Bobby Sanabria Spreads The Latin Jazz Gospel
Drummer, percussionist, composer, educator, Bobby Sanabria has gained renown and respect from fans and musicians alike as one of the foremost proponents of what is labeled Afro-Cuban/Latin Jazz. Born and raised in the South Bronx, Sanabria performed with a veritable Who's Who in the world of jazz and Latin music, as well as with his own critically acclaimed ensembles. His diverse recording and performing experience includes work with such legendary figures as Dizzy Gillespie, Mario Bauza, Tito Puente, Paquito D'Rivera, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barretto, and a myriad of other Latin and jazz greats.
Inspired and encouraged by Tito Puente, Sanabria attended Boston's Berklee College of Music from 1975 to 1979, obtaining a Bachelor of Music degree and receiving their prestigious Faculty Association Award for his work as an instrumentalist. Since his graduation, Sanabria has become a leader in Afro-Cuban/Latin Jazz fields as a versatile drummer and percussionist.
Sanabria's big break came when he was asked to join the legendary Father of the Afro-Cuban Jazz movement, Mario Bauza and his Orchestra. With them he recorded three CD's which are considered to be definitive works of the Afro-Cuban big-band jazz tradition. Mr. Sanabria was also featured with the Orchestra in two PBS documentaries about Bauzá and appeared on the Bill Cosby Show performing with the orchestra. He also appeared and performed prominently in a PBS documentary on the life of Mongo Santamaria. In 1993 Sanabria and his group Ascensión released the critically-acclaimed NYC Aché, which put him on the musical map. He also released the Grammy-nominated Afro-Cuban Dream Live & In Clave!!! (Arabesque, 2000). His next recording, !Quarteto Aché!, released in 2002 on the ZOHO label, documented Bobby's virtuosity in a small group setting and was hailed a "classic" by Modern Drummer magazine and critically acclaimed by the New York Times. It was also nominated for Best Latin Jazz recording of 2003 by the Jazz Journalists Association. As well as these he received a second Grammy nomination for 50 Years of MamboA Tribute to Damaso Perez Prado. Sanabria has been performing with the legendary Afro-Cuban drummer Candido and has released a new CD, Que Viva Harlem.
All About Jazz: You have made a name for yourself in Afro-Cuban/Latin Jazz circles over the last 20 years. How did you get into playing this music?
Bobby Sanabria: Well, I grew up in the South Bronx, which is practically the center of the modern Latin music universe. I was exposed to all types of music, jazz, R&B, hip-hop, funk rock, as well as salsa and Latin Jazz. A lot of musical legends also lived here. Tito Puente is from that community, as well as Willie Colon. The legendary cuatro player Yomo Toro also lived up and played in the neighborhood. I started playing music in high school, and we referred to ourselves as "guerrillas." I also played with the great Latin bandleader Johnny Colon.
AAJ: You are one of Berklee's more notable alumni. How did your stint there influence your musical development?
BS: Well, Berklee is like a musical West Point. All of the teachers and students are very accomplished musicians. I was exposed to people who worked with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Pat Metheny, and Bill Frisell. One of the things I learned there, which I value, is how to play in odd meters! I really got Don Ellis and I dug how he used odd- time meters in his music.
AAJ: Yeah, I noticed that you put the "French Connection" theme on your Multiverse recording. Who were your musical role models on percussion?
BS: I put my influences into two categories. For timbales I would put Tito Puente, Manny Oquendo. Cal Tjader, and Willie Bobo. On the traps it was Buddy Rich; Art Blakey, Max Roach; Tony Williams, and Billy Cobham. Not a lot of folks know that Billy Cobham's father was from Panama and (had a joint out by LaGuardia?) My biggest influence though was Willie Bobo. Willie was proficient both as a timbalereo and drummer in the jazz and Latin idioms. You know Willie Bobo Bobo was on the Herbie Hancock Inventions and Dimensions. (Blue Note, 1963) and he played both drums and timbales.
AAJ: So who did you work with after leaving Berkelee?
BS: I did a lot of freelance gigs,such as studio work with pianist Marco Rizo, reedman Mauricio Smith, and bassist Victor Venegas I remember that we played music for Bacardi commercials. I also got to play with Jon Faddis, Candido Camera, Jerry Dodgion, Then around 1981-1983 I worked with Mongo Santamaria. I even appeared on a couple of his recordings.
AAJ: Your association with Mario Bauza left a lasting impression on you and your music. What was it about Bauza that affected you so deeply?
BS: I first met Mario (Bauza) around 1985, when I was working with Paquito D'Rivera. He asked me to come play with the Afro-Cuban Orchestra. And the rest is history. I eventually became Mario's straw boss since he came up at a time when cats didn't know too much about setting up sound equipment, making floor-plans, or making line checks before performances. This is because Mario came up at a time when even the big bands only used a few mics during performances or recordings. I also made sure the band members showed up to rehearsals and gigs on time, as well as being on time for traveling. You can not over-exaggerate the contributions that Mario (Bauza) made to the development of modern jazz and Latin jazz.
He was the man who bridged the gap between African American jazz and Afro-Cuban music. When Mario joined Chick Webb in 1933 he helped make Webb's band the top swing ensemble during the 30's. He encouraged Dizzy to step out of the swing idiom and make his own music, which as we all know, became that revolutionary artform known as be-bop. When Mario was the musical director for Machito he composed the first piece for Afro-Cuban jazz, called "Tanga." Just think, being present at the inception of Afro-Cuban jazz and Be-bop was like being around when Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart were starting to create their music! Every cat who plays Latin jazz or salsa owes Mario Bauza) a debt of gratitude!
AAJ You were fortunate to have been with Bauza when he returned to the studio. What was it like to have played on those recordings?
BS: Words cannot begin to describe the exhilaration I felt when I was in the studio with "El Maestro" (Bauza) making Tanga, (Messidor, 1992), My Time Is Now (Messidor, 1992), and 944 Columbus Avenue.(Messidor, 1993). Even though Mario Bauza) had long since stopped playing, his skills as a bandleader were impeccableplus he was an inspiration to all of the musicians in Mark Weinstein AfroCuban Jazz Project. We also had masters like Jose Mangual Jr, and Carlos "Patato" Valdes on those dates. The Orchestra also had a lot of veteran players in it, and cats like trumpeter Victor Paz gave up more lucrative gigs to play and tour with Mariojust because of the man's genius and virtuosity. Now there was an air of poignancy when we were in the studio for 944 Columbus because we knew that Mario was dying, and this was going to be his last project.
AAJ: When did you go on your own as a leader, when Mario (Bauza) passed?
BS: Well, I always wanted to have my own band, which would play my compositions and be an expression of my musical ideas. So around ('92?) I started Ascencion which I am proud to say has become the oldest continuous Latin-jazz aggregation since Fort Apache Band.
AAJ: You're always involved in a variety of musical projects that you actually at times produce. You just had a busy month in November. Tell me about the recent Rafael Hernandez tribute and a little background on him for our readers.
BS Yeah, with the big band we just did a huge concert on 1 November in honor of Latin America's greatest composer, Puerto Rican Rafael Hernandez. November is Puerto Rican Heritage month so it was natural. Hernandez actually played trombone during WWI in the U.S. Army's 369th all Black Regiment's Band conducted by James Reese Europe. The Germans called them "fighters from hell," hence their nickname "Harlem Hellfighters" for their ferocity in combat. Besides Rafael, (Hernandez) there were 17 other Afro-Puerto Rican's in the regiment's band which at full strength was 65 musicians. Only 44 of the musicians went to Europe, but all of the Puerto Ricans were part of the 44 so that meant that almost half the band were Latinos. They were able to be recruited because in 1917 Puerto Ricans had achieved citizenship through the Jones Act in Congress. In Puerto Rico we have a tradition of well-trained musicians who play in what are known as bandas municipales, municipal bands. Europe had heard about that and Hernandez traveled down there to recruit these players because Hernandez basically needed well-trained musicians of color who played woodwinds as well as brass.
What's important to jazz history is that this was the first band to expose Euro audiences to ragtime and early proto-jazz. The concert occurred at Hostos Center for the Performing Arts in the South Bronx, four blocks from where I grew up. We added a ten piece string section to my 19 piece big band, three vocalists and had the 319th U. S. Army Band open up the concert. It was a mega tribute to a person and a group of musicians who have been completely ignored by jazz historians as well as Rafael's (Hernandez)incredible compositional scope. Europe also has connections to Latin music as Hernandez was the musical director for the dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle who started the tango craze in the U.S. in the early 20's. Ken Burns did a whole hour on the Hellfighters in his multi-hour TV doc' on jazz with absolutely no mention of Rafael (Hernandez) and the other Puerto Ricans in the band. Don Rafael (Hernandez) is responsible for over 2,000 published compositions encompassing opera, symphonic music as well as string quartets, chamber and popular music.
There isn't a day goes by that his music isn't being played somewhere on Planet Earth. He's right up there with Duke (Ellington), Gershwin, Bernstein and others as one of America's greatest composers. It was shameful that they omitted him and the rest of the contributions of these pioneering Latinos to the history of the 369th and jazz history. This was my way of correcting that injustice. There's still a long way to go.
AAJ What about the big bands you teach at the New School and Manhattan School of Musicdo they perform?
BS Yes. The New School Orchestra always plays the last Sunday of the month at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe besides an end of semester concert in the fall and spring. The Manhattan School of Music band performs each semester at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center as well as an end of semester concert. The music performed by both bands is different so I'm dealing with a handful (laughs). It's great because they get some real world experience. I'm fortunate. I get to expose them to new music, as well as classic works, on a consistent basis in a variety of Latin styles, not just Afro-Cuban. We don't deal with just Latin music, the students have to be able to deal with odd meters, funk, rock, R & B, etc. just like my pro big band does. My goal is to get them to sound as professional as possible and be as versatile as possible.
Last fall we had several concerts with both schools and I had a four day run with my own Multiverse Big Band at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in NYC, besides my sideman commitments, so I was pretty busy multi-tasking (laughs).
AAJ You mentioned that your goal is get them to sound as professional and versatile as possible. What do you mean?
BS: I want them to be able to handle any musical situation they're thrown in. That means being able to sight read at will, interpret stylistically, dress sharp in performance, and act and sound like seasoned prosthat if you listened to them, you wouldn't know they were student bands. The evidence has been the two Grammy nominations that the MSM band has achieved in partnership with Jazzheads Records. It's a win-win situation. The CD's are of the highest quality and most of the money from sales goes back to the school for the scholarship fund. I'm lucky. At both schools I get to hear and help shape some of the greatest young jazz players in the world today. In turn I've been able to recommend them to other band leaders and/or use some of them with my own big band. In fact seven of the players in the Multiverse Orchestra are former students of mine. Ultimately, they realize that they are representatives and ambassadors of the art formpart of the legacy, thus becoming leaders in every sense of the word.
AAJ: You mentioned appearing at Dizzy's, how was that engagement?
BS: We had four nights of sold out shows last fall, giving us an opportunity to play different music every night, which most bands wouldn't even attempt to do. The musicians really rose to the occasion. We had subs in some key chairs, but they performed marvelously so I couldn't have been more pleased and the crowds responded in kind with standing ovations every set. We've played at some festivals in the States and have headlined at Italy's Verona Jazz Festival as well as headlined at the Apollo in NYC, but this was our first extended engagement at a major jazz club in NYC.
The way you can tell how good a band is by placing them in an extended engagement like we just did. Every night was more magical than the next. That's the proof. I'm proud of all of the players in the Multiverse, they're some of the baddest cats on the scene.
AAJ: So, what's in the near future?
BS: Besides the groups I leadQuarteto Ache, Bobby Sanabria and Ascension and the Multiverse Big Band, I get to work with some other fascinating artists. I did some dates playing timbales with salsa icon, pianist Larry Harlow & The Latin Legends Band and laying a drum set with pianist Eugene Marlow's Heritage Ensemble. It's an interesting band which deserves wider recognition. Eugene Marlow has composed, arranged several pieces for my big band that are featured on the Big Band Folktales and Multiverse CD's. In his quintet he combines Hebraic liturgical music with jazz and Latin rhythms. He has several recordings I'm featured on and we'll be going into the studio soon to record a Brazilian oriented disc. I have another upcoming MSM Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra CD entitled Que Viva Harlem!. It's an aural tribute to Harlem featuring the music of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Machito and others in ways you've never heard as well as some incredible original multi-movement pieces that will astound you. That is currently available from The Jazzheads label since April of 2014. I'm also actively involved as an adviser to the development of the Bronx Music Heritage Center which will break ground in 2014 and be completed by 2016. It will feature a state of the art theater, music archives/museum, gallery, housing for elderly musicians, and a recording studio.
It'll be constructed in the Melrose section of the South Bronx where I grew up. Right now I co-curate, with folklorist Elena Martinez, the center's satellite space called the Bronx Lab which is an art gallery space with a stage. The space holds about 70 people and has full sound and video capability. On the third weekend of every month we feature music on Thursday, film on Friday, and anything related to the spoken worda well known author, poet, etc., on Saturday. Last year we did it every week! So we've basically produced over 100 events. Now I know what club owners go through (laughs).
All of this is through WHEDCO (Women's Health and Economic Development Corporation) a non-profit who has been building affordable green housing in the South Bronx for years. The Bronx at one time had more night clubs, theaters, catering halls, restaurants, etc. than Manhattan. In no other place in the United States has more culture and forms of music been produced and co-existed, other than Treme in New Orleans, than the Bronx. We want to bring that sense of pride, culture and art back to the borough.