Born in Spanish Harlem in 1936 to Puerto Rican parents, Eddie Palmieri is one of the most celebrated pianists in American history, particularly within the realm of Latin music. Getting his start at an early age, his initial training largely took place in New York City’s public school system, where was exposed to the works of Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner and other jazz greats that would eventually become some of his most important influences.
At the age of 13, Palmieri joined his uncle’s band as a timbales player, but this interest in percussion was short lived, as he quickly switched back to piano and saw his career take off while performing in groups with Eddie Forrester, Johnny Segui and Tito Rodriguez. Despite this success, Palmieri ultimately wanted to front a band of his own, and in 1961 he formed La Perfecta. Employing a front line of trombones – as opposed to the trumpets that were more customary in Latin ensembles of the era – La Perfecta’s combination of American jazz with Afro-Caribbean rhythms quickly found an audience, and although Palmieri eventually disbanded the group in 1968, its impact is still felt today.
In that years that followed, however, he continued to experiment, weaving together elements of jazz, funk, soul, Latin music and more into a sound all his own. In 1971, he teamed up with the brother Charlie (who played the organ) to record the seminal Vamonos Pa’l Monte, and in 1975, Palmieri’s The Sun of Latin Music was awarded the first ever Grammy Award for Best Latin Recording. Plenty more Grammys and accolades followed over the next several decades, as Palmieri continued to record, both with his own ensemble and with the likes of Tito Puente, Herbie Hancock, La India and even Little Louie Vega, who tapped Palmieri to contribute to the Nuyorican Soul project.
At this point, he’s logged more than 60 years in the music industry, and though his legendary status as a pianist, bandleader, arranger and composer is already assured, he remains active, periodically performing and releasing new music. In this excerpt from his interview with RBMA Radio’s Chairman Mao, Palmieri talks about his extraordinary career.
You grew up in The Bronx. Can you describe a little bit of what that was like?
The Bronx was great because at the time The Bronx was beautiful. I was about five or six years old, moving from 112th Street between Madison and Park. My father and my grandmother, my mother and my grandmother, all formed a luncheonette called El Mambo. I named it. I was in charge of the jukebox. I talked to the jukebox man and told him what I wanted to hear. At 14 or 15, I was a soda jerk. Sometimes just a plain old jerk, you know what I mean? [laughs] Selling cigarettes at three for five cents. The Hydrox, the ones that look like Oreos, they were a penny each. It was a wonderful, wonderful youth that I spent.
What were the kinds of records and sounds that were inspiring you at the time?
Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez: That was the big three. Eventually I got hip to the music that was coming out of Cuba because of Manny Oquendo, when I joined the Vicentico Valdes Orchestra in 1956. I had no idea. I knew about some Cuban music, but Manny Oquendo just blew me away with all… he bought me 25 78’s, and I studied them. I went from side A to side B on the needle, and that’s what gave me... Intuitively, I knew the structures would excite. Later on, when I studied with a teacher called Mr. Bob Bianco, I learned it scientifically.
You started with percussion. What inspired the transition to piano?
Oh, carrying the timbales. I figured I was going to get a hernia. My mother, who wanted me to stay on the piano, bought me a case that weighed more than two or three timbales in the metal case, and every time I would pick it up, she would say, “Eduardo, don’t you see how beautiful your brother looks when he goes to work? He doesn’t have to carry an instrument. When will you learn, Eduardo?” I’m picking up the box of timbales because my uncle is honking the horn. “Come on, Eddie, let’s go!” And I’m telling her, “I’m learning, ma. I’m learning.” Two years later, I made a deal with my uncle and he couldn’t refuse it. I went back to the piano. But it was my mother who put us on the piano.
Who were your piano influences?
My brother first. And then the different pianists, like Rene Hernandez, Gilbert Lopez, Tommy Garcia. Noro Morales, who was a great soloist and a favorite of my brother. But it was my brother that was my main influence.
How would you describe your style?
I would try to imitate my brother, who was a genius – his attack on the piano. I was aware of percussion, you know, rhythmical patter because I wanted to play timbales. That helped me. Then I just kept studying and studying, and then eventually, I met Mr. Bob Bianco, who took me into the world of harmonic structures of jazz. I could never thank enough Mr. Barry Rogers, who’s the one that recommended I go study with Bob Bianco.
Do you consider piano a percussive instrument?
Of course. It hammers at the string.
How competitive was it during the Latin orchestra era back in the ’50s and ’60s?
If you didn’t excite the people in the Palladium, the dancers, you were never brought back. There’s your answer. We had to go in there and go right through them like a Mack truck, and we did, La Perfecta. Wherever we played, we blew them away. We had no choice. It was a different sound. It was known as the “Sound of the Royal Elephants” in the Catskills.
How did jazz become such an influence on your work?
I never liked jazz, because I didn’t comprehend it. I was just dedicated to the Latin dance music from the big three: Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. Little by little, especially when I made La Perfecta, especially in 1964, Barry Rogers told me, we were playing in the Palladium next to the Birdland, “Eddie, I want you to hear something.”
He took me on a Sunday to Birdland, [to see] the original John Coltrane Quartet, with Jimmy Garrison, McCoy Tyner, Mr. Coltrane and Elvin Jones. It was empty, the place, unfortunately, but, fortunately for me, I saw one of the greatest shows I ever saw.
McCoy Tyner took a solo, and that solo went between 15 to 20 minutes, and it just kept swelling and swelling and swelling, and he became immediately my mentor. I already had Art Tatum. Naturally Bill Evans, my favorite when it comes to his form of playing. Even Miles Davis, since he’s like a cascade of water coming down. Bobby Timmons, who wrote “Moanin’.”
“Azucar Pa’ Ti” – one of the biggest tunes that you recorded with La Perfecta, from 1965 – was added to the National Recording Registry in 2009. It was eight-and-a-half minutes, back in an era when songs were rarely that extended.
You could only record at 2:45, so when I signed finally with Roulette, I met the one who made it possible, the gentlemen called Teddy Reig. He was the manager of the Count Basie Band, so they knew about jazz and how long they play and all that. I told him, “Listen, this number is very popular in the street, in the Palladium, for the last year-and-a-half. It’s called ‘Azucar Pa’ Ti,’ and it’s not going to be no 2:45.” He said, “Eddie, just record it.” It came up to 8:30, and it became a classic. It’s in the Library of Congress, an honor.
What do you remember about the creation of another extended classic, “Puerto Rico”?
I wrote that on the beach of Puerto Rico when Roberto Clemente had died coming on the plane, and that’s why the lyrics say, “Isla linda y bonita, con sus aguas benditas,” the blessed water, because he went into those waters trying to do a humane thing for Nicaragua, if you remember.
You, yourself, were very topical in your work over the years, especially with Justicia and Harlem River Drive.
Let me give you an example about Justicia. There was a friend of mine that I knew, a filmmaker called Diego de la Texera. He came in with the troops in Nicaragua, one of the revolutions. When they got to the jungle, there was a small radio hanging on a tree, and the station was playing Justicia. Hanging in the heavens, and that. That’s the message that was done, and it was because of me studying the Henry George course, political economy, with Bob Bianco.
There’s only one problem on this planet. That’s poverty. From poverty stems every crime throughout the world. We’ll never eliminate poverty, so it will always be the same. In my humble opinion, you have heaven, but this is hell for us to survive under the conditions that exist. All that came out in Harlem River Drive and that number called “Idle Hands.” “You all know the story – how it all began. It took five days – and then came man. All the land was free, and so were we. No slavery to lead the poverty.”
In “Idle Hands,” we meant the super-rich, that they do their thing, and everything is great, but there’s nothing to do with… We deal with symptoms. Not to get rid of the cause. That’s what I’m getting at.
How was Harlem River Drive received at the time?
Oh, it was received absolutely wonderfully by The Weathermen, and the CIA and FBI came to talk to Morris Levy. The Weathermen were anti-government, and everybody in the group had my record. I couldn’t leave the country. I had to leave the planet. [laughs] That’s the honest truth. Morris Levy – remember he had a tapestry behind his desk, on which it was written, “Oh Lord, bring me a bastard with talent” – told me, “Mr. Palmieri, I don’t need the CIA and the FBI to come to see me for something that I didn’t do. Is that clear, Mr. Palmieri?” I said, “Clear as a bell, boss.” [laughs] A very boring career. [laughs]
And then you played at Sing-Sing. What was that environment like?
Well, I played all the prisons. I played Attica twice. I went to Lewisburg where they were bringing in the people from Watergate. The best one was Rikers Island. I go to play at Rikers Island, who’s my MC? Dizzy Gillespie. He comes on and goes, “Gentlemen! Before I bring on my Latin soul brother, Eddie Palmieri … Eddie, have you ever seen such a captive audience?” [laughs] And everybody boos! [laughs] Priceless moments.
Skipping ahead a little bit, you recorded the album Masterpiece with Tito Puente in 2000. Why did it take so long for you and Tito to collaborate?
It was Ralph Mercado’s idea for me to do an album with Tito Puente finally. Tito was already quite ill. He had a heart that wasn’t working properly, a valve. My brother recorded classics with him in the ’50s, and this was the time for me and him to do it. It won two Grammys.
You also won for Best Latin album in the ’70s with Sun of Latin Music.
Oh, yeah. That year there were six Fania artists nominated, and then I had recorded for a new company [Coco Records], and I won. All the artists from Fania, they wanted to jump out the window. [laughs] I’m in a good mood today. [laughs] It was a great experience, you know? Remember, it took 17 years for it be named a [Grammy] category. My brother never had the opportunity. Tito Puente did, because of his longevity, and then he won his.
What do you make of the word salsa as a genre?
That’s a misnomer. It’s a misnomer and a lack of respect, referring to the great rhythmical patterns, that they all have their proper name. You’ve got to start with rumba. Out of that comes yambú. You have guaracha, mambo, cha-cha-cha. They all have their proper names. To lump them all together to make it easier for everybody all over the world, “Oh, salsa music...” But that’s a misnomer. The best one who said it was Tito Puente. “I put salsa on my spaghetti, baby.” [laughs] Classic.
It’s important to know the essence of where our music came from.
By your experience, do many other Latin music artists feel that way?
I mean, I couldn’t care how anybody else feels. I’m telling you not only how I feel, but what I know. It’s a misnomer and a tremendous lack of respect for these great rhythmical patterns. When they brought the African captives from Africa, and you’re a captive until you get whipped. Then you become a slave, and with all that inhumane torture, they put the world to dance. The mixture between the Spaniard and the African came the mulatto. The mulatto has put the world to dance.
You’ve said this almost word for word during your performances. Why is it so important to be able to set the record straight in that environment? A lot of people go to a show, they just want to hear the music.
It’s important to know the essence of where our music came from. That was the African captive, beaten by the whip, and there was a law against that, and at the same time, they still whipped them, and out of all that inhumane treatment, they allowed the drum, they put the world to dance. In the United States, they were not allowed the drum at all. Fear of communication and revolution. What came out of there, working on the plantation, was the vocal blues. Then it turned to the classical blues, and that became a fundamental of jazz.
Your current band is composed primarily of far younger players. What do you get from working with young musicians?
Oh, it’s not what I get. It’s what we give each other. Luques Curtis. He’s the greatest bass player that I’ve ever had that comprehends me. You have to comprehend just to be able to survive on this planet. We’ve got to comprehend each other because we’re the most vicious animals on the planet. When you have an orchestra, to be able to comprehend means that when you record, or when you perform, you’re giving the highest degree of quality to the audience.
They started looking for this strange sound, and when they found it was me, they wanted to gag me.
One thing that’s also remained your trademark – which you hear in your recordings and in performance – is that you are quite vocal when you play.
That’s in the spirit, you know?
Can you remember the first time that happened?
I remember when it happened, the first time I recorded, then they stopped the recording. They started looking for this strange sound, and then eventually, when they found that it was me, they wanted to gag me. [laughs] Then they said, “Oh, leave him alone. That’s the way he plays. He can’t help that.” I get excited when I play.
When you look back at your career and all you’ve done – and all you continue to do – how lucky do you feel?
I’m completely blessed. I was born nine years after my brother, and my mother thought she would never have another child, so I was completely blessed when I was born. I’m a very happy camper right now in my life. Every day, it just gets better and better.