Eddie Palmieri was born in 1936 on East 112th Street in New York City, where Spanish Harlem meets Central Harlem, just blocks above the Upper East Side, the most affluent white neighborhood in the city. Growing up, he experienced first hand the differences between these segregated neighborhoods, but he also learned that music was something that could not be contained by racial prejudice, rent regulations or economic inequality. Sound can penetrate social barriers and travel across deep cultural divides, and the young Palmieri listened across those divides. He learned early the power of music as a unifying force, and of its potential for promoting social change.
Palmieri and his family moved to the Bronx when he was a kid to have more space for their extended family, and he continued to absorb a diverse array of sounds through the jukebox in his father’s luncheonette, which was aptly called “El Mambo.” He spent hours listening to the greatest Latin music hits of the day. At the insistence of his mother, music education played a large part in the lives of both Eddie and his brother Charlie. Both began piano lessons at an early age, and Charlie – a natural talent – began performing professionally in his teens with many of the best Latin bands, eventually landing a job with Tito Puente. Charlie set the bar high for his younger brother, who, as a left-handed pianist, had to work extra hard to catch up. Charlie also introduced Eddie to the great jazz pianists of the day: Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, and McCoy Tyner, all of whom, along with Charlie, became the main musical influences in Eddie Palmieri’s life.
When he was 11, Palmieri won an audition to play a youth concert of classical music at Carnegie Hall. It was a promising start, but just a couple years later, when he was 13, Palmieri quit playing piano against the wishes of his mother to focus on his true love: percussion.
His first professional gig was on timbales at age 13 with his uncle’s Latin dance band El Chino y Su Alma Tropical. But that was short-lived, and by the time he was 15, he was back on piano. He resigned himself to being a frustrated drummer for the rest of his life, and often claims that he takes out those frustrations on the piano by playing it like a drum, pushing past the limits of the instrument. He’s been known to abandon playing with his fingers entirely, instead pounding on the keys with his forearms, using the full force of his weight. In Palmieri’s hands, pianos explode in sharp rhythmic bursts, like slaps on congas and rim shots on timbales.
Charlie began sending Eddie to play gigs throughout New York with various Latin dance bands. He played with trumpeter Eddie Forrester, Johnny Segui’s band, and the popular Tito Rodriguez Orchestra. He played all the major venues in Harlem, including the famed Apollo Theater, where he made his debut in an amateur contest at the age of 15 with a small and unnamed Latin jazz combo.
But working for other bandleaders was too musically limiting for Palmieri, so in 1961 he launched his own band to better carry out the full potential of his musical vision. That band was audaciously called La Perfecta (The Perfect) and featured two trombones and a flute and rhythm section – unprecedented for its time. La Perfecta’s sound remained true to Palmieri’s Nuyorican roots, embracing both his Puerto Rican heritage and his experience growing up in an intense and gritty city. The band featured young and virtuosic Puerto Rican, Nuyorican, Brazilian and white musicians. Their powerful, bluesy expression was deeply rooted in Afro-Cuban dance music, soul and jazz, but it sounded new enough to revolutionize the sound of Latin music.
Palmieri’s reputation as a pioneering and uncompromising artist grew. His 1963 hit “El Molestoso” (“The Bothersome One”) was an autobiographical composition about his reputation as a person unwilling to compromise his artistic vision. He was militant in this venture. Last Poet Felipe Luciano observed, “Eddie is a guerrilla fighter, a slash and burn pianist who takes no prisoners and asks no one for approval of his Puerto Rican dreams and melodies.”
In 1968, Palmieri broke up La Perfecta, and entered into his most artistically experimental period. The late ’60s were an intensely turbulent time in the inner city of New York, and a period of crisis and transition for Latin music. The cessation of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba in 1962, and the subsequent economic and travel restrictions greatly reduced the influence of Cuban music in the states, opening new opportunities for Puerto Rican and Nuyorican musicians to assert their influence.
At the same time, the dominance of rock & roll led to a decline in Latin music’s popularity, prompting a wave of experimentation as musicians sought to develop a sound that would capture a new generation of listener. The Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement profoundly changed the political climate, and many Latinos adopted similar modes of protest and organization.
A group of young Nuyorican activists founded the Young Lords, a political organization that fought for the rights of Latinos. Harlem became a cauldron of militant assertiveness and artistic creativity, and Palmieri was one of the first Nuyorican musicians to react to these developments by forging a new sound that would speak directly to the youth living in the inner cities.
Inspired by 19th century economist Henry George’s writings, Palmieri sought to give a voice to disenfranchised people through his music. He began to focus on themes of social justice, and performing in prisons and at neighborhood concerts to directly connect with the people he was advocating for. His 1969 album Justicia featured a song called “Everything Is Everything,” the only track where Palmieri can be heard on lead vocal. He sings in English about social disparity. It foreshadowed the musical awakening that was to come.
The pinnacle of Palmieri’s career as a socially conscious artist was the revolutionary group he co-led with his brother Charlie, called Harlem River Drive. The band was named after a highway that cuts through Harlem, allowing cars to bypass the local streets of the neighborhood entirely, where the rich zipped past to avoid the harsh social realities of the ghetto. For Palmieri, this highway was a symbol of the inequalities of modern society. It was no accident that his group combined Latin, soul and free jazz in a way that sought to unify all of Harlem in the face of adversity. Palmieri’s Harlem River Drive group employed members of Aretha Franklin’s band, alongside some of the most important Latin musicians and jazz soloists of the day, such as Ronnie Cuber, Barry Rogers and Bernard Purdie.
The project sonically unified both black and Spanish Harlem, aligning and empowering two neighboring communities that were suffering similar iniquities. Stylistically, though, it cut a broad swath through Harlem, zigzagging between popular grooves and mashing them together in novel ways – from the guajira funk mix of the title track, to straight ahead soul in “If We Had Peace Today,” to the funk guaracha mix of “Idle Hands,” to a Bitches Brew-inspired free jazz jam in “Broken Home,” and to the funk-mambo mix of “Seeds of Life.” Sonically the project was way ahead of its time, even though it was strongly rooted in the pressing social issues of the day.
In the end, the project was short-lived. Other than a live recording done at Sing Sing Prison, the band did not continue to perform. Regardless, its impact was long lasting, inspiring many bands to explore unique musical mixes that could unify the voices of the people.
After Harlem River Drive, Palmieri continued to pioneer in Latin music, recording over 40 albums. He remains a fierce advocate for the recognition of Latin music in the United States. In 1975, he began to reap the benefits of his efforts. That year, his album The Sun of Latin Music won the first Grammy ever awarded in the “Best Latin Recording” category. He went on to receive nine more Grammys over the course of his career.
In 1988, he was recognized as an American icon by Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History; in 2002, he received Yale University’s Chubb Fellowship, a prize usually reserved for international heads of state, this time given to Palmieri in recognition of his work building communities through music.
In 2009, the Library of Congress added his composition, “Azucar Pa’ Ti,” to the National Recording Registry; And in 2013, Eddie received a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award – the highest honor an American jazz artist can receive.
The litany of awards reflect a lifetime of creating music that moves audiences, physically and mentally. In Harlem River Drive, Palmieri did both in a way that hadn’t been heard before. Its influence lives on.