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Bobby Sanabria: Giving Credit Where It's Due

Bobby Sanabria: Giving Credit Where It's Due

Courtesy Bobby Sanabria


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The problem with jazz history is that they only teach the Black and White of it, so they exclude us (Latinos).
—Bobby Sanabria
Grammy-nominated drummer, percussionist, composer, arranger, conductor, producer, educator, and bandleader Bobby Sanabria is a major advocate for Latin jazz education and justice for those musicians who play under its banner. He is also a major force for musical education and economic development in the South Bronx, is a lecturer at Jazz at Lincoln Center and hosts the Latin Jazz Cruise radio program on WBGO 88.3FM in Newark, NJ.

All About Jazz: You grew up in the Bronx, right?

Bobby Sanabria: Yes, I grew up in the South Bronx in the Melrose Projects, 153rd and Cortlandt Avenue.

AAJ: That clearly impacted your life, not to mention your music.

BS: Yes, My whole ethos and what I have done in my music is based on the fact that I grew up there. The projects I grew up in were primarily African American, with very little Puerto Rican presence there, and believe it or not there were still a few whites that had not left the south Bronx; Italians and some Irish who lived in the projects as well. The musical upbringing I got there, I wouldn't trade for the world. I grew up listening to r&b, because I grew up in the center of Black culture, I grew up listening to jazz, soul music, r&b, funk and gospel. At home, my father was very eclectic in his musical taste. In addition to listening to that music he brought home recordings of Brazilian, Mexican ranchera of course the Big Band Jazz of Count Basie and Count Basie, and of course the great orchestras of Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. My father would listen to Ahmad Jamal in one instance, then James Brown the next, then he'd listen to Tito Rodriguez.

In 1966 when Sergio Mendes and Brazil '66 became a mainstream hit, my father bought the 45 and I just loved it. I kept listening to it over and over and I asked my father how come it sounds like Spanish but it's not. He said, come here, and he showed me where Brazil was on the globe and he said the reason I liked it so much was because of the rhythm. Those rhythms come from Africa. And he began explaining the slave trade to me, and "the rhythm is why you like it so much." He said a large part of our culture is from Africa. I was nine years old. My father—I always say—was my first great music teacher. The second was Mr. William Ryan at Cardinal Hayes High School. Cardinal Hayes is famous because Regis Philbin and Martin Scorcese went there. George Carlin attended though he didn't finish, was always proud that he went there. His brother Patrick graduated from Cardinal Hayes. Mr. Ryan showed me what it was to be a professional musician, and how to study and be disciplined. He prepared me to pass the entry exam and audition for Berklee School of Music, where I met my third great teacher, Mr. Keith Copeland, an incredible drummer. He was from Queens and he had grown up with Billy Cobham and Lenny White as boyhood friends. He showed me what it was to be a professional drummer and gave me the skills and the tools which allow me to do what I do now, my work with the Multiverse Big Band, Ascension and my quartet Ache, and all my work as a sideman.

AAJ: I heard you perform West Side Story Reimagined Suite with the Multiverse Band and then with a quartet and both sounded great.

BS: The quartet is an amazing group of musicians. Most people associate me with big bands but we've done some amazing things with the smaller groups.

BS: We opened for Chuck Mangione at the Dominican Republic Jazz Festival one time and we blew them away with the quartet. We got a five minute standing ovation.

AAJ: You attribute much of the Latin Jazz musical roots to West Africa, Is there a reason for that?

BS: Yes West and Central Africa. Well, that's where our African brothers and sisters mostly came from, when they came here in chains. The history of Jazz also has to do with Cuba, Mexico and New Orleans which many people don't know.

BS: The problem with jazz history is that they only teach the Black and white of it, so they exclude us (Latinos). These are the Bantu tradition from the Congo region in Zaire, the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria, the southern Calabar Region, Arara from Nigeria as well, we have a big influence from Angola. Unfortunately, our brothers and sisters came here in chains but look what they've given us, We could not dance the mambo to a salsa orchestra. You wouldn't be dancing to a salsa band if it wasn't for Africa; When you go to Dizzy's or to listen to Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to hear Maestro Wynton Marsalis, you wouldn't be snapping your fingers on two and four grooving to the swing beat. That is our birthplace when it comes to rhythm. There are three elements in music, rhythm, melody and harmony but the most important is rhythm as Dizzy Gillespie used to say. It's a big infamnia that we are left out of the picture when it comes to jazz history. We are treated as a footnote, as an aside in many ways we are just treated as stepchildren. Sometimes I ruffle a lot of feathers but the truth will set you free. First, it will piss you off. That needs to be corrected, and that is my mission.

AAJ: You are a lecturer and an educator. What are you lecturing on now?

BS: Well, this is my 27th year teaching at the New School University in the jazz and contemporary music program. I teach an Afro-Cuban jazz orchestra and basically, through that orchestra, I have produced so many incredible young artists. In fact, I don't think there's a band in New York City that doesn't have one of my former students in it. I also taught for 20 years at the Manhattan School of Music, an Afro-Cuban jazz orchestra there as well. With that orchestra we produced three albums, two of which were Grammy nominated. I have a lot of children out there. I have one biological son, Roberto Jose Sanabria, a great actor but I have a lot of adopted children out there who are my former students. Then four years ago I left and went to NYU School of Music, which has a fantastic jazz program that a lot of people don't know about under a faculty led by Dr. David Schroeder, a saxophonist and flautist. I teach the All University Jazz Orchestra at NYU, I also teach a course called Community Music and another on the History of Afro Cuban Music, as well as giving private lessons there. So I continue my work inspiring and enlightening the next generation of players.

AAJ: You have played with some of the greatest musicians known in the Latin jazz, Afro Cuban genre. I saw the Tito Puente story in your biography about how you befriended him as a young man. You also played with Mario Bauza. Does anything stand out that you can talk to us about?

BS: The ones that stick out to me are the great Maestro Mario Bauza and Maestro Tito Puente, because they were the ones who created this thing that we call Afro Cuban jazz. Afro Cuban jazz was not born in Cuba, it was born in New York City in 1939 in a Jewish catering hall at East 110th Street and Fifth Avenue and known as the Park Palace Ballroom, and formerly known as the Golden Casino. That's where Mario Bauza and his brother-in-law Francisco Raul Gutierrez Grillo de Ayala) Machito, an outstanding vocalist, formed his first orchestra called Machito and His Afro Cubans.

Latin jazz is a general term because it includes more than 20 countries in Latin America. Each one you can utilize rhythms from them and combine jazz with their rhythms and that can contribute their own rhythms. You can have tango jazz from Argentina, you can have bomba jazz from Puerto Rico, Cuban jazz with Afro Cuban rhythms, you have musicians that are experimenting with things like cumbia from Colombia. But Afro Cuban music, the first form of it, I have to remind people of that it was born here in New York City. When I remind people they say "oh, I didn't know that."

We should be very proud here in NYC especially the Afro Latino community of El Barrio. With the Puerto Rican community and the heart of the Puerto Rican diaspora. The structure of the Park Palace Ballroom is still there. It is now a Pentecostal church but you can visit it. You'll see a statue of Maestro Duke Ellington and there are plans to raise a statue of Maestro Tito Puente; It's in the works, there's already a design accepted and how it's going to look, by Manny Vega. It will finally be an acknowledgment of Maestro Puente's greatness, who was described by Maestro Bauza himself as the greatest musician that has ever played in the history of Afro Cuban music and he's not even Cuban, he was a native Nuyorican. That (the statue) hopefully will happen within our lifetime.

In so far as recording with Maestro Mario Bauza and Tito Puente, how can you not be enamored, inspired and thrilled to have worked with a person that created a genre of music. And not only that but he worked with Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Webb, in the 1930s, Noble Sissle, Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, all these incredible musicians, and returning to Cuba as a youth he worked with Antonio Maria Romeo, the great pianist, composer and arranger, who led the first the first charanga band. Charanga is a Cuban band that is played with flute and strings. Mario played the clarinet and bass clarinet in that orchestra.

So it's just an amazing legacy with Mario Bauza. I've been very fortunate to have been touched by greatness.

AAJ: So your past got you here, What's happening now? What's next?

BS: For the past ten years me and my wife Elena Martinez the noted folklorist and cultural anthropologist, have been the co-artistic directors of the Bronx Music Heritage center which is a small art gallery space located in the South Bronx at 1303 Louis Nine Boulevard, where for the past ten years we have produced concerts, panel discussions, done movie screenings, taught classes in percussion, piano, capoeira, salsa dancing, and arts classes there. Presenting all the culturally diverse musical traditions that exist in the Bronx from the Puerto Rican community, Jewish Community, Irish Community, Garifuna Community, Hisdustani Community, Persian Community, you name it we've done it. This is a Jazz at Lincoln Center but in miniature and that's what we've been doing for ten years. Finally now we're moving into an almost finished 250 seat theater called the Bronx Music Hall, which is located on 163rd Street and Washington Avenue in the South Bronx right across from Boricua College. It has a dance studio. It has an incredible art gallery and foyer entrance. We have an outdoor plaza stage where we can have outdoor concerts in anticipation of moving indoors. Behind the theater is a small little amphitheater which holds about 80 people. I have learned a lot in terms of production and about keeping a place like this afloat. My hat's off to Maestro Wynton Marsalis Who has been doing this for so many years. He has been our inspiration in this, keeping Jazz at Lincoln Center alive. We can have multiple events there. We're very excited about that, its called the Bronx Music Hall.

We have to thank WHEDCO The Women's Housing and Economic Development Corporation, Nancy Beaverman is the founder, and WHEDCO is the parent nonprofit that built the theater. WHEDCO has rebuilt a number of buildings including the old Morrisania Hospital, which my parents took me to when I got sick as a kid. They bought that building for a dollar and they built beautiful apartments for working class families. In fact, we were able to find apartments for Dave Valentin and Andy Gonzalez so they could live their final years in comfort there.

This is where we have the Bronx Music Heritage Center, which has 180 apartments which is at Louis Nine Boulevard; and this building at 163rd and Washington is near Boricua College. I thought the same architects had built the windows but they were different architects inspired by Lincoln Center. We have much to look forward to there. We have been having outdoor concerts there as well. We have our own Jazz at Lincoln Center now.

AAJ: When will that open?

BS: In November, we have been having outdoor concerts there. For instance, we are doing an outdoor concert with one of the local Junior High School, MS 155. It warms my heart because people don't understand that at one time New York City had one of the largest music programs in the country until the city went broke. That was the first thing they eliminated, that and the park attendants who used to loan us basketballs, checker games and all kinds of stuff. It was an honor system. You left them your keys until you bought back the equipment, but all that disappeared when the city went broke. Parkees we used to call the attendants. Now it seems that things are coming back.

AAJ: Creating a suite of music such as must be a real process, what comes to mind? Is there anything that brings to mind how special a process this is?

BS: To do something on that level is a monumental task. Obviously, the inspiration for that was West Side Story which had a profound effect on me when I saw the movie on its 10th Anniversary in 1971, my parents took me to the Loew's Paradise Theater which was very large, ornate and opulent theater.

My jaw dropped at not only the visuals but the music that Maestro Leonard Bernstein created. The root of it was the Latin Jazz Orchestra at the Manhattan School of Music. The entire concert was two and a half hours long. It was too long. The students couldn't handle it, especially the brass players. They didn't have the chops. So I cut it down and edited it. Getting it down to an hour and 15 or twenty minutes. Under my supervision, I assigned some of the students as arrangers. I also got help from professional friends who were not students. This was done with the complete endorsement of the Bernstein family and the Bernstein estate. I have become good friends with the family. There is a new movie coming out with Bradley Cooper, and he's starring as Leonard Bernstein. He's directing it as well. Originally there were going to be two movies on Bernstein, the other with Jake Gylenhall. Then Jake said 'Bradley you do it. It's your baby.' If anybody wants to see what he looks like as a younger and older Bernstein, it's completely uncanny, he looks exactly like Leonard Bernstein (photo). Check out the article in Variety Magazine. That's something to look forward to because Bernstein got more young people into music than anyone else. Even though unfortunately the dust of time washes away everything, but that's ok. We live in a time period now when you got 16 year old Puerto Rican kids in the streets of the South Bronx and El Barrio who don't even know who Tito Puente is. Which is why I take to the bully pulpit about this so that these people will be remembered. They deserve it.

Sometimes young people push back on me and ask why I'm so adamant in expecting them to know this musical heritage, and I say because you don't know what you're missing.

AAJ: What about being on the radio, what's that like?

BS: Well for the past four years I have been the host of the Latin Jazz Cruise on WBGO FM Newark, the top jazz station in the nation. I'm really gratified that they asked me to take the show over upon the retirement of Awilda Rivera who 'womaned' that show for 26 incredible years. She's also the host of the Evening Jazz Show. She's a fellow Nuyorican, like myself born in NYC. Before that it was Alfredo Cruz, who gave it its the 'Nome de Guerre' and before that, it was Chico Mendoza, whose real name is Irv Roberts, he's African American. It's because of him that the show was created. He's a great composer, arranger and pianist and leader of a band from Newark known as Ocho. So they passed the torch on to me. My motivation for doing the show is to educate the public and my colleagues in the jazz world about the music. So many people have communicated texted and written to me since I've done the show. So I will continue to do it. Just in case you miss the show you can go into the archives by going into the station site archive and type in "WBGO Latin Jazz Cruise" and the last two weeks of shows will pop up. The show airs live on Saturdays from 4-6 pm but if you miss it, you can catch it in the archive.

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