Eddie Palmieri on Harlem River Drive, Bob Marley, Santeria, social justice & more


[NOTE: My interview with Eddie Palmieri originally appeared in the September 11, 2013 edition of NUVO Newsweekly – Kyle Long]

Summarizing Eddie Palmieri’s career in the space of one column is about as easy as attempting to eat an entire watermelon in a single bite. So I’ll provide a brief  introduction and jump straight my recent conversation with the music legend.

Palmieri’s daring harmonic experiments on the piano have established his reputation as one of the greatest soloists in the history of Latin jazz. In addition to his  dazzling virtuosity, Palmieri is also an extraordinary musical innovator. His early work with La Perfecta laid the foundation for salsa music while his album Harlem River Drive essentially invented the genre of Latin funk.

At 76 years old Palmieri is the most quick-witted and entertaining musician I’ve ever interviewed. Cracking jokes and reciting arcane historical facts at every turn. It seems the maestro is still on top of his game, a good indication that his upcoming performance at Jazz Fest should not be missed.

Kyle Long: It’s an honor to speak to you. How are you and what are you working on currently?

Eddie Palmieri: I’m better than ever! It’s a beautiful day in New York. I was in Europe earlier this year. We started the tour in Paris, France with our big band. Then we took the Latin jazz septet to Germany, Spain, Switzerland and even went as far as Serbia. It was an incredible tour and I’ll be bringing my Latin jazz septet to Indianapolis for Jazz Fest.

Right now I’m now preparing for a big concert here in New York at Lehman College. I’m putting together a whole new presentation utilizing the batá drums. The batá drum is the most primitive of all African drums and it’s the source of all those rhythmic patterns that have excited the world.

Long: You used the batá drum on your 1979 album Lucumí, Macumba, Voodoo which combined funk and disco with Afro-Latin percussion to tell a story about Santería and other forms of African religion in the Americas.

Palmieri: It didn’t have so much to do with the religion. I know a little about that. Naturally I’ve researched it and I think pretty soon I’ll be able turn my critics into hamsters with all the voodoo I learned in Santería [laughs].

Seriously that album was all about the drum and the rhythmical patterns that the batá players used for all the deities like Shango or Yemanja. This was all done in camouflage. When they brought the captive Africans into Cuba, they used the Catholic religion to camouflage their traditional beliefs. For instance they disguised Shango as Santa Barbara. They came up with incredible rhythmic patterns for all those deities to tell their stories.

Those Santería music patterns eventually evolved into dance music in the ’20s and ’30s and the Santería groups eventually became orchestras. The greatest dance bands the world has ever known in our genre came out of Cuba. Then Cuba influenced the United States through New York in the ’40s and ’50s. Artists like Machito, the master Tito Puente and the two great singers Tito Rodríguez and Vicentico Valdés.

I played with Vicentico Valdés and Tito Rodríguez. I made a record with Tito Rodríguez in 1959 called Live at the Palladium. It was a tremendous album. It was danceable, but it was also Latin jazz.

Long: How long did you work with Tito Rodríguez?

Palmieri: I worked with Tito for two years. At that time he was trying to be like Desi Arnaz from I Love Lucy. He had his wife, who was Japanese, singing with him in a kimono. We went out to Vegas for a month, but that didn’t work out. Then we went to California. He had prepared a show but it didn’t turn out favorably for him. After I left in 1960 I formed my band La Perfecta and in 1962 he formed one of the greatest orchestras ever put together in New York City with Victor Paz on trumpet and Cachao on bass – an incredible orchestra.

Long: Your band La Perfecta changed Latin music with its heavy trombone sound. Music historians also credit La Perfecta with laying the foundation for what would later become known as salsa music.

Palmieri: First, I must say the term salsa is a misnomer. The best quote on that comes from Tito Puente. He said “salsa is what I put on my spaghetti baby.” The reason I point that out is because these rhythmical patterns have their proper names. They all come from the mother rhumba. There was a lot of judgment placed on that word rhumba, it became synonymous with lower class people and women of the night. Yet this is the music that set the world dancing. Through their suffering they brought happiness to the world, which is quite extraordinary.

With La Perfecta we changed the whole structure of an orchestra. We put the trombones up front. Barry Rogers and José Rodríguez were geniuses on the trombone. We were known as the orchestra with the roaring elephants. La Perfecta blew everyone else off the bandstand.  We were the most exciting orchestra to listen to and to dance to.

Long: How did it feel seeing so many other artists like Willie Colón copying your sound?

Palmieri: When we became popular it emptied out all the trombones from all the pawn shops in New York [laughs]. Everybody wanted to play trombone after they saw the success of La Perfecta. But it was never equaled and it never will be in my opinion.

Long: I have to ask about your 1971 album Harlem River Drive. I consider it one the best soul/funk albums ever made, but it was a big departure from the Latin sound you were famous for.

Palmieri: It started with the lyrics written by Calvin Cash, who was a friend of mine. I’d been wanting to record a crossover album and Ronnie Cuber who was working in Aretha Franklin’s band connected me with all these R&B musicians like Cornell Dupree and Bernard Purdie.

The album came out on the Roulette label. I was signed to a subsidiary of Roulette called Tico Records, but I asked the label owner Morris Levy to release the album on Roulette. Roulette had put out a lot of hits by artists like Tommy James and the Shondells.

I wanted to crossover, but it turned out the album’s biggest fans were the Weathermen [laughs]. You know the political group who were rebelling against the government? They embraced it when they heard the lyrics on numbers  like “Idle Hands,” which are still relevant now and will be forever. The next thing we know the FBI and CIA are knocking on Morris Levy’s door asking about the album. Morris called me and said  “Mr. Palmieri, don’t record that shit anymore.”

That was the second time I attracted the attention of the FBI. The first time was for my album Mambo Con Conga Is Mozambique. It was about the first Cubans coming over to the U.S. and I was accused of being a communist [laughs].

Long: Did you have any idea Harlem River Drive would be so influential? I’ve read that War was very influenced by that album and it certainly set a direction for Latin Funk in general.

Palmieri: I had a feeling when we were recording it. At the time I was taking  classes in political economy, which is a theory based on the studies of Henry George who ran for mayor of New York in the 1800s. He wrote a great book called Progress and Poverty. When Calvin Clash came to me with his lyrics, I knew it was quite complimentary to these studies – I was learning about this life and Calvin had lived it.

We were asking “why is there immense poverty next to immense wealth?” Poverty keeps getting worse, not only in the United Stated but all over the world. “Idle Hands” talks about the super rich who are in control. There’s a great quote by Oliver Goldsmith. He said “law grinds the poor, and rich men rule the law.” “Idle Hands” tells the story of how this happens and it’s a hell of a statement. It became quite clear to us that we had something special.

Long: You went on to record two amazing live albums at Sing Sing Prison with the Harlem River Drive band. How did that come about and do you have any particular stand-out memories of that experience?

Palmieri: Well Calvin Clash was locked up in Sing Sing at the time. So we would go there to visit him. I remember before we started playing that show the A&R man from Tico Joe Cain, who was an Italian guy, came up to me and said “Eddie, eighty percent of the audience out there are black.” I said “Joe, open the curtain,” and we blew the place apart.

I played a lot of prisons in those years. I played Lewisburg when they brought in the people from Watergate. I played women’s prisons. I played a prison in Colombia in South America. When I played Rikers Island they had a musical director at the prison. This guy was a friend of Dizzy Gillespie’s and when I played Rikers, Dizzy came along as my master of ceremonies. When we came onto stage Dizzy says, “before I bring on my Latin soul brother Eddie Palmieri, I want to ask him a question. Eddie, have you ever played for such a captive audience?” He brought the place down [laughs].

Long: A few years after that you played a legendary concert at Harvard with Bob Marley to raise awareness about South African apartheid.

Palmieri: Yes and I think they might have legalized herb in the stadium that day [laughs]. We had a high time there to put it blunt-ly and Bob Marley was amazing.

Long: You’ve seen Latin music go through many changes during your career. What do you think of the current state of Latin music?

Palmieri: It’s in an abysmal state. There is no Latin music anymore, you only  have Latin pop. What they call salsa is a disaster. They took away the excitement of the dance orchestra. I suggest if you go out dancing with your partner today, bring pillows because they’ll put you to sleep on the dance-floor. You’ll be bored to death.

They took away the tension and resistance, which is what gives you the excitement. Sex and danger are the exciters – the reaction of the human being is love and fear. All of these things should be inside the arrangements. You need a high degree of orgasm in the music. You need a high musical climax to create energy. It builds the momentum when the piano player takes a solo and passes it to the conga, bongo and timbales. That doesn’t exist anymore. There are no more solos, except maybe a young guy singing who makes you want to pull the plug on the whole band.

Long: Musicians from your generation were passionate about educating audiences on the African roots of the music and exploring social justice themes. What changed?

Palmieri: Everything changes, that’s why we have the four different seasons.
The youth went to hip-hop. There are no more bongo or conga solos. The rhythm might as well be on loop. It’s the same rhythmic patterns in every song. They don’t get out of the box, lets put it that way. They’re in that box, and they’re gonna stay in that box until the last nail goes into that salsa coffin.

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