Uptown Boogaloo


Jonathan Goldman, trumpet player and bandleader for boogaloo outfit Spanglish Fly, will bring his band to Goddard Riverside Community Center on Sept. 29, his first performance with the group in his neighborhood. Photo: Gabrielle Alfiero
A literature teacher rediscovers the musical joys of his roots
By gabrielle Alfiero

As a boy, Jonathan Goldman’s parents wanted him to learn an instrument. He picked trumpet; he liked E.B. White’s children’s story “The Trumpet of the Swan.” It didn’t stick.

“I quit as soon as they let me,” said Goldman.

When he was 18, the waiting list for the Mitchell-Lama apartment building he grew up in on 90th Street and Columbus Avenue opened up, and his mother urged him to apply.

“I had no intention of ever living there again,” said Goldman, who attended University of California, Berkeley and now teaches literature at New York Institute of Technology. “And she said, ‘just trust me. You might thank me one day.’”

Goldman, 43, found his way back to the neighborhood he was quick to leave, and the instrument he put aside. Fourteen years ago, he moved in to the building where he grew up and now lives (his parents still live upstairs). After years away from music, Goldman picked up the trumpet again while working on his Ph.D. at Brown University, a creative respite from days spent studying literature. Six years ago, he started boogaloo band Spanglish Fly, recruiting musicians for the outfit through an ad on Craigslist. The 10-piece band released their second album, “New York Boogaloo,” earlier this month, and a flurry of fall concerts includes a show at Goddard Riverside Community Center on Sept. 29, just blocks from Goldman’s nearly lifelong home.

Boogaloo, a genre that combines traditional Latin and Afro-Caribbean rhythms with blues and soul, started in New York in the 1960s, before dipping into obscurity, a history Goldman explored in a 2014 piece for the Paris Review. He speaks of a swelling boogaloo revival, and with Spanglish Fly, he looks to bring new audiences to the forgotten form.

“When I started this band, part of my intention was to play this music because I thought it would be fun to play,” said Goldman, who, with loose, curly brown hair, prominent sideburns, and tattoos looks more like a bandleader than a literature professor. “The other part was to bring it to people who had never heard it. And that’s been the most gratifying thing about it.”

Latin music was part of the fabric of Goldman’s Upper West Side childhood. He remembers hearing salsa in the street and watching drum circles in a vacant lot near his apartment building. Still, he didn’t start playing Latin music until he formed Spanglish Fly six years ago, after working as a DJ brought him to boogaloo records. Spanglish Fly’s performance at Goddard is a bit of a delayed musical homecoming for Goldman. After six years with the group, the show is the first he’ll play with the band in his own neighborhood.

An eclectic mix of musicians makes up the group, with some rooted in Latin music, Goldman said, and others from Brooklyn brass bands and funk scenes, a logical range given boogaloo’s inherent layering of genres.

Trombone player Sebastian Isler came to New York to play jazz. He met Goldman through a mutual friend five years ago and joined the band shortly after. He said Goldman’s clear vision for the group from the outset—to update boogaloo sounds while honoring the genre’s roots—remains.

“On the one hand we want to modernize it, but on the other hand there’s a real respect for the tradition of it,” Isler said. “So there’s a blending of these two worlds that he’s always kept in mind.”

In some ways, that credo reflects in the production of “New York Boogaloo.” Izzy Sanabria, who designed the covers of Latin music records in the 1960s and 1970s, did the album artwork, with help from his daughter Jacqueline, an aspiring artist. Harvey Averne, who produced for Latin music label Fania Records (Celia Cruz and Willie Colon were among the label’s artists) produced the last track on the album. Adrian Quesada, a member of contemporary Latin-funk group Grupo Fantasma, also produced.

By nature, boogaloo breaks down barriers and encourages connections, Goldman said, and audiences tap in to the energy of the music and the atmosphere of the crowd. Isler calls performing “an interaction” with the audience. For Goldman, it’s a party.

“You get up and shake your thing…because it sounds like funk music. It sounds like soul music. It happens to have a cha-cha beat. You can do salsa steps but you can also just get up and move around,” said Goldman as he finished a bagel and coffee at Mila Café on 94th Street and Columbus Avenue, before picking up his 4-year-old daughter from school. “It’s a party and everyone is invited, and once you’re here you’re not going to be thinking about where else you can be.”