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One On 1: Latin Jazz Legend Eddie Palmieri

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of a New Yorker whose work is heard around the world, Grammy-award winning musician Eddie Palmieri.

 View the full, uncut interview with our web-only "One On 1 Extra" feature at the bottom of the page.


Can Eddie Palmiere imagine a day without music?

“No, because one way or the other, it's always in my mind," he says.

Eddie Palmieri? A day without music? Not likely, even from his earliest days growing up on East 112th Street. The Latin jazz great is celebrating 50 years in the business with a new CD called "Listen Here."

There's a nationwide concert tour, including stops this summer at Carnegie Hall and the band shell in Prospect Park, and the ongoing effort, like a recent event at Columbia, to promote not himself, but the music and its history to younger generations of music students and admirers.

"It's always there. Music is always there in my mind and in my heart,” he says. “That's what makes it possible to last the 50 years."

How has Eddie Palmieri survived 50 years of changing tastes and trends in the music business? By being not just a player, but an innovator.

Palmieri is respected for his work in Latin music, and jazz, a scholar of the music's African roots. Palmieri is particularly known for his percussive style, playing the piano like a drum.

"I wanted to become a drummer, and I played drums for a while," he says. “It's a percussive instrument, the piano, and I utilize it and I was able to get a certain touch out of it, which happens to be my signature."

As a young kid growing up in the South Bronx, Palmieri played the drums, the timbales, while his older brother Charlie played piano. He eventually gave up the drums, not because of the music, but the weight.

"My mother bought me this metal case to put the drums in, the timbales. They were very heavy,” he says. “She would tell me, ÎEdward, don't you see how beautiful your brother looks not carrying an instrument going to work? When will you learn, Eddie? [I’d say], ÎI'm learning, ma.’”

He learned. The piano would be his calling, and his entrŽe into worlds beyond East Harlem and the South Bronx. Palmieri's music often produces a joyous, carefree response. But to the approach to the music is quite serious.

“Melody affects you physically and psychologically, and merely because it has movement and has laws of mechanics, mathematical logic, and that came from a theory from Russian scientist and musician called Joseph Schillinger," he says.

It is not every musician who can take from the teachings of Russian scientists and put it to use on the dance floor.

“The question is, how are you going to excite the organism that is always fluctuating between being restful and restless, and how are you going to get in there?” he says. “Whether it’s a dancing audience or a sitting down listening audience, it has worked for me very, very well."

In the year 2000, Palmieri finally had a chance to record with this most famous Latin musician of his generation, Tito Puente. The CD “Masterpiece” was recorded at a time when Puente's health was failing.

“But he certainly rose to the occasion in the recording,” says Palmieri. “I mean, you know, you listen to that recording, and he played his drums and then he played beautiful vibes."

Puente died two weeks after the album’s release.

“He was a mentor for all of us as young kids,” says Palmieri. “Really, he changed everything around when he started his orchestra."

Eddie Palmieri's music has inspired so many people to get up and dance, it's hard to believe he can't reciprocate.

“Tito [Puente] would dance right away and would give you a couple of steps, but I never really became the dancer,” he says.

The process of becoming a world renowned musician really took shape in the South Bronx, where he grew up. But Palmieri was born and spent his first five years at 60 East 112th Street, which is now a ball field.

Palmieri's time here was short, but the impact of the neighborhood still resonates.

"El Barrio represents everything to us, because this is where my family arrived," he says.

He says the neighborhood played a huge role in popularizing his music.

"The stores, the groceries, the candy stores, all that, they were all happening with the records and playing the records constantly for us,” he says. “The Barrio, that's where it is.”

Palmieri came of age in the mid-50’s, a rich time for the Latin music with the popularity of the Mambo and then the Cha Cha Cha. He played all over the Bronx and Harlem, but at that time there was one venue that stood out above the others, the old Palladium Ballroom at 53rd Street and Broadway, across from the Ed Sullivan Theater.

"It was really a dance hall, and it was really one on one with the orchestra,” he says. “The orchestras were great playing there, and you had to knock out that audience and you had to knock out those dancers."

After playing in other orchestras, Palmieri formed his own group, La Perfecta, in 1961, recording and touring extensively. The band even performed at several prisons, recording a record at Sing Sing, and gigging with Dizzy Gillespie at Rikers Island.

“Just before we go on, he says, ÎNow I'm going to bring on my Latin soul brother Eddie. Eddie, have you ever seen such a captive audience?’ So everybody went crazy,” he says.

Palmieri had the respect of many of his colleagues.

"Thelonious Monk, I met him once,” he says. “He came to hear us play at a club called the Corso, and they asked him, ÎDid you enjoy the band?’ and he [grunted] and that meant it was great.”

In 1976, Palmieri's music was recognized with the industry's highest honor, a Grammy Award. It was the first year there was a category for Latin music.

“It took 17 years to get us in a category, 1975, representing all Latin artists and all the Latin genres we have, which is quite incredible,” he says. “It's sad, but true. The main thing is that it was certainly great that it was happening."

Despite critical success and concerts, there were obstacles to overcome, an age-old problem in the music business — problems with the record company.

“The way the contracts read it was very difficult to be able to get out of them for any reason, and if you did, you were always in debt to the record company,” he says. “These were times that made it very difficult for you and for your family."

Palmieri would go on to win six more Grammy’s.

It's been a long road for this native New Yorker. He's 68 now, with 50 years in the business, and many performances ahead at what he calls "bandstands" all around the world.

“There's no other reward I would imagine that can be so rewarding that you see the happiness in the faces when you're playing," he says. “You see them dancing and enjoying and having a good time, and that's what brings that spiritual enlightenment in me and makes me very happy."

- Budd Mishkin

ONE ON 1 EXTRA

 Take a behind-the-scenes look at this week's "One On 1" profile with Budd Mishkin's full, uncut interview in Real Video:

  PART 1

  PART 2

  PART 3

  PART 4

  PART 5


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