Latin music began making inroads into the American
consciousness it was typically in the form of
a dance orchestra with a bandleader who was also
a featured performer. Fifty years ago, at the
height of the Big Band era, this dovetailed with
the expectations of American audiences-no matter
how exotic Latin orchestras sounded, they presented
themselves in a familiar form. The overwhelming
majority of bandleaders were players, usually
percussionists, and often the best musicians in
the house. Even if the instrument was mostly a
prop-think Desi Arnaz on congas-it was a defining
element in the way Latin groups were presented.
Nowadays however, Latin music is a kaleidoscope,
and the dominance of the old traditionally constituted
ensembles is waning. With the passing of Tito
Puente in August of this year, the end of an era
was in sight and the instrumentalist/bandleader
took its place on the list of endangered species.
before his death Tito completed work on a studio
album entitled "Masterpiece". It was
a collaborative effort instigated and guided by
Eddie Palmieri, the only other bandleader of similar
stature. In the overall scheme of things, if Tito
was the King, then Eddie was the High Prince.
Cohen first saw Eddie Palmieri perform in 1967
at the Palladium and admits to being a diehard
Palmieri fan ever since. When the two sat down
for an interview there was an awful lot of history
on the table. (Who else but Eddie would know,
for example, that the Palladium was formerly an
Irish ballroom purchased in the 40's by Max Hyman
whose wife was an heiress to the Otis elevator
fortune). The first thing Martin did was to acknowledge
the obvious: "With Tito gone there's no question-you're
the number one, the leading Latin bandleader."
Then there was the amazing requiem that the "Masterpiece"
CD had become, almost spooky in its timing, with
Tito's death taking place just days after its
completion. How did this recording come about
been talking about going into the studio together
for years but it had never happened. I had given
him some scores and ideas for the recording over
a year ago but nothing had been firmed up. And
then we met in the airport in Puerto Rico, and
as soon as I saw him I knew he was ready to record.
But then the scheduling was very hard because
you know, he traveled all over the world. And
we weren't standing still either. As a matter
of fact, I picked a lot of the material geographically,
to highlight countries where we'd been well received.
I mean, between Tito and I, we've probably been
to a hundred countries. I've been to 45 and Tito,
well forget about it!"
asked about the difficulties in accommodating
so much talent on one recording. For instance,
How were the singers chosen given that so many
great vocalists wanted to take part?
me put it this way: The singers who thought they
were going to sing, never sang. The ones who thought
they were going to replace the ones that never
sang, they never sang either. The ones that had
no idea they were going to sing on this CD, they
lot of the music had been in Eddie's head for
a long time, but bringing conceptualization down
to notes on a page required some interesting problem
solving as well as the ability to constantly change
and adjust to the moment. Rather than working
from a rigid framework, everyone found a way to
go beyond a script, to flow with the opportunities.
And the fluidity and respect that characterized
the recording itself is also plainly audible in
the beauty of the result.
motto for the recording was, 'If love and skill
work together, expect a masterpiece'. Tito himself
worked very hard on the CD, he was in love with
it. He knew I had structured it for him--remember,
he was my mentor. In the end it took 200 hours
and cost $250,000 to finish the CD. And I tell
everyone how Ralph Mercado so graciously opened
up his money pouch to make it happen. I also think
that one of the loveliest epitaphs for Tito came
from Puerto Rico. When his death was announced
there someone said, What complications did he
have with his heart, what problems did he have,
when he gave his heart to all of us."
the overall scheme of things, if Tito was the
King, then Eddie Palmieri was the High Prince.
He was born in 1936 in New York at 60 East 112th
Street between Madison and Park. His brother Charlie,
a piano player who Eddie cites as his main musical
influence was born nine years earlier. By the
time Eddie was 11 his brother was already playing
with Tito Puente. Eddie began as a timbalero working
with a group featuring two of his uncles-bandleader
and conga player respectively-and remembers his
first paycheck was $1.25. It wasn't long before
he was leading his own group.
had been working with the Eddie Forester Band.
Eddie played trumpet and Manny Bonilla played
congas. Then Eddie goes out of the business for
awhile and I go to the Sunnyside Gardens, which
was an old boxing venue where Eddie used to work,
and I go see the owner, a guy named Manny Heckling.
And he remembers me so I tell him I've got a band
now and could we play here. And he says, yeah,
sure. And I made a great deal too-I charged him
$100 for a nine-piece band! But there was one
problem-my name. He had another group working
there, the Al Lombardi Band, and he said if he
listed Eddie Palmieri, people would think there
were two Italian bands working there. So he says
we'll change your name to Edualdo Palmos.Well
my father almost killed me, and he wanted to strangle
Manny Heckling. The whole thing was crazy. And
that's when my wife met me as well, under the
name Edualdo Palmos.
music world knows Eddie Palmieri as a brilliant
and creative piano player. What prompted the switch
from drums Martin asked?
came about because of my mother. She was brilliant,
still is at 95, and she got me this huge metal
case for the timbales, must have weighed more
than several drums. And she'd wait till my uncle
would be downstairs honking and I'd be trying
to pick up that case with the timbales and she'd
let me have it: "Edualdo, don't you see how
beautiful your brother looks going to work and
not having to carry an instrument? When will you
learn?" And I'd be struggling to pick that
case up and I'd say, "I'm learning mom!"
And this was tough to acknowledge because I really
wanted to be my brother Charlie's drummer-that
was my whole thing. But then he tells me, If you're
going to play drums you have to play all the drums.
That meant bass drum, tom-toms, everything. And
it wasn't like nowadays where drummers just walk
around with their drum pouch. You had to carry
everything yourself. But I started studying piano
when I was eight. By the time I was eleven I'd
already studied with Margaret Bonds whose in the
history books. Her studio was in the Carnegie
building and she had been my brother's teacher
and he recommended me. Then I met Carlos Savada
who graduated from the Brooklyn Conservatory and
he showed me a technique that to this day, I still
can tell a lot about the stature of a musician
by the dedication to their art, the desire to
keep growing, keep learning. This restlessness
has always been a part of Eddie's outlook musically,
looking for new challenges and ways to express
what he feels as a composer.
I'd like to go now is from a piano player to a
pianist, moving from semi-classical pieces to
classical pieces with full symphonic orchestration.
My son, who is handling things, has already booked
me with the National Orchestra of Washington DC."
on, part of Eddie's signature sound was the use
of trombones in his orchestration rather than
the more traditional trumpets. Martin asked where
had this innovation come from?
rehearsing on September 8, 2000 for the
concert at Madison Square Garden, which
took place on September 9, 2000.
was 1960 and I had a small group. At first I wanted
to get that sound like the early Tito Puente,
those cojuntos with trumpets and no saxophone.
But at the same time I wanted something else but
I hadn't heard it yet. Then I go to this place
called the Tritons where they used to have a jam
session on Tuesdays, and I see Barry Rogers playing
trombone. And the sound just floors me. So I ask
him if he wants to get together and play sometime.
And when we do I know this is it. So that's how
we got started. Initially it was Chickie Perris
playing congas, Mike Coyasso on timbales, Joe
Rivera on bass, myself on piano, Ismael Quitana
doing vocals, Barry Rogers on trombone, and George
Castro on flute."
the addition of a second trombonist in the person
of Jose Rodrigues, Eddie had the band he'd been
looking for and the exciting and highly original
sound of La Perfecta was born.
that time, Eddie has been one of the movers and
shakers of the industry. As such he has a unique
understanding of the events that have been most
important to the worldwide success of Latin music.
One of these was the recordings created by Martin
Cohen at LP® in the late 70's and more importantly,
the European tours Martin organized around the
wasn't really anything happening for Latin music
in Europe until you sent that incredible group
with Tito over there. That opened up the way for
the music to be recognized. If you really analyze
it, that opened up things for all of us, not just
Tito. And the effect of what you did still goes
on to this day."
upshot was that within a few years no one could
any longer deny what Martin was the first to grasp:
That there was a bigger audience out there for
Latin music than just dance venues in Queens.
few musicians have melded intuition and musical
intellect as successfully as Eddie Palmieri. In
a career that spans half a century and counting,
he has consistently been an antidote to musical
complacency. He is extremely knowledgeable about
the antecedents and genealogy of the music he
plays and much of his gift is in combining a grasp
of the music's history with an instinctive feel
have all these 78's and 45's from Cuba before
the takeover. Everything I know is from 1898 to
1960. After the change everything was disrupted
there. We were cut off from the music and the
musicians there and they were cut off from us.
It was not good for them and not good for us.
Now every orchestra there sounds like the others.
As far as the structures for dance that existed
before, that's over. That knowledge had to be
given from relative to relative to relative, and
that ended after 1960. In my opinion, the distinctions
that existed between the great orchestras in Cuba
were lost after the doctrine changed."
performing at the Tito Puente Tribute concert
at Madison Square Garden on September 9,
the foreseeable future one of Eddie's main efforts
will be continuing the Tribute to Tito Puente.
Initially it was to be a limited run, but demand
has been such that the show will begin touring
worldwide this year.
was made of the fact that Eddie wore gloves when
he took a timbale solo during the Tribute for
Tito at the Garden. He did it to protect his hands
since he is first and foremost a piano player.
But there's another version of why Eddie wore
gloves that will probably be making the rounds
for years to come. It seems that when he came
off the stage he encountered Frankie Morales who
had been blown away by the timbale solo. He said,
I didn't know you played timbales, and
Eddie, leaning in close as if imparting some great
secret, replied, It's the gloves, Tito gave
them to me before he died and told me to just
put them on and I wouldn't believe what would
happen. And Frankie's eyes got big and he
said, Really. Now, the fact that someone
would believe in such a possibility, even for
a second, is a sign of the respect, as well as
a measure of the magic in the music of Eddie Palmieri.
The King is dead. Long live the Prince.
All quotes taken from an interview conducted by
Martin Cohen on September 7, 2000.