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Bobby Sanabria Spreads The Latin Jazz Gospel

Steve Bryant By

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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 Music—do 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 pros—that 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 form—part 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?

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