Seeds of Latin Jazz

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This story by Richard J. Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

August 19, 1998. All rights reserved.

For Trenton, Monstrous Latin Jazz

Eddie Palmieri’s passion for Latin jazz is infectious.

The 62-year-old bandleader, pianist, and percussionist speaks like

he plays the piano or the timbales — in rapid fire bursts —

as he discusses the music of Cachao, Machito, Tito Puente, and other

legendary figures in the world of Latin jazz. The five-time Grammy

Award winner will lead his crack backing band through a


set at the Trenton Jazz Festival on Saturday, August 22, from 2 p.m.

to midnight.

"This is a monstrous band," he says excitedly, in describing

the latest version of the Eddie Palmieri Orchestra, a 12-piece


that includes five horns and a vocalist.

"We have Herman Olivera singing and we have five horns. We also

have timbales, conga and bongo, a full rhythm section," he adds.

Due to the freelance schedule of most horn players (they keep


flexible to take extended gigs when they come up), Palmieri declined

to specify just who would be in his horn section. "Just


he says, "that whoever I bring, you can take it for granted that

he’s a great player, otherwise he’s not gonna be there!"

Eddie Palmieri was born in 1936 to Puerto Rican parents who came to

New York in the mid-1920s. Born in Spanish Harlem and raised in the

South Bronx, Palmieri says his most important influence was his older

brother, Charlie Palmieri. The elder Palmieri was a bandleader

and pianist of renown in the Latin jazz and dance world of New York

in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. He died in 1988 at the age of 60.

Palmieri, a self-described "frustrated


plays the keyboard as if it were a set of drums. He has been called

"the Latin Thelonious Monk" by Latin jazz percussionist Willie


"I’ve been told I solo like a drummer," Palmieri explains.

"I wanted to be a drummer for as long as I can remember. Then

I reconsidered, and finally went back to the piano." He began

taking piano lessons at age 8, and made his musical debut at age 11,

playing classical piano at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. He

credits his mother with helping to find his composing and arranging

voice on piano.

"She bought me the heaviest drum box to put the timbales in,"

he recalls, laughing, "and she would say to me, `Don’t you see

how beautiful your brother looks when he goes to work and doesn’t

carry an instrument? You’ll learn, Edward.’ And I’d tell her, `I’m

learning Ma, I’m learning.’"

Growing up in the South Bronx in the late 1950s, Palmieri heard all

the great Latin jazz orchestras, including the bands of Machito,


and Tito Rodriguez. He began his professional career in 1955, with

Eddie Forrester’s Orchestra, and later with Johnny Segui’s band. He

formed his first group, Conjunto La Perfecta, in the early 1960s.

The group split up in 1968 because of money problems. Although money

is always a problem with large ensembles, Palmieri says he blames


"It was because of my own lack of preparation as a


he explains. "To me, money is paper. We live in a system where

we must have money. My only goal over the years has been how to


my orchestras all the time, how to make them better and better so

I would always have employment. I only thought of how to make it sound

great, so that I would have constant employment. Then I knew the rest

would take care of itself."

In 1969 Palmieri started another orchestra, Los Diablitos, and about

the same time his abilities as pianist, arranger, and composer began

to be noticed beyond the music world of New York City. Recording for

the Coco and Fania labels, Palmieri’s bands were the first to use

two trombonists instead of two trumpet players.

Their music caught on. With infectious, dancing beats from three sets

of drums and a roaring, lush, full orchestra sound, Palmieri’s bands

soon joined the ranks of the other major Latin orchestras of the day.

In 1975 Palmieri won the first Grammy award ever awarded to a Latin

musician, for his album, "The Sun of Latin Music."

"I won the one Grammy in 1975 for all of Latin music, which was

really quite absurd," he recalls, "so I accepted it in the

name of Tito Rodriguez, who had died two years earlier."

Palmieri won a second Grammy the following year for his 1976 album,

"Unfinished Masterpiece." His other Grammy award-winning


include "Palo Pa’ Rumba" in 1984, "Solito" in 1985,

and "La Verdad" in 1987. Since 1960 when he began leading

his own band and recording under his own name, Palmieri has recorded

more than 30 albums. In 1988 the Smithsonian Institution recorded

two of Palmieri’s performances in 1988 for their music catalog of

the National Museum of American History.

Until recently, Palmieri was vice-president of the Board

of Governors of the New York Chapter of the National Academy of


Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the Grammy awards organization. "My

main mission there with NARAS, which was fulfilled, was to be


in getting more recognition for the category of Latin jazz," he


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Seeds of Latin Jazz

Latin jazz as a musical form began to evolve in 1947, when trumpeter

and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie made Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo

part of his orchestra. Gillespie performed a now-historic Carnegie

Hall concert with the percussionist and dancer, who was murdered the

following year in a Manhattan bar brawl. Throughout the 1950s and

’60s, bandleaders like Charlie and Eddie Palmieri, Rodriguez and


continued to develop the genre that blends Cuban and Caribbean rhythms

with jazz improvisation.

Palmieri and his elder brother were at the forefront of the Latin

jazz movement because, at the same time both were paying attention

to the Latin dance bands of Puente and Rodriguez, they also became

fascinated with the sounds of traditional and bebop jazz piano


musicians like Art Tatum, McCoy Tyner, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans,

and others. "All of that is in my playing," he explains,


jazz and the Latin influences. And I’ve been fortunate to have been

received with a high degree of respect from the jazz players as well

as from the Latin players."

What makes Palmieri’s compositions so unique? Unique enough and


enough to score him five Grammy awards? Different enough that every

album he recorded between 1978 and 1987 received a Grammy nomination?

"It’s my love for the structures that belong to these


the evolution and crystallization of these structures that came out

of Cuba, pre-1959," he says. "I’ve dedicated my life to it.

And I don’t just guess that my music will get you excited and up


— I know it!"

Also featured at the Trenton Jazz Festival on August 22 will be the

Philadelphia-based jazz trio, Pieces of A Dream; Swiss-raised


jazz pianist Alex Bugnon; pianist David Benoit, who has worked as

a guest conductor with the San Francisco Symphony, the Atlanta


and others; vocalist Oleta Adams, whose gospel and blues-influenced

jazz singing is finding a growing fan base; and the Trenton-based

group, Quartet Vibrations. Led by saxophonist Ritchie Cole, Quartet

Vibrations kicks off the day’s music at 2 p.m. Field tickets are


for the first time this year, giving festival-goers a chance to be

up-close and personal with the performers.

Meanwhile, Palmieri — now on a level with Tito Puente as one of

the elder statesmen of Latin jazz — cautions: "I’d like


to check their pulse a few hours before the festival. Because they’re

gonna hear it and see it, but they’re not gonna believe it!"

— Richard J. Skelly

Trenton Jazz Festival, Trenton Waterfront Park, Route

29, Trenton, 609-777-1770. Tickets $20, $30, & $40. Saturday,


22, 2 p.m. to midnight. www://

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