How many times have you hopped on a Conga line to “chachacha” at a wedding? As a kid, you probably learned many Christmas songs for that annual holiday concert—among them being “Feliz Navidad”. Hairbrush in hand, teenage you (and maybe even grown adult you) belted your heart out in front of a mirror to Christina Aguilera’s “I Am Beautiful”, memorized the lyrics to Jennifer Lopez’s “Jenny From the Block” or danced like nobody’s watching to Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca”. And today? You’re probably listening to “Despacito” as you’re reading this post, right now.
The Hispanic influence on the American landscape is both undeniable and deep-rooted — especially the impact it’s had (and still has) on American music. From the birth of Latin jazz to salsa and Latin pop to reggaeton, when it comes to Latin music it’s impossible to speak about its history without mentioning New York City.
So, in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re taking you on a quick tour of some Big Apple spots where powerful Latin roots gave way to an explosive new music scene, incredible musical fusions and time-transcending genres that still thrive and grow today.
We hope you brought your dancing shoes.
Park Plaza and Park Palace
Dubbed the birthplace of New York Latin dance music, in the 1920s New Yorkers from all over the city came to Park Plaza to get their groove on. From rhumba to mambo to cha-cha-cha, the once predominantly Jewish and Italian East Harlem slowly gave way to Puerto Rican “El Barrio” and as a result the Palace was reborn, becoming the indelible epicenter of Latin nightlife. This part of the club (park plaza) was the main, high-ceilinged hall on the second floor, which held 1500 people (whoa)!
Latin people from all different backgrounds and communities came here to dance to the music of their homelands and to bask in the memories and nostalgia of their native countries. It was a place where people felt at home, enjoying the simple pleasures of eating their traditional foods and music of their cultures. So why is it such a big deal? Latin music legends and trailblazers such as Tito Puente, Joe Cuba, and other great singers started their music careers in this very establishment, sparking the start to a new generation of Latin music and dance.
Down the stairs from the Park Plaza was the Park Palace — a smaller space perfect for and often used as a venue community social events. Like its upstairs neighbor, the Park Palace (now a thriving Museum for African Art) helped launch the careers of Latin music prodigies such as Machito and the Afro-Cubans, Charlie and Eddie Palmieri. A creative merger of music bounced from the walls of both the Park Plaza and Park Palace, combining Cuban rhythms, vocal melodies from Puerto Rico and African drum beats. The New York energy pulsed through the music and through the heartbeats of the mambo and salsa dancers, and by the 1940s and 1950s, these venues had produced a distinctive New York sound, creating the much-loved and internationally famed Latin music genres such as mambo, rhumba, salsa, Latin jazz and so much more!
The Salsa Heroes Wall
East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem, is often referred to as the birthplace of the Latin music revolution. A New York City neighborhood that spawned such incredible talent out of its working-class immigrant past, that the artists, the music, and the culture would withstand the test of time and space. On the corner of 104th Street and Third Avenue, you’ll find one of Spanish Harlem’s most memorable outdoor artworks — a mural depicting the “Salsa Heroes”. This mural features Ismael Rivera, Hector Lavoe, La India, Marc Anthony, Tito Puente, Tito Rojas, and Gilberto Santa Rosa– New-York based, Puerto Rican salsa idols of the past and present. Adding to this already star-studded and historically significant piece of art, is, of course, the artist himself: renowned street artist James de la Vega.
Winter Garden Theater
The Winter Garden Theater was first opened in 1911 and since then has become the home to some of the most renowned Broadway productions ever staged — among them is the 6-time Tony Awards-nominated production of West Side Story. Following in footsteps of the Latin cultural revolution that swept the New York City (and the nation) in the 1940s, this groundbreaking musical, composed by Leonard Bernstein, first hit the stage on September 26th, 1957… and made history. The musical debuted the day after the forced integration of Central High School in Little Rock, making the musical’s story of racial conflict both radical and controversial, while also opening the doors to the much-needed conversations about the flourishing diversity throughout the nation—especially in New York City. The story is a reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet transposed onto 1950s Upper West Side, New York. A love affair between Tony, a Polish American, and Maria, a Puerto Rican girl, sparks controversy, tensions and intense rivalry, alluding to the stories of living among the urban, interracial background of the time. Of course, the music alone is a something to be noted, boasting a combination of popular American music and the new wave of vibrant Latin tunes and rhythms.
Papa loves mambo, Mama loves mambo
Look at ’em sway with it, gettin’ so gay with it
Shoutin’ Olé with it, wow!
You’ve heard of Perry Como’s “Papa Loves Mambo” and Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5”… but do you know where the craze for this Afro-Cuban inspired, music and dance genre started? The story goes something like this: The Palladium Ballroom had a rocky start, opening in post-WWII America. To save it Maxwell Hyman, a Jewish tailor and owner of the establishment introduced Latin music to the ballroom on a random Sunday night; it was an instant success. The initial lack of interest was promptly turned around as America experienced its biggest Hispanic immigration spike of the time. The massive influx of immigrants from Cuba, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Mexico and other South American countries introduced bursts of fresh moves, unforgettable rhythms and new notions of nightlife to the NYC dance scene, and the Palladium Ballroom became the breeding ground for a new music craze forging peppy Cuban rhythms with African folk beats — a.k.a the mambo.
The mambo, now a world-renowned Latin dance style still popular today, gained its wildfire popularity thanks to the Palladium Ballroom. Unlike many of the posh nightclubs that were popping up around midtown Manhattan, the social currency to get into this joint was never class or color; it was your ability to dance. Back in those days, there were definitely no DJs, so big bands and prominent musicians such as Arsenio Rodríguez and his band, Celia Cruz, Beny Moré, La Lupe, Tito Rodriguez, Machito, and Tito Puente played live for hours to keep up with the demands of the club dancers (like Desi Arnaz, Millie Donay and Pete Aguilar)—now that’s impressive!
Most famous as the school that 65th U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell attended as a child, but there’s another famed identity to this elementary school; it was the rehearsal space where Latin music legends met and performed making it a site of tremendous musical creativity and talent during the height of the Latin music era in New York.
In the 1950s, a group of teenagers was playing stickball in front of this school building decided to form a band. Eddie Palmieri, Orlando Marín, and Joe Quijano started rehearsing at P.S. 52 because it had a piano and enough space to accommodate the sound of the band’s trumpets. At the time, these Latin music legends were just dreamers, excited for the opportunity play their music and have a space to create new sounds and rehearse; little did they know that in this small room in a Bronx elementary school, they were making history. In exchange for rehearsal space, the band played at the school’s Friday night dances and at the nearby Police Athletic League. With their undeniable talent, the band quickly built a vast following and started to playing bigger gigs throughout New York City (like Park Palace), and before you knew it, they went from a few teenagers practicing in a small classroom to a national sensation, revolutionizing the Latin music scene.
If you’re a music shop lover, we’re positive that you’ll love Casa Amadeo. Originally opened in 1927, this shop goes down in history as the oldest, continuously run Latin music store that is still open to this day. It is also one of the few remaining intact sites connected with New York City’s postwar Latin music scene. While her brother Rafael composed music, Victoria Hernandez, the original owner of the store, ran the place on her own becoming one of the first and only woman entrepreneurs in the Puerto Rican community in the 1920s. So why is this place on our list, beyond being on both the State and national Registers of Historic Places, this music store was far more than a place to buy records and instruments. Stores like Casa Amadeo were gathering places for musicians both to hang out, as well as a place to seek employment, as bandleaders and record companies frequented these spots, looking for session players for big bands and conjuntos (bands composed of four main instruments: the button accordion, acoustic guitar, an electric bass, and conga drums). This place holds a special place in the Latin community and its significance to the Latin music scene in New York City and its role in the Puerto Rican migration experience makes it a must-see spot in the Big Apple.
Have any places you’d like to add to the list? Let us know all about them in the comments below!