Percussionist, pianist, composer
Eddie Palmieri, also known as “The Latin Sun King,” is a vital force in Latin music’s Afro-Caribbean jazz movement and vibrant, drum-anchored improvisational salsa. Palmieri is often credited with creating modern salsa music—a hybrid of rhythm and blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll; his band La Perfecta defined the lively sound of Latin New York in the 1960s. But he told New York Latino contributor Larry Birnbaum: “We have to eliminate the word salsa…. It’s Afro-Caribbean music. Musicians have been playing this type of music in America for more than fifty years—ever since a Cuban drummer named Chano Pozo turned Dizzy Gillespie’s whole orchestra around in 1947.”
Having garnered five Grammy Awards between 1975 and 1994, Palmieri has fought tirelessly to bring recognition to Latin and Afro-Caribbean music. He was appointed to the board of governors of the New York chapter of the National Association of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) in 1993. In addition, Palmieri has been instrumental in expanding the coverage of Latin music at the Grammy Awards. He helped institute the Latin/African-Caribbean Jazz category, beginning in 1995.
Palmieri was born in New York City’s East Harlem section in 1936. He was raised in the South Bronx, where his father, an electrician by trade, ran a luncheonette called El Mambo. Palmieri’s mother, a seamstress, believed that music was an important part of a child’s education, so Palmieri began taking piano lessons at the age of eight, following in his older brother Charlie’s footsteps. But his true love was reserved for percussion.
“I am a percussionist,” Palmieri told Columbus Dispatch contributor Bill Eichenberger. “[I] work with complex African rhythmic patterns that are centuries old. The intriguing thing for me is to layer jazz phrasings and harmony on top of those patterns.” Percussionist Tito Puente was Palmieri’s greatest influence and idol, along with Tito Rodriguez and the Machito Orchestra, who gained popularity in the 1940s.
At the age of thirteen, Palmieri played timbales in Chino y sus Almas Tropicales, a band led by his uncle. New York City was exploding with Afro-Cuban dance music at the time. The blending of mambo and cha-cha rhythms with R&B, jazz, and rock gave birth to what would eventually be called “salsa.” In 1951 Palmieri switched from timbales to piano and founded a nine-piece group with singer Joe Quijano. Four years later, Palmieri—not yet 20 years old—replaced his brother Charlie as a pianist in Johnny Segui’s band. Then, in 1958, he joined Tito Rodriguez’s mambo orchestra.
For the Record …
Born Edward Palmieri, December 15, 1936, in East Harlem, NY; raised in the South Bronx; son of an electrician/luncheonette owner and a seamstress; married; wife’s name, Iraida; children: five.
Began playing piano and timbales at age eight; played timbales with Chino y sus Almas Tropicales (a band led by his uncle), 1949; switched to piano, 1951, and founded a nine-piece group with singer Joe Quijano; replaced his brother, Charlie, as a pianist in Johnny Segui’s band, 1955; joined Tito Rodriguez’s mambo orchestra, 1958; organized first band, La Perfecta, 1961, and recorded self-titled debut album; band played New York City’s Palladium for five years; bandmembers included Manny Oquendo (timbales), Tommy Lopez (congas), Barry Rogers (trombone), George Castro (flute), and Ishmael Quintana (vocals).
La Perfecta disbanded, 1968; Palmieri recorded civil rights anthems and “boogaloos” with Harlem River Drive; formed Eddie Palmieri Orchestra in Puerto Rico, early 1980s; returned to New York City, late 1980s; recorded Sueno, Intuition, and Llego la India, Soho Sounds, both 1989; signed with Nonesuch Records; released Palmas, 1994; contributed to Breaking the Silence, a video about HIV and AIDS aimed at women in the Latin community, 1994; host of lecture/performance The Evolution of the Afro-Caribbean Rhythm Section, 1994.
Awards: Grammy Award for best Latin album, 1975, for The Sun of Latin Music; 1976, for Unfinished Masterpiece; 1983, for Palo Pa’ Rumba; 1984, for Solito; and 1987, for La Verdad; voted “beyond artist of the year” in a Down Beat critics’ poll, 1995.
Addresses: Record company —Elektra/Nonesuch, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019. Publicity— Maria Echeverria, D. L. Media, 155 E. 23rd St., Suite 607, New York, NY 10010.
Palmieri organized his first band, La Perfecta, in 1961, when he was just 25. Around the same time, he acquired the nickname “Pancho Rompeteclas,” meaning “Jack the keyboards-buster.” La Perfecta altered the course of Latin dance music by adding trombones to the brass section of the traditional “conjunto” format. Critics were stunned by this new “trombanga” line, which replaced traditional trumpets. Barry Rogers and Jose Rodriguez played trombones in La Perfecta, which came to be known as “the band of the crazy roaring elephants.” Their trombone sound was widely imitated within the realm of salsa music, and the distinctive innovation established Palmieri as a serious new artist.
La Perfecta played four sets a night at New York City’s Palladium, four nights a week, for $72 per musician in the early 1960s. The engagement lasted for five years, until the club closed in 1966. Palmieri and La Perfecta recorded El Sonido Nuevoln in 1966, featuring Latin jazz vibraphonist Cal Tjader. Other bandmembers included Manny Oquendo (timbales), Tommy Lopez (congas), Barry Rogers (trombone), George Castro (flute), and Ishmael Quintana (vocals). “Manny is the one I … learned my Cuban music from. I could never thank him enough for that,” Palmieri told Birnbaum.
Palmieri’s 1962 album El Molestoso (“The Bothersome One”), was titled in recognition of his reputation as a person willing to butt heads in order to fulfill a vision or retain his creativity. Mambo con Conga es Mozambique, released three years later, was never heard by most Americans because major radio stations deemed it too “communist” in nature and refused to play it. Palmieri recorded the album to pay a homage to Latin music’s Afro-Cuban roots and rhythms.
La Perfecta disbanded in 1968, and Palmieri went on to record civil rights anthems and “boogaloos” with the group Harlem River Drive, fusing his Afro-Caribbean sound with rhythm and blues. When the salsa movement gained momentum in the early 1970s, Palmieri turned his attention again to Latin tracks and recorded Vamonos Pa’l Monte with his brother Charlie on the organ and Chocolate Armenteros on the trumpet.
In 1973 Palmieri accepted an assignment from Fania Records to record an album with Cheo Feliciano called Champagne. He flew to Puerto Rico to work on the album but still needed to find a vocalist. He eventually discovered a young singer named Lalo Rodriguez, who would appear on other albums as well. Palmieri followed Vamonos Pa’l Monte and Champagne with The Sun of Latin Music, featuring Rodriguez on vocals. In 1975 Palmieri won his first of five Grammy Awards for best Latin album. A year later, he won a Grammy for Unfinished Masterpiece.
Palmieri spent five years in Puerto Rico in the early 1980s. Salsa’s popularity was waning in New York City at the time, and Palmieri’s brother had suffered a heart attack. Palmieri went to Puerto Rico to take care of his ailing mother. There he formed a band called the Eddie Palmieri Orchestra, recorded Palo Pa’ Rumba in 1983, Solito in 1984, and La Verdad in 1987, and won three Grammy awards—one for each album. But working in Puerto Rico was stressful for Palmieri. “I felt completely oppressed over there,” he told Birnbaum. “I tried to get a helping hand from the orchestras in Puerto Rico, but I just frightened them away…. It was quite difficult. We were hurting for employment…. [The local musicians] wouldn’t allow me in.”
After returning to New York City in the late 1980s, Palmieri recorded Sueno in 1989 for Intuition, a German record label, as well as Llego la India for Soho Sounds. Soon after, he signed with Nonesuch Records, a label noted for classical music rather than Latin or jazz recordings. In the mid-1990s Palmieri was at work on a project that sought to weave Afro-Caribbean rhythms into the classical compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. In 1994 he released Palmas. Palmieri told Down Beat contributor Howard Mandel: “Palmas sets a precedent for how to extend jazz into the most incredible rhythmic patterns, the most exciting in the world, 40,000 years old!”
Brian de Palma’s 1993 film, Carlito’s Way, starring Al Pacino, featured Palmieri’s hit single Muneca. The track Puerto Rico was included in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn soundtrack the next year. Palmieri also contributed to Breaking the Silence, a 1994 video about HIV and AIDS aimed at women in the Latin community.
In his long, prolific career as a percussionist, pianist, composer, and orchestra leader, Palmieri played with an extensive list of masterful jazz and salsa musicians. Alto saxophonist Donald Harrison told Mandel: “One thing I love about Eddie is his free spirit. He goes for the music and listens to the musicians, the same way Art Blakey did, and of course, Duke Ellington, too.”
La Perfecta, Alegre, 1961.
El Molestoso, Alegre, 1962.
Echando Pa’ Lante, Tico, 1963.
Mambo con Conga es Mozambique, Tico, 1965.
Palmieri & Tjader: El Sonido Nuevo, Verve, 1966.
Molasses, Tico, 1967.
Palmieri & Tjader: Bamboleate, Tico, 1969.
Champagne, Tico, 1973.
Justicia, Tico, 1973.
Harlem River Drive, Roulette, 1974.
Vamonos Pa’l Monte, Tico, 1974.
Sentido, Coco, 1974.
The Sun of Latin Music, Coco, 1975.
Unfinished Masterpiece, Coco, 1976.
Lucumi Macumba Voodoo, Epic, 1977.
Eddie Palmieri, Barbaro, 1981.
Palo Pa’ Rumba, Musica Latina, 1983.
Solito, Musica Latina, 1984.
La Verdad, Sonido, 1987.
Sueno, Intuition, 1989.
Llego la India via Eddie Palmieri, Soho Sounds, 1989.
(Contributor) Carlito’s Way (soundtrack), 1993.
(Contributor) Crooklyn (soundtrack), 1994.
Palmas, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1994.
Billboard, April 23, 1994.
Cal Performances (University of California at Berkeley), 1993–94 season.
Columbus Dispatch, July 23, 1992.
Down Beat, August 1994.
Elle, September 1989.
Jazz Times, October 1994.
Musician, July 1994.
New York Latino, spring 1994.
—B. Kimberly Taylor
Born: Bronx, New York, 15 December 1936
Genre: Latin, Jazz, World
Best-selling album since 1990: Obra Maestra (2000)
Hit songs since 1990: "Muneca"
Eddie Palmieri was dubbed "the sun of Latin music" in the early 1970s for his searingly brilliant style, which fused advanced jazz ideas with New York–inflected Afro-Cuban rhythms. His musical star has shone brightly since childhood; he made a Carnegie Recital Hall debut on a classical piano piece at the age of eleven. Since the death of his colleague Tito Puente in 2000, Palmieri has reigned as the leading exponent of Latin jazz for serious listening and social dancing.
Cuban dance bands embraced modern jazz elements as early as the 1940s, when the Havana-born Mario Bauza mentored Dizzy Gillespie. Latin-influenced jazz was a staple of post–World War II ballrooms, succeeding the popular swing bands in several major cities of the United States. Palmieri's uncle Chino had a dance band in which Eddie had his first job as a teenage timbales player; his brother Charlie, older by nine years, was already a recognized Latin keyboardist and arranger by the mid-1950s, when Eddie entered the scene around New York's Palladium Theater in Spanish Harlem. His apprenticeship culminated in membership in the Tito Rodriguez Orchestra from 1958 to 1960.
In 1961 Eddie Palmieri introduced Conjunto La Perfecta, pitting two burly trombones against the precision of the traditional flute-led charanga band. He retained the dynamic lineup of piano, bass, timbales, clavé sticks, and congas with which Cuban music spins its compelling polyrhythms. The ensemble, built around the horn charts of the trombonist Barry Rogers, was scoffed at as elephantine (Charlie called it "the trombonga"), but La Perfecta re-charged urban Latin music for the 1960s.
Though Palmieri is deeply grounded by Afro-Cuban dance band traditions and Yoruba-derived rhythms, he admires Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, and jazz modernism in general; he chooses for his band musicians whose improvisational skills can stretch his challenging arrangements. Of the five La Perfecta albums, two are collaborations with innovative vibraphonist Cal Tjader; they are landmarks of Latin jazz that introduce production techniques their producer, Creed Taylor, marketed in the mid-1970s as "smooth jazz." Palmieri influenced jazz musicians such as Herbie Mann and colleagues such as Mongo Santamaria's arranger, Marty Sheller, and the Fania All-Stars composer/arranger/producer/bandleader Johnny Pacheco.
After La Perfecta dissolved in 1968, Palmieri concocted new combinations, most often playing piano in the center of jazz orchestra-sized ensembles. He has long been a talent scout, discovering vocalists and instrumentalists who have sustained strong careers, such as the singers Ishmael Quintana and Cheo Feliciano, the percussionists Nicky Marrerro and Giovanni Hidalgo, the bassists Andy Gonzalez and John Benitez, and the baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber. He can boast such crossover innovations as the edgy convergence of heated Latin music and black rhythm and blues of the band Harlem River Drive as documented on the album Live at Sing-Sing (1972).
He writes cutting melodies for horns and dark, edgy harmonies that suggest tension and stress; he was an early adapter of electric basses, electric pianos, and synthesizers, although after the mid-1980s he returned to less processed and/or amplified instrumentation. A small, wiry, talkative, intense figure, Palmieri excels at improvising dramatic, out-of-time introductions, breaks or codas in contrast to his players' fast, hot solos and the vivid, swirling ensemble passages he pens.
Palmieri won his first Grammy Award in the newly created Latin Record of the Year category in 1976, for the album Sun of Latin Music (1974). He protested the release of his next album, Unfinished Masterpiece (1976), but it, too, won a Grammy. Each of his next five albums, issued between 1978 and 1987, was a Grammy nominee, and in each he refined his recipe, adding or reshaping elements of rhythm and blues, avant garde jazz, a dialect from this or that outpost of the African diaspora, and Afro-Cuban music.
In the early 1980s Palmieri relocated to Puerto Rico, but found his Eddie Palmieri Orchestra excluded from the best bookings, despite Grammy wins in the category Best Tropical Latin Performance for Palo Pa' Rumba (1983) in 1984, Solito (1984) in 1985, and La Verdad (1987) in 1988. Returning to New York, he contracted with Nonesuch Records in 1990, hoping to reach beyond his urban Latin fan base to a sophisticated, adventurous record market. Though he retains his core listenership and enjoys nearly unanimous raves from the music press, Palmieri's Latin jazz has not achieved mainstream American acceptance comparable to reggae or Brazilian pop. His genre is ghettoized, as in the way it has been used to represent New York Latinos on film soundtracks for Brian DePalma's Carlito's Way (1993) and Spike Lee's Crooklyn (1994).
In the 1990s Palmieri promulgated his theory that Latin rhythms can be applied "scientifically" to many strains of composition from Western Classical tradition to good effect; to prove it he embarked on adaptations of Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven pieces for Latin jazz band, in clavé (a fundamental beat of two and three strokes, in rapid succession). For a JVC Jazz Festival performance at Carnegie Hall in the late 1990s, he rewrote a concert by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for the combined forces of his band and Puente's. Their collaborative album, Obra Maestra (2000), an extravaganza featuring a twenty-six-piece all-star ensemble, was a Grammy winner for "Best Salsa Performance." It was also Tito Puente's last recording.
As younger Latin artists and audiences gravitate toward pop and disco dance styles and incorporate West Coast-Mexican influences, Palmieri asserts his jazz links with ensembles of excellent horn players such as the alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, the trumpeter Brian Lynch, and the trombonist Conrad Herwig, a lineup represented on several of his recordings of the 1990s. On La Perfecta II (2002), Palmieri revisited some of his 1960s breakthrough material, giving it subtle new gloss. His albums convey much of his energy, but his music is best experienced live.
Despite his originality, continued Grammy Awards recognition, the devotion of hard-core fans, the interest of more mainstream markets, his rigorous performance schedule, and his unrivaled claim of Latin jazz kingpin, Eddie Palmieri has not achieved household-name recognition or overwhelming records sales. But his restless creativity is well recognized for advancing the art and pleasures of Latin music
Spot Light: Palmieri Establishes Latin Jazz Grammy
In 1976, the year the Grammys first conferred an award for Best Latin Album, the honor went to Eddie Palmieri for The Sun of Latin Music. He won again the next year, for Unfinished Masterpiece. He also won Grammys in the strangely titled category "Best Tropical Performance" for Palo Pa' Rumba (1984), Solito (1985), and La Verdad (1988), and he has been nominated innumerable times, in both Latin, salsa, and jazz categories. But as a board member since 1993 of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, New York chapter, Palmieri argued that Latin jazz, the genuine hybrid, was no longer his alone, but rather a genre with much creativity and innovation deserving its own recognition. He was obviously persuasive; the first Grammy for "Best Latin Jazz Performance" for albums by solo artists, duos, or groups, vocal or instrumental (compilations not eligible) was presented in 1995 to Cuban-born, Miami-based trumpeter Arturo Sandoval's Danzon. Palmieri was a contender that year for his Palmas and again in 1996 for Arete, which was beaten out by Antonio Brazileiro (1995), the last album by Brazilian bossa nova star Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Live at Sing-Sing (Tico, 1972); Unfinished Masterpiece (Musical Production, 1979); Sueno (Intuition, 1982); ); La Verdad: The Truth (Fania, 1987); Salsa-Jazz-Descargas-Exploration (Musical Productions, 1991); EP (Fania, 1993); Palmas (Elektra, 1993); Palmieri and Tjader (Tico, 1993); The Sun of Latin Music (Musical Production, 1995); Arete (RMM, 1995); Live (RMM, 1999); La Perfecta II (Nonesuch, 2002); El Rumbero del Piano (RMM, 1998); With Tito Puente: Obra Maestra (2000). With Cal Tjader: El Sonido Nuevo: The New Soul Sound (Verve, 1967).