Photo by by Jason Goodman
Pianist, bandleader, composer and 2013 NEA Jazz Master, Eddie Palmieri talks about his innovative music which blends Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz. [32:21]
Eddie Palmieri—Podcast Transcript
But if there's any wisdom that I have that I don't guess, I'm gonna excite you with my band. I know it. And that's what kept this band going throughout the years.
That's pianist, composer, bandleader and 2013 NEA Jazz Master, Eddie Palmieri.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Known as one of the finest Latin jazz pianists of the past 50 years, Eddie Palmieri is a bandleader of both salsa and Latin jazz orchestras. His playing blends the rhythm of his Puerto Rican heritage and the explosiveness of the Cuban music he heard as a kid in the Bronx with the melody and complexity of his jazz influences. These influences include Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, and most notably, his brother, the great Charlie Palmieri.
Eddie Palmieri's professional career as a pianist took off in the early 1950s when he played with various bands in New York City including the popular Tito Rodriguez Orchestra. In 1961, Palmieri formed his own band, La Perfecta. La Perfecta's unconventional front line of trumpets created the innovative sound that mixed American jazz into Afro-Cuban music.
In 1975, Palmieri won the first-ever Grammy Award for Best Latin Recording for his album The Sun of Latin Music. It was by no means the last. So far, Eddie has won nine Grammy awards including two for his influential recording with Tito Puente,Masterpiece.
In addition to the Grammys, Eddie Palmieri has received many awards and honors, including the Eubie Blake Award, the Harlem Renaissance Award, and the Jay McShann Lifetime Achievement Award. And now he has been named a 2013 NEA Jazz Master. Even though Eddie may be considered the elder statesman of Latin jazz, believe me, he shows no signs of slowing down.
We finally found some time in his busy schedule and sat down and the new Opera center in New York City. Given that he, and his only sibling Charlie, both had spectacular musical careers, I was very curious about his family and the place of music in their lives.
EDDIE PALMIERI: My mother arrived in 1925 from Puerto Rico. She was about 16 going on 17, already had experience with being a seamstress. SMy father arrived in 1926, because my grandmother didn't like him so she chased him with a broom. All over Ponce, Puerto Rico. And then they married in New York. My mother and father got married in '26, my brother was born in '27, and I was born nine years later. No brothers, no sisters in between. So I was quite blessed.
Your mother loved music?
She loved music, but she wanted my brother to be a pianist. And he certainly was, he was a phenom at 14. The only problem he had, he was already working at 14. And some of the dancers, you know, he would go early to play, but the worst thing was at the theater he'd say, "Charlie, your mother is outside waiting for you." That didn't work right.
To bring him home?
To bring him home. And then at eight years old, I went on the piano. And then until I was 13, because I wanted to be my brother's drummer. I was banging all over the house and my grandfather told my mother, "You know, you better get the kid, the timbalas he's asking for, 'cause he's ruining all the lamps, all the furniture. Let's get him the timbalas." Because Tito Puente had made the timbalas very popular in those years, 1949 going into '50. And my brother, when he got married, I was 11 years old and then he went with Tito Puente for a couple of years. So you could imagine. Me, I was like wow, you know, and I'm 13. So then my mother, being brilliant, only the superiority of woman can do that, okay?
No arguments here.
She bought me a metal box that weighed more than two or three pairs of timbalas. And then she would wait for my uncle to play the horn to tell me to come down to go do the engagement. You know. And then I picked up this box, this metal box. She would tell me, "Eddie"—in Spanish, she'd say, "Don't you see how beautiful your brother looks when he goes to work and he doesn't have to carry an instrument? What will you learn, Eduardo?" "All right, Ma." And it took two years for her to convince me that I was on the wrong track. And I then, I made a deal with my cousin, my uncle that he couldn't refuse and I went back on the piano.
And you studied with Margaret Bonds?
Margaret Bonds was one of my teachers because of my brother. At 11 years old, I was studying with Miss Margaret Bonds. She was a great teacher, a great concert pianist, she's in the negro history books, and her studio was in the Carnegie Hall building. She had rented a studio upstairs, and she was doing her own concerts at the same time. She was a concert player. But my brother was her student. He used to recommend me for either teachers or bands later on. So he was my main inspiration, you were right.
Now, your father was an electrician, he repaired radios?
Radio and television.
But then he bought a candy store?
A candy store that was maybe in the early 1900s. It was all red, I'd never forgotten that. And he turned into one of the most beautiful luncheonette that my mother and grandmother cook, and my grandfather and my father were partners. But they didn't really get along together, so it didn't last too long. But my grandmother, one of the greatest cooks and my mother too. And the place was doing great, and I was like the soda jerk, I made great egg creams, you know. Sell cigarettes for $0.18 a pack, or four for $0.05, then it got a little tighter, economics, so we had to go three for $0.05. And I would bring the empty sodas up and down the basement and that. But I controlled the jukebox.
That's what I was going to ask you.
Oh, that was it.
So what did you have going on the jukebox?
Oh, the best music that you could imagine. And all the cute guys were playing, the seniors were playing stickball. They would come in there, and I would have Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Machito which was THE orchestra. Machito was that for Cubans at that time, that orchestra started in 1939. And all these records, and all I was putting in the jukebox, and it was called the Mambo, the restaurant. I named it.
That is good.
That was the height of the mambo,that was coming from Cuba. And the highest position that we've ever had in our genre. Worldwide. The mambo.
You really kind of came of age at an incredible time in Latin music in New York.
I was very fortunate. Because when my brother started, then I heard the great orchestras, from the you know the big bands. Woody, Herrmann, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller. My brother would bring him in, you know, because there was, by the pre-war in that I was born in Manhattan, between 112th, between Madison and Park, but we moved in 1941, 42, right… World War I, or World War II, excuse me, into the Bronx. What was known as the South Bronx. The Bronx was gorgeous then, you know, and that's where I was raised. So then, there, they was the commercial radio, like in the early '48, '49, was playing the Machito Orchestra, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez. So we were listening to that all day long. And that's what I loved, I wanted to be a dance orchestra leader and I wanted to fulfill my dream.
In 1949, I think I have that right, that's when the Palladium opened, in late '49?
Can you talk about the importance of the Palladium for Latin music in New York?
The Palladium was known as Alma Dance Studio. It was a two-story high, right across the street from the Ed Sullivan Theater. On Wednesdays you had the mambo show, which was the amateur hour and they put the numbers on the back, like in the movie They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Or something like that. But whoever won, you got $25 a piece. Then came the professional dancers.
In the audience, you could have maybe a Marlon Brando, Kim Novak, all the Hollywood starlets because it was the height of the mambo. Then on Fridays you had the all the gamblers. They would take all the tables, they left a lot of money there, too. On Saturday, you had the blue-collar, mostly Puerto Rican. And then Sunday was black, Afro-American.It was intermingled or different nationalities that had nothing to do whether you were green, purple, white, we came to dance.
And the greatest dancers came there to play, to dance to the greatest orchestras ever. When I played the Palladium Ballroom in 1956 for the first time, we worked four nights. We did 16 shows for $72 and they took out taxes. The scale was $18 to do four shows a night of 45 to 50 minutes.
By 1961, I started my own orchestra. And by '63 I played the Palladium, I stood in the Palladium, and I closed the Palladium in 1966.
When was your first professional gig?
In 1955 with a quintet. And we played Cutchins Country Club. That was our first gig. Monticelo.
I was gonna say, the Catskills, right?
Yeah, the Catskills. Then I started with Vincentico Valdes in '56. Which is the best thing that happened to me. Then I became aware of the music coming out of Cuba. I already knew some because of my brother naturally. But really got into, and I dedicated my whole life to study and analyze how could a '78 recording of less than three minutes excite me so much. And I studied the structures of why it happened. I learned it intuitively until I learned it scientifically later with a teacher called Mr. Bob Bianco, who took me into another world. And he was the harmonic teacher for jazz, but he also taught the Schillinger System.
I was recommended to him by the great trombonist Barry Rodgers that played with me when we started La Perfecta, you know. And it as the best thing that ever happened to me. But before I met him, I went with Vicentico Valdes, and we played like the graveyard shift, which they call, which meant the summer in the Palladium for two months, you know, July and August, until the big bands came back from the Catkskills. So I played with Vicentico in '56. Then I went with Tito Roridguez for two years. But he didn't have a band; he had a Vegas act which didn't go well and I still went with him from '58 to '60. But I did record Live at the Palladium in 1959 for United Artists, and it's a great, great recording. Live at the Palladium Ballroom with Tito Rodriguez.
That Tito Rodriguez album, Live at the Palladium, that had a lot of jazz to it too, didn't it?
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, great band. It was a mix between Latin and jazz, and I played, I was able to do because I was playing already with Vicentico Valdes.
Well, this leads us to La Perfecta. How did you come to form La Perfecta?
Oh! I always wanted a conjunto.
Explain what that means.
Without saxophones. Just trumpets. You had timbalas, conga, bongo, bass, piano, vocal, three trumpets. The trumpets and that, you know. So there was a friend of mine that's called Becco, you know, Angelo Rosaro. He used to deliver groceries. He eventually in Hunts Point Avenue, which was the Hunts Point Palace also; Southern Boulevard, in the Bronx, in the theater building. He took a floor, and he turned that into a place called the Tritons. Social club.
I went there on a Tuesday and by that time, Johnny Pacheco, who had been playing with my brother Charlie. And Johnny Pacheco was a great percussionist and my brother brings him in with the quartet. And my brother records with him for United Artists and Pacheco then goes on his own and becomes so popular. Then he did this in Becco's Tritons, a jam session on Tuesdays. And I went there one Tuesday, and there's where I hear and see Barry Rodgers. Who had long hair like the hippie...I always said later on after we met and worked together that if God was perfection, then Barry was near perfection. Everything he did, he was truly a genius.
He was the trombonist?
My trombonist. He was a great mechanic, a great photographer, great driver, I mean, just…one after the other, everything and he sailed boats with his father, everything. He died so young. But Barry was so essential to La Perfecta. And we started with seven and then we added another trombone. We had different trombone players, but he found the Brazilian trombonist called Jose Rodriguez, and those two trombone players have left forever what will never be equal. You know, by two trombone players, ever, ever, ever. I don't care who comes. We set a whole new precedent of an orchestra having two trombones upfront. Because Barry sang coro with the lead singer, and the flute player played the wooden flute which was the sound I wanted. It's a beautiful timbre. So I had the flute, I had Barry, and then we got the other trombone, and La Perfecta was with eight. La Perfecta changed everything in, in the history of our genre, in my opinion. Certainly in New York. And then influenced the world, because after that all the pawn shops got rid of their trombones. Because everyone wanted to play trombone. You know.
Well, if we're talking about La Perfecta, we're talking about Azucar.
Azucar per Ti is the fifth album. In 1965. And it was just awarded into the Library of Congress, it's there forever.
One of the great songs...
And it changed the whole ballgame because you could only allow 2 minutes and 45 seconds, and we did it, 8 minutes and 30 seconds. And I told the gentleman who was the A&R man, that was Artists and Repertoire, his name was Teddy Reague. "This is not gonna be a normal..." "Eddie. Just record it. Don't worry about it." 8 minutes and 30 seconds and it became one of the biggest hits ever in our genre.
How was it getting radio play for that?
Oh, no problem, because Morris Levy controlled you know, the jazz station. And whoever he had his hands on, they had no choice but to play it, whether they liked it or not.
Another influence on your music was Claudio Severa.
Another teacher. He was fastidious in the independence of the finger. The independence of the finger is to like put them all on the keybed, three quarters of an inch down to the keybed, and then order them up. If you controlled the fingers in, you could get thirds. See it's all uneven. How you gonna get clear thirds like bells? So it's touch-press, touch-press, touch-press. Very slowly, very patiently, and he helped me tremendously which helped me to accompany with one hand and soloing with the other.
On Azucar you were accused of having two piano players because you were playing, you were soloing and accompanying?
That's what I was talking about. As a matter of fact, when I did that recording, I brought Claudio Sabadra to the recording studio, and when he heard, he freaked out. My thing was I was being a drummer, so I wasn't prepared as much as a pianist. I always said my brother was the pianist and I'm the piano player, you know. But I said, I gotta come up with something different. So, and since I played drums, and since I was lefthanded, you know it took me years to break that left hand, though. But now, I could accompany myself in a typical juajero, and solo with the right.
Can we talk about your first recording session? How different was, in a recording setting, as opposed to playing in front of an audience who are dancing their hearts out?
Well I hadn't been playing for an audience all the time, you know. Naturally, you know, because I was playing with all the other orchestras. But my first recording of my own, that was a problem. Because I have a...when I play, I [MAKES SCREECHING HALT NOISE] and now they stop the recording, and "What is that?" And now we stop and now we start looking for this sound. What is this that we're hearing? What's the matter? And everybody's looking, and then they realize it was me. As I'm playing. So now they either wanted to gag me when I played, or certainly cover the whole piano, which they did. It was a, it was a mess, you know. But after that, the guy goes up, "If that's the way he plays, just leave him alone." You know.
You're dong all these gigs and recordings with La Perfecta…
The repertoire was your songs?
The majority of them were my songs, yeah.
When did you start composing?
Right away. Because I knew what the experience of the other bands, that if you're gonna be respected by your peers, you have to have your own signature. You have to have your own musical language, which was my compositions. And they all became hits on their own, from Mazuca to Monega to Café that it was written, the lyrics, by a cousin of mine, but I put the music. Everything I wrote was quite exciting, you know, and I certainly knew how to excite. I knew it intuitively, because I studied the Cuban structures. But what I went with Bob Bianco, I learned scientifically why it works. And that's because it's tension and resistance. That must be in all the compositions. To lead to an exciting musical climax, and that you built up when you have from the piano solo to the bongo, to the timbal. You're creating more and more tension. And you're creating more what they call synchronization of that rhythm section. And when that full tutti comes in or the trombones or flute, that's gonna blow you out. You know. And that was my mission, to do that to the dancers, you know. And they love the band, and it was a band to enjoy listening to, watching them play, and dancing to it.
I think of La Perfecta, there's jazz within a context of dance.
Yeah. Very good. You're absolutely right. Because at that time already, I had been studying with Bob Bianco, and I was more into the jazz chordal structure. But the band now is a young band. You know, everything changed. La Perfecta broke up. I went through mental situation when they broke up but that was because of a lot of different problems. Ego set in and then I'd taken care of the record. All that happens, you know. You're human. But you snap out of it, when I kept studying with Bob Bianco. Barry Rogers left. He left to do his own thing. And we met later on in a recording in 1974 that we did called Santigo. And the start of Latin music. In 1975 which wins the first Grammy. Barry was brought back to me to work together. It was magical when we got together. But between '68 and '74, we didn't have anything to do with each other musically. So I was a new man.
Then we come to the Son of Latin Music.
That was the first Grammy you won, and that was the first time NARIS recognized Latin music.
Seventeen years, it took for them. Unfortunately orchestras like Tito Rodriguez, Machito, my brother Charlie never had a chance to be nominated for Grammys, it didn't exist. And in 1975 I win the first one. ONE for all these Latin genres of music and all the Latin musicians in the world. One. The next year, I win it again, but unfortunately it's for an album called Unfinished Masterpiece. The record company said, you know, we're not gonna extend anymore money. So they released it without my permission. And I told him, "If you release this album, I'll never record for you again." And they certainly didn't believe me, so I locked up myself in my home for three years.
Never came out, never played, and never recorded again. I came out when CBS buys my contract off them for half a million dollars. I record Lucumi, Macumba, Voodoo. It doesn't sell, so I go back into the hands of the original owners. So I lock myself up in my home for another two years. And they went bankrupt. And then they sold my contract to Favia records. And then we recorded three more albums, I won three more Grammys.
Another unusual thing that you've done, is alright we have jazz within this dance context, but at the same time you have lyrics that are very philosophical and political. That's a third leg of that triangle that was also quite unusual, that marriage of all three.
In '68, '70, there was tension in the streets for sure. I was playing prisons for free. Sing Sing, I played twice. I went to Lewisburg where they were bringing in the people from Watergate.I played Rikers Island. As a matter of fact, Dizzy Gillespie went with me to Rikers Island, he was my emcee that day at Rikers Island. And here's what he said, "Before I bring out my Latin soul brother Eddie Palmieri," and all the convicts are sitting down, he goes, "Eddie, have you ever seen such a captive audience?" What a way to break this in.
But I did all the prisons, you know. And things like that, I was in the street, you know, and then that lends you compositions like Justicia, Justice. And then I wrote a composition called "La Liberta."
I want to talk about a CD you made, and I don't speak Spanish so please forgive me, but Vamanos...
Vamanos Pal Monte.
With your brother?
My brother played organ.
Right. How did that...?
One of the greatest solos ever, it'll never be duplicated. He can play that organ. My brother was a genius, you know. And then, he takes a great, great solo, and that, Vamanos Pal Monte, had to do with conditions that exist, you know, economical tensions. Everything's going up on you, you know, for example, rent, taxes, down the line, and wages tend to fall. So that's the deal.
I'm jumping ahead because I really want to talk about a CD you made in 1999 with Tito Puente.
Oh, you mean the Masterpiece?
Yeah. Well we, we had been talking about it through Ralph Mercaro. Ralph Mecaro was the greatest promoter we ever had, he died also, passed away, right after Tito a little bit. He started in a place called the 3 and 1 Club. It was a club on top of a car wash in Brooklyn. Nice to go and play there for him. Then from there, he became the greatest promoter ever. He did all the concerts for Fania, all over the world. And he, his favorite band was I but we were like oil and water. You know, we, you know we had a deep friendship, but we'd clash all the time, you know. And we had arguments about moneys, you know, and advances. He said, "Eddie, you want an advance on a gig that we don't even have yet, Eddie." You know, I said, "But Ralphie, we're only talking about paper, man." He goes, "Yeah, well why don't we start using some of your paper!" So those kind of arguments. But we really were very close, and he loved my band all the time because we, he knew that I wasn't kidding around on the bandstand, you know. And, unfortunately he passed away.
But it was his project. We do the Tito Puente. The problem with it, Tito was very ill for like 7 or 8 years. He had a valve problem in his heart. But he rose to the occasion to do that album. 'Cause he was to me the greatest bandstand warrior we ever, ever had. My brother, Tito Rodriguez, Machito, all of them—and myself—but Tito was amazing.
One of the great stories is he never took care of his business, he never bothered. And one day he calls the office, a young gentleman called Juan Toro. And he tells him, "Hey Juan, I've been looking at my contract"—that's the way he talked—"Shee! Something's wrong here." And Juan said, "Well, what is it, Tito? What threw you?" "It said here, I played two sets. So the young man thinks Tito might wanna play one long set, two 45-minute sets put into one. He goes, "Well, Tito, look, I'll talk to the promoter and you'll do one long set." He said, "No, I, I always do three." You know, he was amazing. He just kept playing, that was his life. And he was a hell of a drummer, you know, a showman. He changed the whole thing, vibes. He was a tremendous musician.
And we became very close, he was my brother's very dear friend. But Tito Puente left a tremendous vacuum like my brother Charlie, like Machito, like Tito Rodriguez, you know. I'm like sort of the last of the Mohicans, you know.
You also collaborated with Brian Lynch.
Brian Lynch has been with me two, two centuries now. He looks great for being 200 years old. He looks great, yeah. And Conrad Erwick, the greatest trombonist. 200 years old, also. And the timbal player, two centuries also. Brian Lynch is a professor at University of Miami now. And Conrad is at the University of Rutgers University in Jersey, in the jazz department. They're great musicians. They have recorded with me, great albums. When we did the Latin Jazz album of Palmas, you know, that's a classic. Because, my Latin jazz is based on instrumental mambos. They're not straight-ahead Latin jazz,there's structures that the instrumental mambos were very exciting for the dancers. The only thing it didn't have was the lyrics. But it had, it was like a very exciting Latin dance album, but vocal. It was called Instrumental Mambos. That's the structures that I use. So when someone excites you, you're gonna dance in your chair.
Finally, 9 Grammys, 36 albums…
And now you're an NEA Jazz Master.
Oh! A Jazz Master. I'm so honored. It's unbelievable that I was bestowed this honor, you know. And, harmonically, you know, I went into the jazz world, and my form of playing, I've been accepted in the jazz world. I've been very, very fortunate. And being accepted into the National Endowment of the Arts is my biggest honor, and I'm very, very honored and humbled that I was able to receive it. And I receive it in the name of my brother Charlie, also, 'cause that was my inspiration.
You've been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
For information about the music you've been listening , go to arts.gov and click on the transcript of this podcast.
Here's the musical supervisor, Adam Kampe with information about the music we've been listening to
Excerpt of "Soy Salero" performed by Machito and his Afro-Cubans
ALL OF THE FOLLOWING WERE WRITTEN AND PERFORMED BY EDDIE PALMIERI, UNLESS NOTED OTHERWISE.
Excerpt of Palmas from the cd Palmas used courtesy of Nonesuch Records.
Excerpt of "Tirandote Flores II" (co-written by Ismael Quintana)
from La Perfecta II, used courtesy of Concord Records
Excerpt of "La Libertad" and Iraida performed live at the National Opera Center, 2012
All the following songs are used courtesy of Fania Records.
Excerpts of "Yambu" and "Baila la Charanga" composed by TITO RODRIGUEZ from the album, Tito Rodriguez: Live at the Palladium
Excerpts of "Azucar" and "Los Cueros Me Llaman" from the album, Azucar Pa' Ti
Excerpt of "Mi Pollo" from the album, Eddie Palmieri and his Conjunto La Perfecta
Excerpt of "Nada De Ti" from the album, Sun of Latin Music
Excerpt of "Vamonos Pa'l Monte" performed by Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, from the album Vamonos Pa'l Monte
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Next week, Pulitzer-prize winning author Taylor Branch talks about his three-volume history, America in the King Years
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.