Pianist Eddie Palmieri is a true Latin-music visionary
by Alan Leeds
Born in Spanish Harlem in 1936, nine-time Grammy winner Eddie Palmieri is undeniably the preeminent worldwide ambassador for Latin American music. There’s no one else even close. Palmieri is frequently compared to Art Blakey as a father figure band leader and McCoy Tyner for his percussive piano style, but when it comes to contributions to an art form, he’s more on par with Miles Davis and James Brown. Like Miles reinvented jazz and Brown rhythm and blues, Eddie turned Latin American music inside out. His vast repertoire of rhythms and compositional structures—that always provide an unrestrained launching pad for improvisation—stretch the limits of what can be played and remain true to the clave.
En route to ambassador status, Palmieri journeyed through several phases, from young upstart to counterculture revolutionary. His lust for life sometimes put him on the edge, even jeopardized his career, but in the end seems to have served him well. This is no aging pitcher who lost his fastball and learned to squeeze by with a change-up.
Today, many of Eddie’s gigs are in a Latin jazz format, but he still refers to himself as the leader of a dance band—that is, a dance band playing Latin music, the wide-ranging Afro-Cuban genres commonly grouped together as salsa. Whatever the genre, he doesn’t know the meaning of automatic pilot. Smartly assembling ambitious phenoms with savvy veterans, Palmieri’s bands bleed chops. The scorecard of musicians who have passed through his groups include just about every notable instrumentalist in Latin music, from icons like Cachao and Manny Oquendo to up-and-comers like bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Dafnis Prieto. Palmieri’s jazz gigs kick ass, but those in the know recognize that his dance bands feature today’s highest regarded sonero, arguably his best vocalist ever, Herman Olivera.
Palmieri’s commitment to jazz was originally inspired by a sparsity of decent salsa gigs, even in Spanish-speaking locales. In fact, Eddie frustratingly laments that performance opportunities in Central and South America aren’t more plentiful. But given the continents’ potpourri of languages, cultures, and indigenous music, it would be naïve to assume that Palmieri’s popularity would be greatest south of the border. Not to mention the fact that these territories share the same trend-prone media politics that governs exposure anywhere else. Sometimes, it can be as simple as programmers or promoters favoring local artists. Whatever the cause, even offers from the Latin American bastions of salsa—Panama, Colombia, and Peru—are fewer and further between than Eddie would prefer. Only Venezuela retains a regular place on his itineraries, although as likely for a jazz festival as a dance gig. Even in the Palmieri ancestral home, his dance music is often taken for granted except by those Puerto Ricans who date back to salsa’s golden years. Stranger still, historians haven’t always been fair. Calle 54, a much-heralded film about Latin jazz, oddly ignored Eddie but spotlighted many of his contemporaries and former sidemen. More inexplicably, an otherwise ambitious BBC/PBS documentary about salsa compromised its own credibility by tossing a lengthy Palmieri segment to the cutting-room floor, electing to tell a history without one of its major components.
Palmieri may be saddened by his lack of exposure in parts of Latin America but given his hard earned credentials, the real question might be why isn’t he a household name everywhere? When this writer moved from New York to Minneapolis in the early 1980s, one of the things I missed the most was Eddie Palmieri’s gigs. It reached the point where I would schedule business trips back to the City around his appearances. Invariably, my colleagues would leave a dinner and head for whatever chic club was in vogue while I’d eagerly traipse off to the old Village Gate to catch Eddie at “Salsa Meets Jazz.” Truth be told, I once snuck away from a Prince show under my charge to hear Palmieri at the New Morning in Paris. In December 2010, I made still another New York trip to see Eddie, this time for a chat at his Manhattan home.
Alan Leeds: You play all over the world, but why do you think Latin America lags behind?
Eddie Palmieri: It seems that they don’t believe I’m a—[I’ll] use the word—salsa player…any more. I don’t know really why, because we kept recording in the dance genre through 1999 when I did El Rumbero del Piano. But throughout the years, somehow, little by little, we weren’t being considered a Latin orchestra any more. When we go to Colombia and Venezuela, we have tremendous crowds receiving us. But it’s more like a myth or something. I think it has to do with me not being with Fania in their heyday—they really did a number for their artists.
Do you think there’s a backlash? I wonder if it’s, “Well, he’s a jazz guy now.”
Well, yeah, they have said that. And if you’re not on the air…. The only ones that [are] going to play your records now is community radio. And since I’m not traveling with the band into those countries… a lot of those salsa record buyers are Colombians, Venezuelans, Panamanians. Those following the music the least any more are the Puerto Ricans! Because most Puerto Ricans live in Orlando now. [laughs]
The word “salsa” was broadly applied to almost all Latin American music and a lot of musicians turned their noses up at the term—as if it denigrated the music.
We all felt that way. The best one was Tito Puente. They said, “Tito, what do you think about salsa?” And he said, “Salsa? I put salsa on my spaghetti, baby.” They use the word salsa to represent all these incredible rhythmical patterns. They all have their proper names, from the mambo, guaracha, danzón, bolero, rumba, guaguancó…. We can keep going, but for whatever reason they lumped everything under salsa.
So what is the politically correct term?
I’ve been saying Afro-Caribbean, but now I would say Afro-World. It’s really worldwide now. You’ve got Latin bands coming out of Japan and Europe. And everywhere that we’ve gone, the Cuban musician has certainly made his mark. In my opinion, it started as Afro-Cuban—the African rhythmical patterns that were developed and crystallized in Cuba. But then it took over the whole Caribbean. Puerto Rico got into it…. New York influenced Puerto Rico and Puerto Rico influenced South America. And now it’s the world…it’s the Afro World.
To the uninitiated, it should be noted that while salsa certainly originated in Cuba, it is also the most African of any music developed in the Americas. Palmieri enjoys pointing out that African slaves were not deprived of their drums in Cuba, the way they were in the United States. Thus countless African rhythms survived to eventually branch off into salsa. That didn’t mean Cuba was short on racism. The Cuban bands that incubated salsa in the 1930s and 1940s were as segregated as any in the States. So were their audiences. Arsenio Rodríguez, José Fajardo, and Beny Moré didn’t find it any different when they imported the music to New York dance halls. Of course, once the Cuban music was processed through the spirited streets of El Barrio en Nueva York, it came out more aggressive. By the time a young Palmieri hit the scene in the 1950s, the music was attracting a younger, hipper audience. The fringes of the New York jazz and Latin scene were integrated, but racism persevered under various other cloaks.
Going back to the early music out of Cuba, Arsenio Rodríguez’s band was all Black; Antonio Arcaño’s band is all light-skinned. Did that separation come here with the music?
Sure, we saw that. But when I’m growing up and I’m listening to the bands, forget about Black and White. That to me was a cookie—an Oreo cookie. Who cared what color you were. All I was interested in was where the music was coming from.
Now that you mention it, at the height of Arsenio’s popularity, the whole band got paid $38. La Sonora Matancera, they had nine musicians, and the whole band got $10. And I said, “That’s nine [for the musicians, but] what about the other dollar?” And Pedro Knight, the husband of Celia Cruz, looked at me and went, “For the office.” I’ve never forgotten that. What they went through, nobody could even imagine. A lot of them got ripped off, but that’s what was happening.
The highest degree of racism we saw in my time, you go back to when they came out with the cabaret card. That was because there was too many Blacks and Puerto Ricans or Cubans, whatever, working in Manhattan. As long as they stayed uptown it was cool, but coming downtown? Without the cabaret card, you couldn’t play anywhere they served liquor. I had to get fingerprinted and everything to have my card. So you saw racism right off the bat to go play these supper clubs—La Conga, the China Doll, the Copacabana.
Those are the years that I started. I was still a kid, but I was listening to what was happening…the Titos and Machito. Then my brother, Charlie, who is already playing with Tito Puente in 1948, starts to recommend me to different orchestras.
Didn’t you record a duet with Charlie early on?
No. There was “Hermanos en Mambo,” but it was Charlie on piano and me just playing clave. Remember there was a nine-year difference with Charlie and me. So when he’s married at twenty, I’m still eleven.
Later, when I join Vicentico Valdés, I meet Manny Oquendo, who becomes very important because he is into Cuban music more than any Latin percussionist at that time. What he had at home was a school of information of the different bands. All the records—78s.
A lot of salsa artists didn’t hesitate to rerecord the Cuban classics. Some say it was because they could get away without paying royalties to Cuban composers. But it was noteworthy because younger artists normally stayed away from… I mean, you never heard James Brown sing Cab Calloway songs. His young audience wouldn’t accept it.
[Of all the major players] I’m the least that recorded Cuban compositions, because I wrote my own. But I certainly used some.
Well, for one example, what would inspire you to pull Arsenio’s “Dame Cachito Pa’ Huele” out of the hat?
Well, just listen it. It had a great double meaning: “Give me a taste, a taste / Give me a little piece to sniff.” They were taking that, “Pa’ Huele,” like it would be cocaine. They were taking it every which way. So that was one. There was a few that I did do. “Sujetate La Lengua,” “Lazaro,” and “Ajiaco Caliente.” “Sujetate” was a Cuban composition by Sonora Matancera. Benito Grandes sings it—Matancera’s original singer with the big moustache.
Incidentally, just last year, the last trip that I had in Italy, I ran into racism. Down in the Southern part of Italy called Bari. Ohhh, we were, like, in their way, man. One of the most incredible situations I’ve ever been through in my career. And the next day, a Cuban band was arriving, and they went through it too. I told them how to tell the lady, “It’s beyond my comprehension that you bring entertainers here to entertain, but you make us feel like persona non grata.” I mean, how is it possible that we come to perform for you, and we’re like a genuine hemorrhoid to you? But anyway, we did the gig, and as we finished, they come with security guards to grab the wine bottle opener, to get the towels. It was unbelievable.
Formed in 1961, Eddie’s first band of his own, La Perfecta, was a unique combination of trombones, flute and rhythm. Brash youngsters, they eagerly competed with bands twice the size of theirs. Future Palmieri bassist Andy Gonzalez remembers them as, “the most influential band in New York when I was coming up.”
Eddie shared much of La Perfecta’s early success with his alter ego, trombonist-arranger Barry Rogers. La Perfecta second trombonist Mark Weinstein told Descarga, “We out-swung Tito’s band with all his fuckin’ cymbals, with all his triplets, with all of his sticks over his head. Because when Barry would get the pots on there was nothing in the world that was more exciting, nothing…NOTHING!”
“I met Barry Rogers in a social club in the Bronx called the Tritons,” Palmieri says. “Pacheco used to do these jam sessions, and Barry was playing trombone. And I told him, ‘Hey man, wow, I listened to you play. Can I call you?’
“That’s how we started,” he continues. “I already had the singer, Ismael Quintana. And then came George Castro, who had a wooden flute. He was limited, but he could play, you know. I mean, he could get the sound, and he could swing. I would play sometimes with him alone and the rhythm section. And then one day I was able to afford them both, and when I heard the flute and trombone combination, and the reaction of the people, they freaked out. The flute sound of the charanga was still happening. And then the trombone, which nobody had heard being used like that because the freedom that I had given Barry. And then Barry up front singing coro with Georgie and Ismael, and that’s how it starts.”
So the flute and trombones thing was an accident rather than a plan?
At first, I wanted a regular conjunto—trumpets. But I couldn’t find the right trumpets. I knew the trumpet players, because I already had played with Tito Rodríguez and Vicentico Valdes. But to get them to stay with a young group just starting…they wanted to make more money, and there’s no monies. Class “A” was $32 then. The Palladium had a union rate of $18 a night. You did sixteen shows in four days, and you got paid $72, and they took out taxes. You came out with $58 or $59 out of there.
So they didn’t pay a bandleader a flat fee, they paid the individual musicians?
No, they paid you a lump sum but according to scale. Tito Puente would get maybe $500 there, for the band. Tito Rodríguez would get the most. But the Palladium offered 125 to 140 gigs a year. So that’s what I was after. I wanted to get those gigs. So I became a barker. I rented the Riviera Terrace across the street from the Palladium next to Birdland. Later, it became the second Cheetah, but then it was a catering hall, and I would rent it on Wednesdays. “Not there folks,” and I pointed to the Palladium. “Over here, folks.”
Wait, you mean to tell me that you yourself stood in the street as a barker?
Yeah. Who was gonna do it? Yeah. “In here, folks.” And you’d look over there and see Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez on the marquee. Or Machito, even my brother Charlie. “Not there, folks. Here.” I did it for a few weeks until I was running out of money. It was who is going to give up first, and sure enough the Palladium surrendered, because I was taking away a hundred, two hundred. I was making a dent, man. The old man who ran the Palladium, Max Hyman, freaked out. “That kid is crazy.” He was very nervous, complaining to José Curbelo who was my agent. So Curbelo said, “Then you have to book him.” And he did. Max gave me ninety dates. Now that filled up the calendar, we were working!
Tito had a big band. Machito had a big band. You only had two bones and a flute, but you blew them away?
Oh yeah…they really had no chance.
Explain how. I mean, those were serious bands.
We were a new band, full of fire, and we knew what we could do. The driving force behind the band certainly was the rhythm section. Manny Oquendo on timbales and Tommy Lopez on congas, that driving force with the bass player that was Bobby Rodríguez—Tito [Puente] lets him go, because he didn’t want to pay him $5 extra for a gig or whatever. I mean, that force that was coming out of that band…because nobody played like Manny. It was amazing what he did on timbales. And with me on piano and with a second trombone, Barry could take off. Nobody had seen anything like that; it was the most exciting orchestra to listen to, to watch, and to dance to. I mean, the bands didn’t want to meet us up there, not Tito, nobody, not Machito. When we went into that extra orbit, I think I just saw the whole band disappear; just the shoes of the guys remained on the bandstand.
We didn’t play that many years at the Palladium; they closed in ’66. But that dance audience in the Palladium—you got to knock them on their ass. Because if you didn’t, they threw you out! So we came to cut everybody’s throat!
Eddie and La Perfecta’s fan base stretched beyond El Barrio. Sunday nights at the Palladium traditionally catered to African Americans. La Perfecta quickly became their favorite Latin band. They were frequently hired for Black social affairs and even earned a week at Harlem’s Apollo Theater based on the success of hit singles “Muneca” and “Suave.” Eddie warmly credits New York’s Black community for helping his career off the ground. He wrote and recorded “Tema del Apollo” (The Apollo Theme) as an expression of gratitude.
When you played the Apollo Theater in July 1964, they were still doing four or five shows a day starting at one o’clock in the afternoon.
That was a hell of a gig. It was Esther Phillips, Arthur Prysock, Mongo Santamaria, a young Flip Wilson, and us. Actually, as a kid, I played their amateur show, years earlier. I played piano with this drummer on amateur night. And we were deathly afraid to go out there; we heard the sirens and all that. But we came in second. I think they gave us a Gene Autry wallet or something like that.
When I came back with the band, that’s when Flip Wilson had his routine that he claimed Christopher Columbus was Black. It’s one of the funniest deals I’ve ever heard. And between shows, we used to play stickball in a schoolyard across the street from the Apollo, right next to the side entrance. They gave me a tiny dressing room, the room way up there on the fifth floor. I wasn’t going to stay up there between shows. I would just go home to the Bronx and my wife would have lunch, and then come back and forth. So I gave that room to Julito Collazo, our drummer then. Manny Oquendo’s not there. Julito used to play with Mongo also. He and Mongo had clashed, and now he’s playing with me. So he had the room all day, and every time Mongo would go onstage, Julito would be yelling downstairs to the band boy to disrupt things, “Papo, champagne…ice for the champagne.” Making sure that Mongo could hear him. What a week we got there.
I suppose it was inevitable that African American music and Afro-Caribbean music would come together, because a lot of the same people enjoyed both. But did it have to be boogaloo? I’m going to make some enemies now, but it seemed to me that most of boogaloo combined bad Latin music with bad Black music. It was like the worst of both.
That’s the best thing that was ever said about boogaloo.
Boogaloo was party music, but those were very turbulent times—Kent State, Vietnam, and the Black Panthers. James Brown was singing “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud,” and you were playing “Revolt/La Libertad Logico,” “Justicia,” and “Vamanos Pa’l Monte.” Then you did Harlem River Drive. How did that come about?
Well, crossover was the idea. I wanted to record on their Roulette label, like Tommy James, instead of Tico. My saxophonist Ronnie Cuber was also playing with Aretha Franklin. That’s how we got the majority of that band that records Harlem River Drive—Cornel Dupree, Bernard Purdie, Gerald Jemmott—and then I bring in my Latin rhythm section. The problem is that the album becomes a favorite of the Weathermen.
How did that happen?
What do you mean, how did that happen? If you listen to the record and you hear “Idle Hands,” and it’s talking about the super rich and talking against the state. And everything was full of tension at that time, a lot of things going on, and we were involved. We were talking about: “Do you all know [the story] / How it all began / Took five days / And then came man / Oh the land was free / [And so were we / No] slavery / To lead to [poverty]… Do you know [what’s meant by] the rights of Man?” Oh wow. I mean, it was hitting home, baby. So we got a lot of college airplay, and it becomes a hit of the Weathermen. And I didn’t even know who the hell the Weathermen were—I mean I really didn’t know. I knew the Black Panthers, and I knew [Louis] Farrakhan. I listened to him talk once, and he said, “You listened to me; I will listen to you play.” That’s the deal. Because I was very well received by Blacks. But the Weathermen? Who are the Weathermen?
And the next thing is now Morris Levy at Roulette is getting calls from the FBI and the CIA. This is the second time I bring him a problem, because when I recorded Mozambique in 1965, the Alpha 66 threatened to blow up the radio station studios if they played my record because of “Mozambique,” which is really just a combination of mambo and the old conga. Morris Levy called, he said, “Mr. Palmieri, what did you record?”
I never forgot that day. He used to work… All the Mafia guys used to work in the supper clubs. They used to handle the check coats; that’s how they got in. “You remember the conga, Mr. Levy? Well, what we call Mozambique is just an evolved style of playing conga.” I’m giving him this whole thing. But “Mozambique” also reminded you of the Cubans fighting in Angola, so that’s what got us labeled as Communists.
So now, a few years later, Morris Levy gets called again from the FBI and CIA, and when I finish explaining to him the whole deal about Harlem River Drive. “And that’s what it is, Mr. Levy, as simple as that, and unfortunately, it’s caused such a commotion.”
Levy said, “Mr. Palmieri, don’t record that shit any more.” Just like that.
For the first two decades of his career, Palmieri recorded for three of the most prominent Latin music labels, Alegre, Levy’s Tico/Roulette corporation, and then Harvey Averne’s Coco Records. Along the way, Eddie encountered several legendary record men besides Levy: Tico Records founder George Goldner and Fania’s Jerry Masucci. During Fania’s peak years, Palmieri’s absence from the label’s star-laden roster was glaring. However, many surmised that Eddie and the label’s formulaic approach to recording would have been a mismatch. When Fania was on their last legs in the early 1980s, they finally signed Palmieri and granted him creative carte blanche for four albums (Eddie Palmieri aka “The White Album,” Palo Pa’ Rumba, Solito, and La Verdad).
“When I signed with Morris Levy,” Palmieri states, “there was a tapestry hung behind his desk. And as you’re signing your contract, you’re reading on the wall, ‘Oh Lord, bring me a bastard with talent.’
“Tico was originally owned by George Goldner,” he continues. “But Goldner has a gambling problem and Morris Levy buys him out. I came into Tico in 1963, because my first label, Alegre Records, is going bankrupt. Morris Levy buys that company for $80,000. It was a steal, but what he really paid was the debts. So, when I signed with him I told him, ‘Listen, I already began a recording for Al Santiago who owned Alegre; after all, he got my career started, and I’ve given my word that I’ll finish it for him.’ That was before I signed. Morris Levy said that was no problem. So Echando Palante, my first album for Tico, and Lo Que Traigo Es Sabroso with ‘Muneca,’ my last one for Alegre, both come out in ’64. We were finally selling records, which led to Azucar a year later, the biggest seller that I did for Tico.”
You remained loyal to Levy during the whole time the Fania All-Stars were playing stadiums and making movies. All the Fania guys were selling records, Harlow, Barretto, Pacheco, Roberto Roena, Bobby Valentin, Hector Lavoe.
I recorded Fania’s first All-Stars album in 1968 at the Red Garter as an invited guest. But my name wasn’t Eddie Banana. I didn’t want to be one of the bunch. Fania was a factory. And they were forced to bring the record in a certain amount of time. I didn’t want any part of that.
Obviously, Tico was not an easy label to get away from. [laughs]
I tried to, but that was hopeless. It didn’t cost me dearly, but it could have caused tremendous problems. There was no such thing as “get out of my contract,” because Levy will always say that you owe him. And owe him a debt, who’s gonna tell him no? Forget about it.
Levy would just laugh things off. The problem was, naturally, his accounting. His accountant was Mr. Fisher—I’ll never forget his name, Howard Fisher. If you looked for an advance, it was, “Go see Howard Fisher.” Then one day Morris told me, “I heard you’re planning to audit my books.” Then with this grin he said, “When the auditors arrive, what set of books should I show them?” His biggest kick was divorcing his wives and not having to give them anything. In court, he had everything covered from the judges to the young attorneys. It was unbelievable, the power that he had.
Was Fania any better?
Well, eventually. But first it was worse. Morris finally had enough headaches with the Latin players. We weren’t producing as much money as the pop artists, so Levy got rid of everybody who was giving him a hard time. A hard time for him was anyone who comes looking for money. Finally, he made a deal for Jerry Masucci of Fania to run Tico.
So you still wanted out, but not to Fania?
Fania thought I was going to negotiate with them around ’72 or ’73. They gave me an advance, and I started to record with Cheo Feliciano for them.
As a producer for Cheo’s record or your own record with Cheo singing?
My record with Cheo. That’s when I started the structures for “El Dia Que Me Quieras” and “Ritmo Alegre” with arranger Rene Hernandez. The two arrangements were done, but they went into the closet, because at the same time, Morris and Jerry Masucci clashed. Then Harvey Averne who had Mango Records, which was later changed to Coco, negotiates with Morris. The deal is that Averne pays off the advance I got from Fania, and the first 17,500 records that I sell, that money goes to Morris. It was a $35,000 deal.
So that would have been Sentido.
Yeah, Sentido. Out of that, money goes to Morris. Otherwise, I could have never gotten out. And since I didn’t make the deal with Fania, Jerry Masucci gets upset and figures, “If I can’t get Eddie Palmieri, then I’ll get his singer.” And Ismael Quintana, who really was a great bandstand buddy all these years that we rolled together, he found that this was to his interest. He wanted to be in that bunch, to travel with those all-stars.
You enjoyed your biggest success on Coco even though the association didn’t last very long.
Yes, Sentido sells. “Puerto Rico” and “Adoración” blow you away. It also had to do with the personnel, because you got all these young players. I can thank Nicky Marrero for that. Then I had Live at the Puerto Rico University. And the next one with Lalo Rodríguez, The Sun of Latin Music, sells and wins the first Grammy.
In the 1970s, salsa flourished to the degree that stars like Palmieri, Hector Lavoe, and the Fania All-Stars could play arenas and even stadiums, albeit to audiences that were almost entirely Latino. On the other hand, Palmieri’s unique appeal to both the political subculture and the Black community earned him bookings as diverse as a Bill Graham–produced benefit in San Francisco alongside Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, a funk festival at Madison Square Garden with Parliament-Funkadelic, a fund-raiser with Gil Scott-Heron for the militant Zimbabwe African National Union, and a rally for South Africa at Harvard Stadium with Bob Marley and activist Dick Gregory.
But there was turmoil in the Palmieri camp. Amidst groundbreaking albums and a Grammy Award, mounting personal and financial problems took a toll. Frustrated sidemen mutinied. Frustrated audiences endured tediously long, self-absorbed free-form piano excursions. A frustrated IRS looked for back taxes. And a frustrated Harvey Averne issued an album that Eddie disowned, and called it Unfinished Masterpiece.
In Mary Kent’s Salsa Talks!, Palmieri says, “I thought I was Rubirosa, Errol Flynn, and Charles Boyer all wrapped up in one, but with no dinero! This could not have any wonderful or healthy results. Everything fell apart.”
After Coco released Unfinished Masterpiece behind your back, you refused to record for a couple years. How did things finally get sorted?
They made a deal with CBS, which became a half a million-dollar deal. That $35,000 contract they bought from Morris Levy, they made a half a million dollar deal—I get $50,000 out of it, and the deal with Coco was over. That’s when I record Lucumi, Macumba, Voodoo for CBS.
I recorded amazing arrangements with great players—Jon Faddis, Lou Soloff, Alan Rubin, and Chocolate on trumpets. Then, at a certain time of that album, they bring in Bobby Colomby from Blood, Sweat & Tears to coproduce with me, and they bring me Francisco Centeno, the bass player. CBS brings him in. But he knew that he wasn’t the right bass player. And CBS has no idea what to do with this record. It becomes a secret.
I finally signed with Fania in 1980. “Ritmo Alegre” was recorded with Lucumi, Macumba, Voodoo but never released. It stays in the can at CBS. The only reason we were able to grab a hold of that composition was that Fania had a special deal with CBS for the Fania All-Stars. So I told them, “Look, I’ve got a composition at CBS that belongs in this album.” So in 1980, I’m finally doing the project that I was going to do in ’73 with Cheo, which is now known as “The White Album.”
So now we start recording, and I’m trying to get the lead trumpet to do the tango, and nobody—whoever I tried—it wasn’t happening. So I had no other recourse but to call Victor Paz—we hadn’t seen each other for about three or four years. We had a clash. He left my band and didn’t do Lucumi, Macumba, Voodoo. So I had to cold call him. And he comes to the studio, and we had a laugh right away, so I know it was all over. He said, “You called me because of your conscience.”
Then he says, “I’ll do it, but you gotta remove those other trumpet players.” So Jon Faddis, Lou Soloff, and all that were out. And Victor Paz records all four trumpet parts. Then we change the bass player to Sal Cuevas who comes to do the overdub and the danzón.
There were no credits on the album. Did Sal Cuevas do the entire record?
No, he does Side A. Side B is done by Andy Gonzalez. Also it has Nicky Marrero on timbales and bell, Charlie Cotto on timbales, Milton Cordona on congas and Little Ray Romero on bongo. Of course, Barry Rogers did all the trombones.
At some point, you became known as the “mad man of salsa.” Did that bother you? Did it imply that people weren’t taking the music seriously enough?
No, no, not really. None of that bothered me as long as I knew what we were doing and what the band was able to do and how we were knocking out everybody wherever we went to to play. But as the years went on, that became more and more exaggerated.
Andy Gonzalez recalls how the young revolutionaries in the band influenced their boss: “We took Eddie out of his three-piece suits and into Indian shirts, sandals, a beard, and long hair.” Iraida Palmieri, Eddie’s gracious wife, proudly explains, “He also got that mad man title because he’s always been so political and involved in the community. They all said, ‘that Eddie Palmieri is crazy.’ ”
“I was with the Young Lords,” Eddie recalls. “I helped the Young Lords because I knew one of them, Mickey Melendez. They’re the ones that put the flag around the Statue of Liberty’s head. Of course, then they got locked up, so they needed me to bail them out. We did a benefit. Things like that. And then I made the record at Sing Sing. I played at all the prisons, from Rikers to the women’s prison, to Lewisburg, to Attica twice, to Puerto Rico…and never charged anything.
“I did Riker’s once with Dizzy Gillespie. He’s gonna be the MC. And he comes on and goes, ‘And before I bring on my Latin soul brother Eddie Palmieri… Eddie, have you ever seen such a captive audience?’ [laughs] They almost threw us out of there.”
Throughout the 1970s, New York–bred salsa saturated the entire Latin music market, from Boston down to the furthest tip of South America. But salsa hit an inevitable ceiling when crossover proved elusive. Many gringos found the language barrier and salsa’s percussive vocal styles foreboding. And for dance music, the inexperienced discovered that salsa was not that simple to dance to—accessible only to those who studied the steps. Soon the clubs and dance halls that routinely hosted salsa’s star attractions began to disappear.
The saving grace was an ocean away in Europe. Suddenly clubs and jazz festivals throughout Germany, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and even the U.K. were featuring the likes of Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Tito Puente, and the Fania All-Stars. Palmieri’s first brief visit abroad was in 1981, after which he decided to live in Puerto Rico for several years. By 1984, he had assembled a killer orchestra wholly composed of native Puerto Ricans with the great trumpeter Juancito Torres as music director. He excitedly introduced the group and their new music to an ecstatic audience at the sold-out Corso in New York and then took off for Europe.
“That was a young Giovanni Hidalgo, Anthony Carillo, and Jose Ramirez with the batas,” Palmieri recalls. “We had a show that was insane. Charlie Cotto, Polito Huertas, Juancito Torres, Charlie Sepulveda—that band was awesome. With a large orchestra, it was difficult to travel, but it was so awesome. With La Perfecta, we had never gone anywhere except Venezuela. We went to California, and the Catskills, that kind of thing, but nothing else out of the country. So I chose to bring the music to Europe. Since then, I’ve played maybe three hundred or four hundred engagements in Europe.”
Since the 1980s, Palmieri’s life has been more orderly, caringly managed by his son, Edward Palmieri II. Against all odds, the younger Palmieri orchestrated the gradual recovery of his father’s lucrative publishing interests, hopelessly tangled since his Tico and Coco days. Eddie records when and what he wants to—the fiery El Rumbero del Piano, in 1998, Obra Maestra, a historic collaboration with Tito Puente in 2000, and two delightful CDs with a revived La Perfecta, La Perfecta II (2002) and Ritmo Caliente (2003).
At the same time, Eddie became a familiar presence on the jazz scene. For many years, Palmieri humbly underplayed his jazz credentials, but as early as 1966, he did two albums with jazz vibraphonist Cal Tjader. In 1986, he devoted a side of La Verdad to jazz that included “Noble Cruise,” a composition he dedicated to Thelonius Monk. But an album divided between salsa and jazz confused fans. In 1993, Eddie jumped all the way into jazz, kicking off a series of well-received CDs—Palmas (1993), Arete (1995), Vortex (1996), and Listen Here (2005). He also shared a Grammy with his longtime trumpet ace Brian Lynch for their Simpatico – The Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Project (2005).
Palmieri took his newfound commitment to jazz seriously. He believes most of what passes for Latin jazz is really “jazz Latin”—relatively lightweight tunes with a conga drummer thrown on top. Conversely, Eddie was determined to adapt the excitement of his salsa compositions by often using his entire rhythm section, timbales, congas, and bongos instead of a trap drummer.
Lest anyone underestimate Palmieri’s own chops, it’s worth remembering that as early as 1947, Eddie was a student of Margaret Bonds—an esteemed pianist who also happened to be one of the first Black composers taken seriously in the classical music world. Bonds had Palmieri playing Chopin and Bach at a Carnegie Hall recital by the age of twelve. In the mid-1960s, he became a devotee of the somewhat controversial Schillinger System, music scholar Joseph Schillinger’s unique method of musical composition based on mathematical processes. Palmieri once told JazzTimes, “All the arts use mathematics. If Michelangelo had not used the summation series, his David would have looked like Bullwinkle.”
A few years ago, Eddie confessed that the percussive montuno playing that characterizes his dance music can sometimes work against the kind of independence he desires for playing jazz. So he resumed practicing more regularly and has become a more versatile pianist than ever. Highly regarded jazz bassist Christian McBride says, “When I came to New York in 1989, the big hang for musicians on Mondays was ‘Salsa Meets Jazz’ at the Village Gate. I used to see Eddie there all the time, and I realized very quickly that of all the Latin musicians, he had the complete respect of the straightahead jazz cats.”
“At ‘Salsa Meets Jazz,’ I played with McCoy Tyner, Arthur Blythe, Dr. Billy Taylor, Randy Brecker, a young Danilo Perez,” Palmieri says. “Art Blakey always used to come and say, ‘Eddie, we gotta do something together, man.’ I’ll never forget Jaco Pastorius sat in with us and did ‘America the Beautiful’ and just blew everybody away.”
So how do you feel today, divided between jazz gigs, dance-band gigs, and La Perfecta II?
Well, I feel great, because no matter where we go, we kick ass. If we’re going to play a Latin dance, we’ll blow them away. And if we’re going to go do Latin jazz, we can do that with an octet down to a quartet. I’ve even done duos with Brian Lynch or David Sanchez. The structure that I use in the Latin jazz, after the horn players satisfy their solos with the chord changes, then I bring it right back to the montuno, and we end with the same climax. And that’s when you hear, “Oh.”
If your next record is with a dance band and vocals, what’s the broader market for it these days?
I would say very bad. Unless you get a company that will invest and get it on radio. Today, they make the old payola look like a pimple on a cow’s ass. And really now there is no company. You record in your own home. You know, all the bands…they got the timbale player in the bathroom, they got the bass player in the kitchen. They do their recordings, and then they sell it out of the trunks of their cars.
What about venues to play dance gigs?
S.O.B.’s, twice a year…three times a year the most. But when we do play, we pack it in. But there’s no place else we can play dances in New York and make any dinero. All the clubs are small. All the young bands are playing, unfortunately, for $30, $40, or $50. If you get a hundred dollars, it’s like you can write home to Mom. It’s really sad what’s happened. Then when you get on the road… I fought so much just to get single rooms. All the other bands still got to double. Spanish Harlem Orchestra, if you don’t want to double then you’re out of the band.
What Palmieri’s ageless spirit won’t permit him to accept is that today, many musical trends later, salsa is no longer the sound of youth. Times change. Each generation embraces its own music and entertainers. Today, young Latins probably don’t listen to Eddie much more than young African Americans listen to Ray Charles.
You mentioned how you and Manny Oquendo studied the old Cuban music. I don’t get the sense that young musicians today have that curiosity.
No, they don’t. When I was a young man, and we’re in the streets playing stickball and all that, at the same time, we’re listening to these orchestras play. Because they were on commercial radio coming out of the bodegas. That doesn’t exist any more.
Little by little, the format of the exciting composition changed. When you use the word salsa now, it just means putting in some kind of coloring. And the rhythm section can really just be looped; it goes nowhere. The singer just constantly sings, and it doesn’t matter who is playing what instrument behind, because they don’t know how to play the instrument anyway. The bongo, the conga, and the timbal—they don’t need to know how to play it any more than just accompaniment. Do you ever hear a conga solo? A trumpet solo? All that’s gone. You could be dancing to one of those numbers and fall asleep on the dance floor. So naturally, the young musicians who wanted to really play their instruments turned to jazz. All the young players from Puerto Rico, Panama, Brazil…all gone into jazz. They’re even grabbing their own folkloric music and putting it into Latin jazz, like Miguel Zenon has done, and David Sanchez is always on top of that.
But when you came out with La Perfecta II, at Carnegie Hall, Birdland, the Blue Note, you couldn’t get in the place. So at least in New York, there’s obviously an audience.
It was wonderful when that happened, but the majority of the music audience have no choice to what they listen to. The radio still controls them. It’s the same music everywhere, even in Puerto Rico. For example, Gilberto Santa Rosa and Victor Manuelle. They try to stretch it out, but they’re caught in the middle of this commercialism as to how they record. Today’s Puerto Rican salsa is terrible.
In many ways, Palmieri is of a vanishing breed—equal parts band leader, musician, composer, and entertainer. Watching him perform leaves the impression that playing his music excites him as much as it does his audience, that sometimes his repertoire, well worn and remarkably unchanged over the years, is just a vehicle for the glee Eddie takes in provoking what each of his musicians brings to the composition. The edge he coaxes out of his sidemen can be stunning. And composition is the right word, the word Palmieri uses, to refer to his art. He is proudly bound to his rhythms and structures, implying that to alter them would be sacrilege. Palmieri’s approach, more often than not, exudes excitement that astonishingly belies his age and that of his music.
“To me, that’s the Eddie Palmieri show,” he explains. “And ‘Oyelo Que Te Conviene,’ ‘Azucar,’ ‘Palo Pa’ Rumba,’ these are my compositions. Nobody else is going to play them that way, and if I’m going to play, then we’re going to get as close as we can to… Well, maybe to me, we never equaled them to the way we played them before—La Perfecta did some things which can never be equaled. But we will die trying!”
If a guy dropped down from Mars and said, “Give me just one of your records to explain what Eddie Palmieri is about,” which would you give him?
I would have to say “Azucar” or maybe “Un Dia Bonito,” because we blew that one out too. But “Azucar” broke all barriers. Never was anything like that heard to this day. It’s really a montuno, and a dominant, and what we did with that is extraordinary. Which goes right into being called jazz, Latin jazz, or whatever, but it never lost the authenticity of its Latin roots. Back then, I wasn’t really hip to jazz. My only interest was the dance music that had come out of Cuba.
In “Azucar,” that rhythm just stood there at first, but after the piano solo, we started to move it around like no one could believe. As a matter of fact, they used to say that if you’re gonna dance to that number, wait until Palmieri finishes his solo and then come out, because if you try to dance the whole thing, you’re gonna die!
The reason I was able to do that long a record was because of Teddy Reig who was the A&R man for Morris Levy. At that time, you had to record 2:45 to fit twelve cuts on the LP. I told him, “Look, I have a problem. We play it almost ten minutes in the clubs, but it’s already a hit in the street.” It was a hit even before we signed with Morris, from the gigs I used to play. So he said, “Record it the way you play it, Eddie. Fine with me.” It came up to eight minutes, thirty seconds, and the disc jockeys had to play the whole thing or the people would go crazy.
So at age seventy-four, what’s next?
Oh, I would have to say, really extend on my instrument even more and come up with something excitingly new, because it’s needed. We’ve already done something with a symphonic orchestra, we have some of my compositions that we expanded and orchestrated. But I’ve been held in reserve for a while, and we still have enough years left to come up with something. And whatever I do, I leave it to the young students behind to use that as a guide, and if you can extend on it, great. And if you can’t extend on it, then listen to what was done, because it’s worth your while. We’ve put little things in parts of different waters to extend on our music, and we’re gonna see what we come up with.
Every year now is very, very important.
Alan Leeds is a tour manager (James Brown, Prince, Maxwell, D’Angelo, Chris Rock) turned writer. He won a Grammy for his liner notes to James Brown’s Startime box set and with Nelson George coedited The James Brown Reader for Plume Books.
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