Acclaimed nine-time Grammy Award-winner Eddie Palmieri is the leader of both Salsa and Latin jazz orchestras. He stopped by the 92nd Street Y a few weeks ago for a conversation about his life and career. We asked him about performing at Carnegie Hall at 11 years old, his band La Perfecta, the difference between salsa and Latin jazz, winning the first Grammy Award for Latin Music and much more. You can read the full interview below. In the video clip above, Mr. Palmieri fondly recalls the heydays of New York City’s legendary Palladium Ballroom.
Music has been part of my family mainly because of my brother Charlie. He was nine years older and played piano. My mother arrived from Puerto Rico in 1925, and she was a seamstress; my father arrived in 1926, and he worked on radios until television came about. It was my mother, though, who insisted we both become musicians.
I started playing at about 8 years old. My uncle had an orchestra, and I played drums with them from the age of 13 to 15. My mother, though, very cleverly bought an extremely heavy drum case that I had to carry around. She knew what she was doing, and eventually I went back to piano.
At the age of 11, you performed at the Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall. How did that happen?
I was studying with Margaret Bonds, one of the first famous African-American concert pianists. She had her studio in Carnegie Hall, and gave me an audition there with certain music professors, and it went well. I have since played in the main auditorium of Carnegie Hall, and it always brings back many good memories. Miss Bonds was quite an incredible teacher; I wound up getting some of my classical music studies there.
How did your professional career begin?
It was through my brother who told me, “Eddie, we’re going to start recommending you to some of the Latin orchestras,” so I started with a gentleman named Eddie Forrester. It was a great experience, because he also played a lot of jazz engagements, like at the Rockland Ballroom, underneath the Polo Grounds at 155th and Amsterdam in Harlem. That’s where I saw people like Charlie Parker and Charlie Ventura—I didn’t even know who they were because I was so very young.
My next big job was with an orchestra led by Vicentico Valdéz, who had been the vocalist for the Tito Puente Orchestra but now had his own conjunto orchestra. Conjunto means an orchestra with trumpets, no saxophones. The only band then that had saxophones was Machito and his Afro-Cubans. Otherwise, Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, Vicentico Valdéz—they all had conjunto: three trumpets, a rhythm section, conga, bongos, a few violins, bass, piano and vocal. Charlie then recommended me to Tito Rodríguez, which was quite an experience. By 1960 I went on my own, and by late 1961 is when La Perfecta comes into existence, which had two trombones and a flute.
Your band La Perfecta, which you formed in 1961, has been called groundbreaking. In what way?
La Perfecta was definitely a groundbreaking presentation because everything at that time was a conjunto type, but I was looking for my own sound. While I was working at social clubs, I met a trombonist named Barry Rogers and a flute player named George Castro. One night, I had enough money to pay them both, and when I heard them play together, I knew that this was the sound I was looking for. I added a second trombone for power and put them up front with the vocalist, where they had never been before. It was completely different; people called it the “sound of the roaring elephants.” It was very exciting to listen and dance to.
Can you briefly describe the difference between salsa and Latin jazz?
Tito Puente once said, “I put salsa on my spaghetti, baby!” Certainly salsa is a misnomer. The music originates from Cuba of the 1920s, and uses many different rhythmic patterns, starting with the rumba, which is why it’s called “la madre rumba” or “the mother rumba.” Each has its own proper name and dance art forms. In 1964, a new record label called Fania became very popular and helped spread this music all over the world. But to make it simple for the laymen, they promoted the word “salsa” as a marketing tool. Eventually, any Latin music with movement and a vocalist became “salsa,” but it doesn’t do justice to the sacred, exciting rhythmical patterns that took so many years to develop.
Latin jazz, in the early years, was known as instrumental mambos, with no vocalist. Then in 1947 or ’48, Dizzie Gillespie met conga player Chano Pozo, and that’s when true Latin jazz began in New York. Lately, some Latin jazz has lost the concept of dance, but for me, Latin jazz, like salsa, must be danceable. It’s exciting to watch the stimuli between great dancers and a great band, like we had at the Palladium in the ‘50s. You saw some of the greatest dancers in the world there.
What was the Palladium like?
The Palladium Ballroom was quite extraordinary; each day had a different crowd. On Wednesdays you would have all the stars from Hollywood that came to New York, like Kim Novak or Marlon Brando, who loved to play the bongos. On Friday nights you had the nightlife, the gamblers, and they left a lot of money for Maxwell Hyman, who was the owner. Saturday was blue collar workers, mostly Puerto Ricans, and Sunday was all black. African-Americans could really dance the mambo; they comprehended it, and they were great dancers too. It was amazing.
Everybody came to the Palladium, and that’s how you got other jobs. That was where you had to play, and I knew I had to get in there. They had a raid and lost their liquor license and it was very difficult to get in, so I became a barker on Broadway. I rented the Riviera Terrace, right next to the Birdland, and on Wednesday I would be outside telling people, not there, come here, folks. We were very popular uptown, but they won’t let me play downtown. And certainly the old man, Mr. Hyman, was very nervous. He came to my agent, José Curbelo, and complained “What’s wrong with that kid? He’s crazy out there.” My agent said, “Well then, you’ll have to book him.” So that’s how I got started, and because I worked at the Palladium, my agent could get higher fees for me at other dances. But those were incredible years, and I was there when it closed in 1966.
Besides performing, you also write music. What’s your process for composing?
I’ve written about 200 compositions, and there are different places that give you ideas for melodies, but I like to sing them first. In particular, I have had one that was just chosen by the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry, and that was called “Azucar Pa Ti,” which was written in 1963, and recorded in 1965.
I also had a teacher called Bob Bianco, who introduced me to the theories of the Russian scientist Joseph Schillinger, who saw a mathematical basis for music. If music feels like it’s alive, it’s because it has movement, and if it has movement, it must have mathematical logic. It’s an extraordinary system, and I have utilized those theories in my harmonic structures. It is important as a composer and also as a player to have your own personal signature, and I am quite fortunate to have one.
In 1975, you won the first Grammy Award for Latin Music. How did that affect the Latin music community?
The Grammys were held at the World Trade Center on the 13th floor, which is quite strange, because nobody has things on the 13th floor, and my table was number 13. I was considered a real long-shot, so it was an extraordinary shock to win. It took 17 years for the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) to recognize Latin music with its own category, so it was very important. Now you have Latin Grammys (LARAS). I personally believe that it all should have stayed in NARAS; there aren’t two Oscars, two Tonys, two Emmys, so why should there be two different Grammys?
When I was a governor in NARAS, I also helped establish the Latin jazz category. Before, we were together with regular jazz and we could never compete with Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk. So I did a performance for the host committee at a restaurant called B. Smith’s on 8th Avenue and explained how important it was to have our own category. It’s ironic because now so many jazz artists are moving into Latin jazz and are now appearing in our category!
What do you see in the future for Latin jazz?
I see the future of Latin jazz being very positive. I am seeing young players coming from all over the world who are fascinated by the underlying rhythmic principles that make it so exciting. Many learned these principles directly from Cubans who toured with their orchestras in the 1960s and ‘70s. The only problem is that we don’t have promotion or commercial radio to play our music. The young players know that’s the direction, they hear what’s being done by a tremendous number of artists who are recording very, very well. Fusion is really the word of the future and I think it’s quite healthy.