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Eddie Palmieri: Now A True 'Jazz Master'

Eddie Palmieri (AFP/Getty Images)

Pianist Eddie Palmieri has been given many nicknames. He's been called The Latin Monk because of his Thelonious Monk-inspired dissonances. He's been called The Piano Breaker Man, because he hits the keys so hard. He's even been called the 'madman of Latin music.' He's taken many of the innovations of modern jazz pianists and brought them into his Latin bands. But he's never stopped playing good dance music.

In 1994, Palmieri's lobbying culminated in the announcement of a new Grammy Award category for Afro-Caribbean Jazz.

"I proposed the category to give proper distinction to that segment of jazz music based on rhythmical elements and instrumentation of Africa, as opposed to jazz which developed from blues, gospel and other expressions of African-Americans," he told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 1994.

Now the great Latin band leader has just receive another honor: a Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, for his lifetime of achievement in jazz.

To celebrate, Fresh Air honors Palmieri with excerpts from a 1994 conversation about his work.


Interview Highlights

On why his mother wanted him to learn piano when he wanted to play the drums

"Well, because she passed the Depression here. And actually, in 1929, she was here already. She arrived in '25. And a lesson was 25 cents, and the idea was you couldn't--you know, try to get the 25 cents. With $1.25, they made a whole grocery shopping. It's amazing what happened in the years of the Depression. And because my brother was already playing piano and he was nine years older than me, then my mother certainly insisted on me to play piano, too. And I did. And I couldn't thank her, you know, enough for that."

On Tito Rodriguez

"He was so sharp. The orchestra all in uniform because he was the best singer that we had here as far as an orchestra leader, and he had the preparations to do it. And he just kept improving constantly because of his competitive edge, you know, that he always had with Mr. Tito Puente. If Tito Puente played vibes, Tito Rodriguez wanted to learn how to play vibes, you know? It was one of those things. He just couldn't stand--you know, mostly Tito Rodriguez towards Tito Puente. There was something that just irked him, you know, but when I was working with him from the year '58 to '60, I certainly learned a tremendous amount from Mr. Tito Rodriguez, and may he rest in peace, but he knows that he's in my heart."

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC BY EDDIE PALMIERI)

DAVIES: Pianist Eddie Palmieri has been given many nicknames. He's been called The Latin Monk because of his Thelonious Monk-inspired dissonances. He's been called The Mad Man of Latin music. And soon he'll be a nationally recognized Jazz Master, accepting the highest national honor that the country bestows on jazz artists by the National Endowment for the Arts. Palmieri has taken many of the innovations of modern jazz pianists and brought them into his Latin bands. But he's never stopped playing good dance music. He grew up in New York, where his parents moved from Puerto Rico and played timbales in his uncle's band when he was a teenager. His brother, Charlie Palmieri, who died in 1998, was also a great Latin pianist. Eddie Palmieri has been leading his own jazz salsa group since 1961.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC BY EDDIE PALMIERI)

DAVIES: Terry Gross interviewed Eddie Palmieri in 1994. He told Terry about growing up in a large Puerto Rican family in the Bronx.

EDDIE PALMIERI: When my relatives all came from Puerto Rico, my uncles, my grandmother, for example, had an open house policy, you know, which meant that on Saturdays you would see my grandmother going down to the Safeway, A&P and doing the shopping. And plus, she would stop at the liquor store and bring about oh, six or eight bottles of different ryes and rums, whatever, merely because my grandfather was also a professional gambler. So on Saturday night, Friday night, the game, the card games would start and by midnight on Saturday, there was no liquor stores open and the only one they had the liquor was grandma. And as she sold you a liquor she would light up a cigar. And then my grandfather was quite unique in playing so he would clean up and they would have a house kitty.

And on top of that, my uncles, who worked in the leather factories, they would bring my father these - my grandfather - excuse me, these armbands and suspenders that he would put on with a little hammer and a copper cup there, he would put the little brass tips on them and that was how he made his living. And on Saturdays all my uncles would get together and then they would take out their guitars and they would start to sing. By 13, I was already playing drums with my uncle Chino y sus Almas Tropicales because I didn't want to play the piano anymore. I wanted to become my brother's drummer.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Now I know when you were growing up, your mother really wanted you to play piano but you wanted to play drums.

PALMIERI: Right..

GROSS: Let's start with your mother wanting you to play piano. Why was she so big on that?

PALMIERI: Well, because she passed the Depression here. And actually, that in 1929, she was here already. She arrived in '25. And a lesson was 25 cents, and the idea was you couldn't - you know, try to get the 25 cents. With $1.25, they made a whole grocery shopping. It's amazing what happened in the years of the Depression. And because my brother was already playing piano and he was nine years older than me, then my mother certainly insisted on me to play piano, too. And I did. And I couldn't thank her, you know, enough for that.

GROSS: Now you studied classical music when you were young, right, on the piano?

PALMIERI: Well, because of Ms. Margaret Barnes, she was a classical concert player and by 11, I gave a concert - a recital at Carnegie Hall recital hall. But remember, all those years, from 11 to 12, I just wanted to play drums. So it hurt me for not really getting into the fundamentals of the instrument as I need to and I do now.

GROSS: Did you resent having to play classical music?

PALMIERI: No. No. I just didn't want to play the piano at all. I mean I wanted to play drums and, you know, you have to be, you have to, you know, contemplate like what's going through my mind because I want to play stickball in the street, you know, and the guys are calling the downstairs, come on, Eddie. Come on, Eddie, you know, and I got to be playing scales, you know, and then trying to, you know, like make my, you know, cheat on my scales and my mother had an incredible ear.

(LAUGHTER)

PALMIERI: I call her Momma Ear Chops. I mean she could hear. She says, eh, you know, that don't sound right, you know, an extra 15 minutes aw, and things like that. And I was missing the game. And I was the first baseman. And then I had to become the manager because if I wasn't the manager, probably, they wouldn't let me play.

GROSS: So when you're playing timbales in your uncle's band what was the atmosphere like? You were, I don't know, 13 or 14...

PALMIERI: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...and he was playing in dance halls or...

PALMIERI: Oh yeah. Dance halls and up in the villas. The villas is like that Borscht circuit, you know, the Catskills here, you know.

GROSS: Oh, you were playing into Borscht Belt when you or 13 or 14?

PALMIERI: No. No. But in the Spanish ones.

GROSS: The Spanish Borscht Belt.

PALMIERI: Yeah. They were owned by Spaniards at that time. That was where they called them La Villas. And...

GROSS: So this is in the Catskills Mountains of New York where a lot of summer resorts are?

PALMIERI: This is Platica(ph) off Newburg(ph).

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PALMIERI: Yeah. And I started working up there in 1950, 1951, you know, I mean it's unbelievable.

GROSS: So what was the atmosphere like? What kind of people did you meet?

PALMIERI: Well, I give you an idea. On the first day I got there I saw - I went to see the pool. They told me they had a pool in this villa and I went to see the pool. There was a cow drinking at one end of the pool.

GROSS: A cow?

PALMIERI: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What was a cow doing drinking from the pool?

PALMIERI: Well, I don't know. I didn't know. Her name was Elsie at that time so I didn't, you know, I...

(LAUGHTER)

PALMIERI: ...from Borden's Milk. The main thing is that that was the cows that gave you the milk. For $35 you could stay a week at The Villas, room and board and that fresh milk pitcher was there in the morning. And then my uncles and my grandfather would love to go up there because they - excuse me - they could gamble up there, they could play cards all day long or dominoes, and that was their world. And my uncle was booked as the music of The Villas and I was part of that, so that was the way we made our living.

GROSS: Did you drink when you were young?

PALMIERI: No. But my uncle certainly did, and I always tried to, like, grab a drink or so, you know, but it was difficult because all my aunts were there and they would tattletale on my mother.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Right.

PALMIERI: (Unintelligible) my mother.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Pianist and bandleader Eddie Palmieri, speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're listening to Terry's 1994 interview with pianist and Latin bandleader Eddie Palmieri. He was recently given a Jazz Masters award by the National Endowment for the Arts.

GROSS: When you were young you played with Tito Rodriguez. What did you learn about showmanship and running a band from watching him?

PALMIERI: Oh, he was the one. He was the dandy. He was the dandy because no one dressed like him.

GROSS: How did he dress?

PALMIERI: Oh, immaculately man, you know, so hip and he was so sharp. The orchestra all uniform because he was the best singer that we had here as far as a rumbero singer, of an orchestra leader, and he had the preparation just to do it. And he just, kept improving constantly, because of his competitive edge and, you know, that he always had with Mr. Tito Puente. If Tito Puente played vibes, Tito Rodriguez wanted to learn how to play vibes, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

PALMIERI: It was one of those things that he just couldn't stand - you know, one mostly Tito Rodriguez towards Tito Puente. There was something that just irked him, you know, but when I was working with him from the year '58 to '60, I certainly learned a tremendous amount from Mr. Tito Rodriguez, and may he rest in peace, but he knows that he's in my heart.

GROSS: What did you wear in the band?

PALMIERI: Oh, all different kinds of uniforms. Sometimes we looked like waiters...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...you know, and they would ask us for a drink and that, you know, and I would give them my drink and take, you know, take a tip or something like that. The main thing is - or tuxedos but we worked because with Tito at that time then we didn't stay working in the, what they called The Circuit. He went to Vegas and we did Vegas. And he had a show. His wife was Oriental, Japanese, and she sang and he had a Cuban dancer, Marta, and we did a - he was after that Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball movement since he knew Desi and he knew Lucille Ball, because his wife also came from one of those show cabarets. But he was so sharp, you know, and he could dance and the thing was he could sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TITO RODRIGUEZ: (Singing in Spanish)

GROSS: When did you feel ready to form your own band?

PALMIERI: 1960, after I left Tito Rodriguez. It took about a year and then by 1961 I started my - different form of the orchestra, La Perfecta started in late '61, which was the orchestra then that stood together for seven, eight years and we had two trombones, a flute, wooden flute and timbales, conga, bass, singer and I were the total of eight.

GROSS: Were trombones unusual for a Latin band?

PALMIERI: At that time, yes. They called us like the sound of the roaring elephants.

GROSS: So did, when people compared your sound to elephants, was that in praise?

PALMIERI: Oh, well, in praise and in annoyance and, you know, it was a combination of both because we were playing up in the Catskills for three summers with that orchestra and that's a really commercial setting. And the orchestra certainly didn't belong there, but we needed to be there because that was the way we would be able to maintain our status in the city by being away for the summer. Like much Machito would go to the Concorde and Tito Puente would go to the President Hotel and lake, in Swan Lake or whatever, and we landed up in Kutsher's Country Club and then I landed up in Brown's and then I landed up in - eventually in '65 in the Raleigh Hotel and that's where they called us the roaring elephants.

GROSS: A lot of the hotels that you mention had primarily Jewish clientele vacationing there.

PALMIERI: Right.

GROSS: So were you used to seeing people who weren't Latin doing the cha-cha or the mambo and everything? And I wonder what you thought of their dancing.

PALMIERI: Oh no, of course, because of the '50s, remember that the Jewish clientele was the clientele in the Palladium on Wednesdays.

GROSS: Oh.

PALMIERI: And what we saw was not only the Jewish clientele dancing to the most incredible dances that you can find, but you saw Marlon Brando there. You saw him playing bongos with Tito Puente.

(LAUGHTER)

PALMIERI: I mean you saw things in the '50s you wouldn't believe. And then the mambo with Tito Puente, again and Tito Rodriguez, and Machito, these were great orchestras that the Jewish clientele followed. On Fridays and Saturdays the Palladium was more Hispanic, and on Sundays it was definitely black. So we had four different days there that we had four different unique ethnic groups coming to dance and they all danced superbly.

GROSS: I want to play one of your classic recordings. I want to play "Puerto Rico."

PALMIERI: Oh, I love it. We just did that in Puerto Rico, just now.

GROSS: Did you?

PALMIERI: Yes.

GROSS: Well, let me play an early recording of it. And this is my guest Eddie Palmieri, his band, he's featured, of course, on piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUERTO RICO")

GROSS: What stage where you at when you recorded that?

PALMIERI: Oh, I was in quite an incredible stage, always with the economical pressures around you. But I found myself in Puerto Rico walking on the beach and looking at those that beautiful ocean and that's what the lyrics say. (Spanish spoken). You know, beautiful island with your blessed waters surrounding you. So that's a special album and a special year you played for me.

GROSS: A Latin music is a lot of repetition that the piano plays. I think - is that called Mantuano(ph)?

PALMIERI: Exactly right.

GROSS: So...

PALMIERI: It's called - it's a Mantuano part but it's called a guajero(ph). You'll hear like (Singing) bom-be-bom-be-bom-be. That would be a guajero that I'm using there and I'll use that the guajero is behind the percussionist because the least amount of harmonic changes in Latin is where we get the...

...the guajeros behind the percussionists, because the least amount of harmonic changes in Latin is where we get the highest degree of synchronization, which is what you're after. We simplify the chord changes and there we get what we call mas acote(ph), which is the synchronization of the rhythm section and the piano and bass so that we're featuring that soloist that is showcasing himself, or that I'm showcasing on the record or in live presentations to the public.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Spanish)

GROSS: I want to play something from your new album, "Palmist" and you have a piece on here called "Bolero Dos."

PALMIERI: Right.

GROSS: And it opens with an extended piano solo and, I mean, there's no rhythm behind you...

PALMIERI: Right.

GROSS: ...in this piano solo, which is very unusual in Latin music. I mean, the rhythm never stops in Latin music.

PALMIERI: Well, I've always done that since the start of Latin music that won the first Grammy. Just piano alone.

GROSS: Now, why do you go for that?

PALMIERI: Oh, I mentioned that before, is that I love variations of a theme and I know exactly what's going to come behind me, but it's such a beautiful melody that why not play with the, you know, piano first. And there's never been a piano opening or intro that has annoyed or not brought in an audience.

So when you're in an audience that your rhythm can be, not annoying but complicated, it's wonderful to hear a piano first. And we just, you know, like, I'll just slip it in, you know, like, by playing piano and then all of a sudden, then I'll go into my orchestra. And it's been very, very well accepted and I love to do it and it's pianistic. So it helps me in my direction of getting to know my instrument better and better.

GROSS: Well, let's hear the beginning of "Bolero Dos." This is Eddie Palmieri on piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOLERO DOS")

GROSS: Well, we could hear you growl on that song.

PALMIERI: I told you. I warned you.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: How did you start growling like that?

PALMIERI: Well, let me tell you what happened. My first recording, you know, we started to record years ago. First recorded allegre and all of a sudden I see the owner walk in with the engineer and he walks in and I say what's the matter? He goes what is that? You know, and we were, what is what? You know, and we start looking for something that nobody can, you know, what is what?

You know, we start looking. And sure enough, we go back to recording. He comes back and what is that? You know, and finally we found out it was me. So then they didn't know what to do with me, either gag me or put some kind of a - yeah, they wanted to gag me. Either that or, you know, like, cover the piano.

And they did everything with the piano until later on in the other recordings, you know, I said let it be. That's the way he sounds and that's him. Let it go. Let it go. What are you going to do? You know, don't gag him. You'd probably choke him.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Were you aware of the fact that you growled before the end of (unintelligible)?

PALMIERI: Not like that. You know, really your proof is when you hear it back. You say what is that? But it's just, you know, it's that inner, you know, spirit inside and it gives me, like, some kind of ambience for myself when I play and it humps. And I just can't help it. It's just me.

GROSS: Eddie Palmieri, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

PALMIERI: Thank you, my dear Terry, and I want to wish you the best in the city of Brotherly Love. And now after talking to you it's Sisterly Love.

DAVIES: Pianist and Latin band leader Eddie Palmieri speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1994. Palmieri has been selected for a Jazz Master's Award by the National Endowment for the Arts. The other 2012 NEA jazz masters are pianist and singer Mose Allison, saxophonist Lou Donaldson, and Lorraine Gordon who runs the Village Vanguard night club in Manhattan. They'll be honored in a ceremony in concert at the Lincoln Center in January. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new live recording from the Jesse Davis quintet. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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