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Latin Jazz Conversations: Eddie Palmieri (Part 1)

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The lives of legendary Latin Jazz artists always recount themselves like a master class in the major events of music history. When these musicians experience each historical landmark, they simply seem like the ups and downs of daily life. Looking at these events in retrospect, we place the weight of history upon them, giving them significance for a variety of reasons. In most cases, these points in history involved creative movement, influencing everyone around them. While these milestones seem like everyday life for their participants, the impact shapes their future career. The sound and approach of these important historical moments live through their participants, staying alive with each new performance.

Pianist Eddie Palmieri certainly sits as one of the most important torch bearers of Latin Jazz and dance music today, having lived through some of the most important developments in Latin music. Born in Manhattan and soon relocated to the Bronx, Palmieri grew up immersed in the lively and rapidly evolving world of New York Latin dance music. His brother Charlie, nine years Eddie's senior, had built strong piano skills as a young child and began playing professionally as a teen. Charlie's deep involvement in the Latin music scene brought Eddie in close contact with important musicians such as Machito, Jose Curbelo, Noro Morales, and more. Inspired by the vibrant music scene unfolding around him, Eddie took piano lessons at Carnegie Hall with an eye on a music career. In the late forties, the Palladium Ballroom opened in downtown New York, and promoter Frederico Pagani started booking Latin dance bands. Placed in close proximity to the area's numerous jazz clubs, the Palladium became the focal point of New York's Latin music scene, booking the top bands. When Charlie performed at the Palladium with Tito Puente's newly formed Piccadilly Boys, the groundbreaking timbalero inspired Eddie to move to percussion. He spent two years playing timbales with his uncle's band before moving back to piano to start a professional career. Already a busy musician on the scene, Charlie began traveling with his own group, leaving Eddie in a position to fill the piano chair in different ensembles. He worked behind trumpet player Eddie Forester for a while before finding a spot in bassist Johnny Següi's group. Moving up through the ranks of the New York scene, he joined former Puente vocalist Vicentico Valdes in 1956 before landing in Tito Rodriguez's orchestra. Palmieri connected with all the major musical figures of New York Latin dance music's “Golden Age," prepared to forge new artistic ground in the future with his own ideas.

Palmieri watched New York's Latin music scene evolve into an important musical milestone, and soaked all the era's lessons into his own musical concept. These brave early musicians inspired Palmieri, who would become one of the genre's most innovative and important musicians. In Part One of our interview with Palmieri, we dig into the early years of Palmieri's life, the amazing scene around him, and his first steps into a professional career.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: I know that you grew up during an important era for Latin music. Where were you born?

EDDIE PALMIERI: I was born in Manhattan and then raised in the Bronx. We moved up to the Bronx when I was around five years of age. Then I stayed in the Bronx until I got married. I was raised in the Bronx, first in an area called Kelly Street at Longwood and Intervale.

LJC: What was it like growing up around so much great music?

EP: What really inspired me was the music that they were playing, certainly after World War II, going into 1947-1948. I was listening to orchestras led by people like Noro Morales and Miguelito Valdes—these were the bands of the forties. Noro Morales was a very talented Puerto Rican pianist and very popular at that time. Then you also had the orchestra of Jose Curbelo. These bands were the ones that were in the city at that time. Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez were sidemen in that band together! Which is quite extraordinary—later on they became archrivals. They were both with Jose Curblo; he had a fine orchestra. The only orchestra that was a big band before World War II was the Machito Orchestra. That orchestra started in 1939 with Mario Bauza, who was the brother-in-law of Machito. The bands were playing a lot and at the Harvest Moon Balls . . . all these things were happening in New York.

Tito had returned from World War II around this time; he was in the navy and then he came back after 1945. He was playing with Machito before the war; he thought he was going to go back with the Machito Orchestra, but that didn't work out. The timbalero at the time was Uba (Nieto)—he had between four and six kids, he wasn't going to let Tito get back in there! Then Tito did other things—he went with Pupi Campo, he went with Jose Curbelo, and then in 1949, he made the Piccadilly Boys.

My brother Charlie was already playing professionally at the time because he was nine years older than me. He was playing at The Copacabana in the forties. Clubs like that were really supper clubs, there were no dances like the way we know them. They were supper clubs with an American band that played six nights a week and a Latin band that played a show on the society band's day off.

In 1949, everything started to change. The Palladium Ballroom came into being and Tito Puente came in there with The Piccadilly Boys. My brother knew Tito, and he started with The Piccadilly Boys in 1949. Machito came into The Palladium too. There was a great promoter at the time called Frederico Paggani, who was the one who brought the Latin bands from mid-town. You could work in mid-town, but we couldn't get downtown; that was the idea behind The Palladium. It was one block away on the same sidewalk as Birdland, so you had all the jazz greats playing. Then right around the corner you had forty jazz clubs on 52nd Street and then The Palladium Ballroom. So my brother started at The Palladium with Tito and eventually left. Later on he came back with Tito because the pianist was drafted into the army for the Korean War. He stayed with Tito for a few years—two or three years, I don't think it was more than that. But they did some great recordings.

For me, it was listening to all these bands that were playing. The Machito Orchestra, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodriguez started to record in '49 or '50. Tito Rodriguez had just formed his conjunto, a group with timbales, conga, bongo, bass, piano, three trumpets, and the lead vocalist. Tito Puente had Vicentico Valdes as the lead vocalist; Mongo Santamaria was on congas after a gentleman called Frankie Colon also went to the Korean war; Manny Oquendo on bongo; Tito Puente was on timbales; and my brother was on piano. It was an incredible conjunto, and they were recording constantly. That's what I was hearing as a young man, because commercial radio was playing these orchestra, which doesn't happen anymore.

LJC: You started playing piano young, you were studying with Margaret Barnes.

EP: Margaret Barnes was a classical pianist and like other classical artists at the time, she would rent rooms in the Carnegie Hall building. I would take my lessons there. My brother was studying with her and then he recommended me. I was about 11 years old when I met her—she was really great. I did an evaluation test next door at the theater for some professors and we got some good marks. She was a great, great teacher.

LJC: You also played timbales when you were younger.

EP: I played timbales for a couple of years with my uncle until I just couldn't carry them anymore. That was going to lead to a hernia! My mother said, “Don't you see your brother going to work with carrying an instrument—when will you learn?" I said, “I'm leaning Mom!" I went back to the piano and it was great. But I enjoyed those years on timbales.

When Tito Puente came out, everyone wanted to play timbales. Nobody had ever seen anything like that before. At that time, there was always the drummer—a drummer with the whole set of drums, just like the jazz orchestras. That was the drummer and then maybe a conga player would play. Timbales weren't even seen until Tito Puente presented the conjunto. In Cuba they already had these conjuntos. The only thing that they didn't use in Cuba was the timbales—they would have bongo and conga but no timbales. Then Tito Puente started to play timbales and he brought the rhythm section up front. The drummer used to always be in the back. When we started seeing all that as kids, it blew our minds. He was such a great soloist and artist on stage as well.

LJC: You did some of your first professional gigs in the fifties with Eddie Forester.

EP: Eddie Forester's group was the first band that I played with. He was a very talented trumpet player, and he also played the vibes. From there, I went with a band led by Johnny Següi, which was really the first professional orchestra that I played with. My brother would play with them—he would play with them and then recommend me. At the time, my brother was already working with his own trio and quartet, traveling the Eastern seaboard. He would say, “My kid brother Eddie is playing piano . . ." Then I would get in and I would then play with that band. So I played with Johnny Següi, but I didn't last too long with him. Then I went with Vicentico Valdes, the vocalist for Tito Puente. He started his own conjunto in 1953 and I joined him in 1956. After that, it was Tito Rodriguez for two years and then it was my own band.

LJC: One album that I wanted to ask you about from that era is that Tito Rodriguez album Live at the Palladium.

EP: In my opinion, that's one of the greatest albums because it presented two different genres. It had the typical dance music that we know and the genre of Latin Jazz; but at that time, it was known as instrumental mambos.

LJC: That was a bit different than what you'd been doing at the time—that album was very jazz.

EP: They were already doing that. Machito started to do numbers with Flip Phillips and Charlie Parker where they would come in, play with the Machito band, and solo. The songs weren't really arranged around the solo, but they would solo on these compositions. That's what at least started it. Then when Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo got together, that was the first Latin Jazz—the New York phenomenon.

But to us, it was known as instrumental mambos and those instrumental mambos were designed for dances. If you listen to that album really good, all those compositions are danceable. Like “Satin And Lace" by Phil Sunkel or “El Mundo De Las Locas" and “Liza"—they were standards, but those standard compositions were designed for dancing. They had their mambo parts in them, and the soloists could solo over jazz chords. It was a very important album in my opinion that was recorded on United Artists by Tito Rodriguez.

LJC: Were you checking out straight ahead jazz pianists at the time?

EP: No, not that much. I was really interested more in everything that was coming out Latin, specifically what was coming out of Cuba. Cuba was the forerunner and they were sending material constantly before 1960. The arrangers and composers from Cuba were sending material here so that the bands from New York could play them.

The Puerto Ricans were the ones that upheld the Cuban music in New York—there's just no doubt about that. The Puerto Rican musicians that were here like Tito Puente, my brother, Tito Rodriguez (who was half Puerto Rican and half Cuban)—those bands were playing the compositions coming out of Cuba. There were compositions written by these bands, original pieces. But the majority of the work was from Cuba. It came as sheet music, but what you really got was the whole arrangement coming out of Cuba. A lot of the bands just recorded it as such. Some of them made new arrangements on those compositions, but some of them were just great arrangements coming out of Cuba.

LJC: Those were really big dance crazes at the time, right?

EP: Yea, that's when the music was at it's height. Remember it's the era of the mambo, so the mambo was the deal and later on came the cha cha cha. The problem that we had was to be able to play downtown, you had to have a cabaret card. That was established because there were too many Puerto Ricans working Manhattan. To keep an eye on all of us, I guess, you had to go to the police station, get you finger prints, and then you got a cabaret card. Without that cabaret card, you were not allowed to play any place that served liquor. That was a terrible law that we had. A lot of the jazz players then went to Europe because they couldn't work here.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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