obtained. They tried again in 1934 and this time the contest was officially shut down by City Hall. The first official start date was in 1935 at Madison Square Garden in New York. In 1938, the Harvest Moon Ball included a lindy hop and jitterbug competition for the first time. It was captured on film and presented in the Paramount, Pathe, and Universal movie newsreels between 1938 and 1951.
Starting in August, preliminaries would be run in many different clubs and ballrooms throughout the city. Roseland was the main venue. Preliminaries had a total of three judges, and the finals had five. There were six divisions that you could enter, some years would offer different dance divisions such as conga, lindy hop, rhumba, jitterbug, jitterbug-jive, jive, foxtrot, rock and roll, tango, collegiate shag, servicemen’s division, Viennese waltz and eventually the mambo, cha cha chá and even the hustle. At the end of the contest the judges would pick an “All Around Champion” and award him/her additional prizes.
Famed columnist Ed Sullivan was the emcee for most of the early contests. The popularity of the event grew (there would be other such balls in Chicago and Los Angeles). This event was to become the most famous dance contest in the world and would last for many years. The official song of the contest was “Shine On, Harvest Moon.” The music was supplied by first class musicians such as Artie Shaw, Nan Rodrigo, Machito, Benny Goodman and of course the house band, led by Puerto Rican trumpeter Ramón Argüeso, with its vocalist Raúl Azpiazu and the stellar pianist from Panama, Terry Pearce. The event would outlast any other of its type, until 1980. From 1980 on it was sponsored by individuals who were past winners. The last Harvest Moon Ball took place in 1984. I actually had the pleasure of singing with the Argüeso band, albeit under the direction of Pierce, whom I recall to be a very humble and modest person. Years went by and I recently caught up with him at the Allegria Hotel in Long Beach, NY, where at the age of 77, he still cuts loose on white baby grand in the hotel lounge, ignored by some while astounding others.
DÉJÀ VU: Recollections of a Panamanian Music Master
Pianist Terry Pierce, who was a regular at Roseland, fondly recalled his years with Argüeso.
TERRY: I played at Roseland from 1974 until 1988, first with the Argüeso Orchestra and then with my own band. We worked on a daily basis, as well as playing for special events such as The Harvest Moon Ball. Due to our longevity there, we landed a cameo appearance in the movie “Roseland”. When Argüeso died in 1996, I took over the direction of the band. It was trimmed down somewhat, to eight pieces, and that’s when the ballroom began billing us as the Terry Pierce Orchestra. We stayed there until 2001. We would play all the popular latin dances of the day, plus our old swing repertoire as well.
By way of introduction, I will simply say that Pearce was born on August 10th, 1933 in the city of Colón, Republic of Panama. His mother, Savina, encouraged him to study music early on, so that by the time Terry was twelve years old, he was already playing with various local conjuntos that specialized in popular Cuban music. During our recent get-together, I inquired as to his early influences in popular dance forms.
CHICO: Terry baby, lay it on me man, I want to know all about those early jams with the homies back in Panama. Were these groups patterned after the sextetos in Cuba?
TERRY: Very much so. Chico, we didn’t even have a bass player, we used a marímbula at first and we also worked with a guitarist. On percussion we usually had a bongó, then we added tumbadoras and trumpets. We played it bien típico, as they say here in New York, mostly at private parties and during the yearly carnavales, which always took place in February. At one point I remember playing alonside “el viejo” Edgehill, who was an extraordinary bassist, just like his son Guillermo is today. Later, I was recruited to play with the number one band in Colón, a seventeen piece mega band which was led by alto saxophonist Armando Boza. I was only seventeen years old at the time. A very young Mauricio Smith was also in that band, as was trumpeter Víctor “Vitín” Paz, who was already a seasoned jazzman. Both names would become legendary in New York latin jazz circles, through their association with Machito and Tito Rodríguez.
CHICO: Do you remember what year that was?
TERRY: That was in 1951. I was still attending Abel Bravo High School at the time, but I would travel with Armando’s band throughout the seven provinces of Panama, particularly in the western part of the country, in the province of Chiriquí and in the city of Las Tablas, which is in the province of Los Santos, plus in the various islands that were part of the republic, the most famous being Bocas Del Toro, which was originally a successful fishing community that was later recognized as a major asset to the archipelago of islands, mainly as a tourist spot. We played all over the country, mostly in hotels, for tourists and locals alike. It was a heck of an experience for me.
I remember that in 1955 we traveled to Ecuador to perform at the French-owned Bagatelle Hotel in Quito. We played there for six months, mostly Cuban music but also Panamanian cumbias. Beny Moré was a very popular recording artist at the time, and we used to play a lot of his music. I accompanied him twice, on both occassions during Carnaval. In Colón, Armando’s band backed him up, and another time it was with trumpeter Juan Santamaría in Panama City. I listened a lot to his piano player “Peruchín” Justiz, whose style I loved.
CHICO: I know from reading John Radanovich’s book that Beny went to Panama with Pérez Prado for the first time during carnival time in 1949. He also performed there in 1955 and in 1958 with twelve musicians from his band, although his main pianist “Cabrerita” was not on those two trips. I think he was replaced by either Felipe Llanes or Peruchín. This was 1955, when he hit Max Pérez in Venezuela with an iron rod and cracked his skull.
TERRY: Yes, but I vaguely remember Cabrerita accompanying Beny on one of those trips. Peruchín was already living in Panama at the time. In my opinion he was one of the greatest pianists in the history of Cuban music, and was instrumental in shifting the role of the piano into a more rhythmic role. They say he practically invented the guajeo. Peruchín was also a great arranger, much hipper than Cabrerita, and when he returned to Cuba he wrote some beautiful charts for the famed Orquesta Riverside, as well as being their regular pianist. As an arranger he was equalled only by Bebo Valdés, Chico O’farrill, René Hernández and Obdulio Morales. He would later join Beny’s big band, contributing some arrangements as well. While in Cuba he also found time to record with Chico O’Farrill, Julio Gutierrez and Cachao in some of their legendary descarga sessions, while doing a few gigs with his own quintet. He can also be heard on a few albums by Eusebio Antobal, recorded around the same time. He passed away on December 24, 1977. All of the musicians in Armandos’ band were keenly aware of everything coming out of Cuba. In fact, our specialty was always Cuban music.
CHICO: Did you also play traditional Panamanian music as well?
TERRY: Yes, especially in Los Santos, which is famous for its carnivals, the Festival Nacional de la Pollera (National Festival of the Pollera), and the Festival of the Patron Santa Librada, plus the Festival Nacional de la Mejorana in Guararé. Herrera is also important in Panamanian folklore because they are believed to be the birth place of the Pollera, the traditional Panamanian dress.
CHICO: Yes, I myself have been quite impressed by this type of dress, especially the Pollera de gala Santeña, with its beautiful design. I believe it is the most used in Panama. Your country has some really beautiful traditions, not unlike the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. I suppose the proximity to that region gives Panama an edge over most Central and South American countries. Also, its bond to the United States is undeniable, particularly within the field of music. The US-Panama cultural interchange is quite obvious, and your country does have a long history in jazz. By the 1940’s the port of Colón boasted at least ten local jazz orchestras. Legends of jazz in Panama have included pianist and composer Víctor Boa, bassist Clarence Martin, singer Barbara Wilson, Drummer Billy Cobham, flautist Mauricio Smith, saxophonist Carlos Garnett and french horn player John “Rubberlegs” McKindo. It is a musical legacy that has recently been reinvigorated by pianist Danilo Perez, who organized the first Panamanian Jazz Festival in January 2003.
TERRY: You are quite right, jazz has always been heard in Panama, and we owe that to the countless black laborers who helped build the canal zone. They came from the states and from the British West Indies by the tens of thousands, in the effort to improve the isthmus transportation system, but many came to work on the banana plantations as well. By 1910, the Panama Canal Company had employed more than 50,000 workers, three-quarters of whom were black Caribbeans. We formed the nucleus of a community separated from the larger society by race, language, religion, and culture. Many of us who migrated to the US would ultimately find ourselves in a sort of duality, what with surnames names like Smith and Terry (laughter).
CHICO: Which brings us to how Terry Pierce got to play “latin” dance music in the land of skyscrapers. Just how did you first make it to the states?
TERRY: In 1960 I left Armando’s big band and started to work the cruise ship circuit, which was very lucrative at the time. American tourists on board these liners danced to their heart’s content, and we supplied them with the beat. By we, I mean the Evangelina Quartet, that’s what we were known as. We did various tours throughout the West Indies, until 1962, when I finally got my visa and told them I was flying north. Actually, I took a steamboat out of Miami and then I hopped a train up north.
CHICO: How did it feel when you set foot on American soil?
TERRY: It felt great! I arrived at Penn Station in New York on January 20th, 1962. I will never forget that date.
CHICO: With whom did you debut here in New York?
TERRY: The first guy to give me a break was trumpeter Bobby Woodland. He helped me to get my musician’s card, so that I could work the union halls and hotel circuit. I worked every Friday with him at the summer resorts in upstate NY. The Raleigh, the Pines and the Emerson immediately come to mind, but there were others. Because everybody had to have a “latin” name, he was billed as Bobby Madera. His music was strictly for dancing, and since I was no stranger to Afro-Cuban rhythms I fell right in with the crowd.
CHICO: Terry, are you saying that you sort of “got comfortable” with that groove?
TERRY: No, not really, because I wanted to play everything. I got my opportunity to play some swing jazz in ’62 when trumpeter Doc Cheatham hired me to play at Jack Silverman’s International Cabaret, downstairs on Broadway and 52nd St., in downtown Manhattan. I worked on and off with Cheatham and Woodland from ’62 until ’69. Birdland was another place where I found steady work, with drummer Willie Bobo. I would play with Cheatham at Silverman’s from Tuesday until Sunday, and then with Willie on Monday nights. I was gigging seven nights a week back then. Cheatham was always taking me with him over to the Palladium, where he was a regular. All the guys in Machito’s band respected and admired him.
CHICO: Is there anyone else that we should know about?
TERRY: Well, I have to say that it was a real pleasure to have substituted on more than one occasion for the great René Hernández at the Palladium and the St. George Hotel, with the Machito Orchestra, when the maestro was sick. In ’69 I made a special trip down to Miami, to perform at the Eden Roc Hotel with singer Chubby Checker, who was flying high with his “Limbo Rock”. Mauricio Smith was the musical director and he got me that gig. With Chubby we also did the President Hotel in Atlantic City and also RDA, a private club in Philadelphia. This was during a time when new dances were being made up every week, and Chubby was on top of his game. All in all, the sixties were really good to me.
CHICO: Dance music certainly has kept you busy my man. But it wasn’t always just about dance floor, right?
TERRY: No, of course not. I had my fling with serious music too. After the gigs with Chubby, Mauricio and I got together again and played for a couple of years at the Ali Baba East in Manhattan and the Carlton Terrace in Queens. We played mostly jazz, with a hint of “latin” now and then. I played the hammond organ back then, and singer Nell Carter used to come by the Ali Baba after her Broadway gig and “jam” with us. Man, she loved that band. We made that groove work for us until around 1974. But the dance circuit was where the steady work was. I returned to the Catskills briefly with Billy Ford and the Thunderbirds and then worked with Mauricio at The Rainbow Room. The great Mexican bassist Víctor Venegas was on that gig.
CHICO: How about the charanga bands, did you play with any of them?
TERRY: Well, Frank Mercado was a well known singer at that time and he hooked me up with José Fajardo’s charanga band on a few gigs. Another charanguero was Lou Perez, with whom I worked on occasion at the Hotel Neville. The charanga style was very big at the time. There was plenty of work around then and people were always willing to go out dancing. But the hardest working bandleader by far had to be Argüeso. While Ramón was alive, I was always assured of steady work at Roseland.
VAYA MEANS GO!: The Latins Take Manhattan
In 1952, Roseland was still a great place to go for classic American dance music, as was the old Arcadia Dance Hall, but for the hip young crowd there was nothing that could compete with the Palladium Ballroom, where dancing on 2 and in clave was paramount. It was the place, where the wild and hot Cuban rhythms ruled the dance floor. It was at this location that Pérez Prado’s crazy “Mambo No. 5” became the rage, earning el mambo the title of king of all dances. The once re-named Alma Dance Studio was now the official home of the mambo. Sure, there were other clubs throughout the city, such as the Caborojeño, Broadway Casino, El Cubanacan, Park Palace, Park Plaza, Gloria Palace and Havana-Madrid in Manhattan, and the Tropicana, Tropicola, Hunts Point Palace, La Campana, and Tropicoro in the Bronx, but nothing compared to the popularity of the Palladium. A mere stone’s throw from Roseland and Birdland, it was at the center of the urban mecca. At the height of its popularity, the club attracted an array of Hollywood and Broadway stars and personalities. Every Wednesday night there would be free dance lessons by instructors such as Killer Joe Piro and Carmen Marie Padilla. The Palladium would offer mass dance lessons for the huge crowds, proclaiming itself the “temple of mambo” and Hollywood inevitably capitalized on the craze. Piro can be seen dancing the mambo to the music of Tito Rodríguez in the 1950 Universal short subject, “Mambo Madness.” Much has been said and written about this music and about this epoch, and particularly about the venue (some of it erroneously), so I am not going to go into a whole lot of detail about it. Suffice to say that the late sixties and early seventies were a time of radical change, and that dance music would soon become a casualty of war. The proverbial shit would hit the fan on May 1st, 1966, when the Palladium would shut its doors forever.
Soon, there would be new kid on the block, a contender, a new dance and style that in ’66 was still in its infancy. It was mambo’s own first cousin – “salsa” – soon to be crowned the queen of all rhythms. I asked Terry about this crazy period in time, not only in relation to his own career, but his impression in general of the post-mambo dance scene in New York.
CHICO: Terry, what do you remember about the seventies, outside of the Roseland environment?
TERRY: Well, I know that there were still a few dance clubs competing around back then, such as the Ipanema, Corso and Casablanca, but the whole atmosphere had already started to change by 1975. Each club had its own crowd. Discothèques replaced the old ballrooms and disco dancing became the new dance craze. Studio 54, which opened in ’77, was a very popular discothèque. It was originally a Broadway theater, then a radio station and finally a television station. It was right behind Roseland, and eventually it took a lot of business away from us. The revolting idea that live musicians were not longer needed was totally unheard of until the disco era. During the 80’s deejays were cheap, and pre-recorded music was easy enough to put through a sound system, thus making it sound like a real band was in the room. This really hurt musicians, not just latin musicians, but musicians in general. When I started with Argüeso at Roseland, we worked six nights a week. Then it was five, then four, then three and by the time it was all over, we had been reduced to just playing on Sundays. Maybe it was the clientele, I just don’t know.
CHICO: You may be right about that Terry. In the beginning, Roseland had a “whites only” policy and it was billed as the “home of refined dancing”. Even during its peak years it was somewhat segregated, unlike the Palladium, which had a healthy mix of cultures and races. The thing that really made Roseland famous was the big bands that played there, such as Sam Lanin and his Ipana Troubadours, Vincent López, Harry James, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, and its star-studded ceiling and innovative dance contests. But segregation and racism cannot flourish where there is love. Music was the element that brought people together, and eventually black dances such as the jitterbug were heard at Roseland. The appearance by the Count Basie Orchestra was a breakthrough in the all-white atmosphere of the club. It just had to change.
The original owner was Louis Brecker, and when he sold the building in 1981, the new owners began to scheduled “disco nights”, giving the boot to the “latin” crowd and ushering in a period when Roseland was considered a dangerous place to be and a neighborhood menace. Sundays were maintained for the older mature crowd and subsequently it became a place where senior citizens could go and re-live their heydey. Young “latinos” stopped going altogether. Disco music had killed the “latin” scene, perhaps unwillingly. The Sunday crowd was aristocratic, somewhat arrogant. By the time I started playing with your band there, it had turned into a nursing home. I felt like I was in a time warp. My only consolation was that I was playing alongside such stellar players as yourself, Frankie Colón, Gene Jefferson, Edy González and Richard Vitale.
TERRY: Those were good times for me, despite the deminished crowd. I know that they will never, ever come back.
CHICO: In 1974 Brecker was quoted in the New York Times as saying: “Cheek-to-cheek dancing, that’s what this place is all about.” But that too would soon change, when a fellow by the name of Phil Peters became the first latin music promoter to rent the ballroom for his own personal events, catering to the younger crowd. Among his promotions was the Women’s Liberation Dance, which was quite succesfull. Peters had an “exclusive” contract with Brecker, that stated he would be the “only” latin promoter to throw dances there, and that eventually led to that great bash I spoke of before, the one dedicated to Miguelito Valdés. That was the one time that I actually saw a rainbow of people at Roseland, black, brown and beige, all hanging with the anglos. The Africans and the Asians would join in later, much later.
TRY THE IMPOSSIBLE: New Age Fusion and Confusion
Despite the turmoil that was taking place,1977 was a great year for dance music, and for music of all types. My generation bore witness to the the birth and rise of funk, disco, art rock, hard rock, progressive rock, glam rock, punk rock, jazz rock fusion, latin rock, chamber jazz, reggae, heavy metal and hip hop. Nueva cancion, cumbia and merengue were taking hold in Mexico, Spain and Latin America. But in New York City, salsa was still supreme. Merengue was running a close second place.
’77 was also the year that a film by the same name was released. “Roseland” was directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismael Merchant. The film never really spoke to me, as it dealt with the waltz, the hustle and the peabody. It was an amalgam of three short stories where the protagonists were all trying to find the right dance partner, and I personally did not relate to any of it. Perhaps, if they had also shown me a bit of the Cuban mambo, then maybe I, along with ten thousand other young hispanics, would have been attracted. The episodic storyline is unified by an unending flow of vintage hit songs. The most effective vignette involves cleaning lady Skala, whose minimum-wage job supports her weekly ballroom fests. A similar technique had been used four years earlier by director Leon Gast in “Our Latin Thing”, a low budget musical documentary that dealt with the urban (and some would argue ghetto) lifestyle of New York’s “latinos” during the 70’s. The main dance scenes were filmed at Roseland’s nemesis, the Cheetah, on August 26, 1971 and throughout New York City’s hispanic neighborhoods. In July of 1972, the first few images flickered on the screen at the movie’s premiere in New York’s Line 2 cinema. Gast, who had been born in Jersey City, and was not a stranger to urban street life, brilliantly articulated the movie’s mood and sucked in its young audience. From a Spanish Harlem rooftop, an hispanic looking boy looked down on the street below as an Afro-Cuban rumba rhythm played in the background. Down at the street level, the young boy kicked an empty can around, while an electric piano began to introduce a son montuno riff, bringing the scene to life. That montuno was Ray Barretto’s “Cocinando”, as Cuban a tune as you can get, yet it was being tagged as something new. He had actually recorded this catchy number many years earlier, as part of a Cuban descarga album. Under the careful direction of Gast, the camera crew then followed the young boy across empty lots, through wire meshes and into unlit basements, over rubbish-filled stoops and into a burnt-out block where the neighborhood kids were jamming on their tumbadoras. It was a fantastic percussive groove that would eventually wipe out any and all memory of ballroom dancing.
It is interesting to note that long after the decline of “salsa”, during the last two decades of the twentieth century, dancers over 60 years of age were still moving their feet to the rhythms of mambo, cha cha chá, lindy hop, jitterbug, swing jazz and Carolina shagg.
And Roseland? It still stands there, for what purpose no one knows.
By 1980 the hard core mambo/salsa dancers had lost many of their best venues, which gave rise to smaller clubs with less space, making it prohibitive for their owners to hire more than one band. It was the beginning of the end. The other factor was the ever changing face of “latin” music itself. The marielitos had brought with them a new fresh sound from the island, a sound that as just begging to let be heard. Undoubtedly, the seeds of “timba” were in that exodus. In 1984 a teenager was shot to death on the dance floor in Roseland. In 1990, after a tourist by the name of Brian Watkins was killed on the subway platform, four of the eight suspects were found partying at the club. As a result, “disco nights” were discontinued and there were concerns over it being torn down for redevelopment. In 1996, a new owner, Laurence Ginsburg, filed plans to tear down the venue and replace it with a 42-story, 459-unit apartment building. A spokesman for Ginsburg said the filing was to “beat a deadline for new, more stringent earthquake codes, which went into effect earlier” in 1996. It wasn’t of course, and the interior space has been subsequently renovated, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t eventually come down. All in the name of progress, I guess. During its fifty some odd years at the 52nd St. location, Roseland has hosted everything from a Hillary Clinton birthday party to musical performances from rock artists like Madonna, Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones, but the most memorable evening for Latin New Yorkers is the night that Miguelito Valdés, the man from the barrio of Belén, was honored by his peers and by his adoring fans. I was there, and it is one night I will always remember fondly. Who would have known that on that night, “latin” music as we knew it, was about to die.
Finally, I asked Terry to give me his opinion on “salsa” and this is what he replied: Chico, what can I say? I simply love it and I enjoy playing it, more than anything else, except maybe latin jazz! But to be perfectly honest, it is the same stuff I’ve been playing since my youth back in Panama. I mean, there have been certain innovations throughout the years, but basically, it is the same swinging son montuno and mambo that I have always played. The arrangements and the messages may have changed somewhat, reflecting the different times, but the foundation and the structure have remained unchanged since the 50’s.
CHICO: And what about rap and reggaetón?
TERRY: You know Chico, I don’t like to put anyone down, but I personally cannot get into it. To me, it’s a degeneration of what we once knew as music. I suppose every generation feels the need to go its own way, you know, do their own thing as it were, but this stuff is just totally off-color. It doesn’t even qualify as music. Sorry to be so blunt, but I can’t hear anything musical in it. Why, these so-called artists don’t even use real musicians for the recordings! Invariably, the end result is concocted electronically in the studio, without any kind of chart, usually by one or perhaps two persons, neither of whom has even studied the bare rudiments of music. I mean, how are they gonna reproduce these sounds in a live setting? The answer is that they can’t.
Sadly, it sounds like they are scrapping the bottom of the barrel. Maybe it’s time to throw away the blueprint, and start from scratch again. You know, create music, and not just sounds.