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This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the

April 18, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Salute to Tito Puente, Musician & Mentor

As a youngster growing up in the South Bronx, jazz

artist Bobby Sanabria covered the walls of his bedroom with pictures

of his heroes. These weren’t baseball stars, but musicians, such as

Willie Bobo, Bob Rosendarden, Buddy Rich, and Ralph MacDonald. And

even back then, the place of honor went to Tito Puente.

Sanabria still feels Puente’s overwhelming influence, and loss.


others have had a great impact on my playing," Sanabria said


"Tito, as a band leader, composer, arranger, and player has had

the most significant influence on my music. He is my mentor — a

total musician."

Sanabria will bring his 19-piece band, the Bobby Sanabria Afro-Cuban

Jazz Band, to the College of New Jersey’s Kendall Hall Theater,


on what would have been Tito Puente’s 78th birthday, on Friday, April

20, at 8 p.m. The show will be a celebration of the life and work

of Puente, who died on May 31 last year. Also performing will be the

Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band and the 79-year-old master of the conga

drums, Candido.

But Sanabria himself is much more than a critically-acclaimed and

popular musician. In trying to define him one is tempted to use a

veritable freight train of hyphens, referring to him as a


teacher-writer-lecturer. He is also the author of a three-part video

series "Getting Started on Congas."

But there’s more. Besides being a Grammy-nominated recording artist,

he is also a passionate champion of Afro-Cuban big band music. He

likes to speak to audiences from the stage, between numbers, providing

insights into the intricacies of such musical hybrids as Cu-bop (a

1940s merging of Cuban musical sensibilities with be-bop). As he


he has been a fortunate man, having had the opportunity to perform

and record with many of his musical heroes from his boyhood bedroom

wall, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Mario Bauza, Paquito D’Rivera, and


Sanabria’s role as educator has made him a musical hero to many young

people with jazz aspirations whom he has taught at workshops around

the world (including a workshop he taught at the College of New Jersey

in January). He is also a faculty member at the Drummer’s Collective

(a world renowned center for the study of drums and percussion), the

New School, and the Manhattan School of Music, where he conducts both

schools’ Afro-Cuban jazz orchestras — the only two student bands

of this kind in the United States.

The son of Puerto Rican parents, Sanabria was born in the 1950s and

grew up in the Melrose Projects in the South Bronx. He says he


a passion for music from his father, who worked as a machinist in

Long Island, and would unwind from his daily four-hour commute by

listening to music. Together, they would take in the eclectic sounds

of jazz, rock, R&B, soul, big band, Afro-Cuban, and Brazilian Jazz

music over the radio and from their family record player.

But a kind of music multiculturalism also permeated

the streets of Sanabria’s youth. "It was a great time to be young,

Latino, and growing up in New York City," says Sanabria.


was drumming heard in every neighborhood, and the music we had


from `the great jazz mambo era’ of the 1940s and ’50s inspired us

to seek out our cultural roots. This, combined with the other music

I was listening to, is the foundation of my playing, composing,


and teaching today."

Inspired by Puente, Sanabria attended Boston’s Berklee College of

Music, where he studied orchestration, harmony, sight singing,


drums, and percussion. He graduated in 1979 with a bachelor of music


Sanabria’s volatile onstage performances have been compared to those

of boxer Muhammad Ali, with his sinewy, propelling percussion, mixing

Cu-bop with romantic pop ballads, and the cool grooves of ’60s Motown.

Topping it off with a rawness reminiscent of Charlie Parker and Dizzy

Gillespie, he pushes his Latin big band to the hilt, often driving

audiences into musical ecstasies.

Having toured the world many times, playing the music he loves,


has seen first hand the power music has to touch many lives. He’s

seen how the multicultural flavor of his music can serve as a unifying

force. "The heart has no color," he has said. "Everybody’s

blood is red."

— Jack Florek

Bobby Sanabria, Eddie Palmieri, & Candido Camero, College

of New Jersey, Kendall Hall, 609-771-2775. $25. Friday, April

20. 8 p.m.

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