Jazz Studies Online: You're from New York. What kept you here when you decided to pursue a career as a jazz musician? What features did the city offer then that others did not? Given that you stayed in New York (or nearby) have your motivations for being here changed?
Bobby Sanabria: My parents are from Puerto Rico. I was born in St. Francis Hospital in the South Bronx, so I'm what is known as a Nuyorican. That means I grew up listening not only to music rooted in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic and the rest of the Caribbean but also from the African American experience and American mainstream popular culture. I grew up in the Melrose housing projects of the South Bronx in NYC in the 60's and 70's and the Bronx at that time was the symbol of urban blight across the country. Although one may look at it as an environment that you would not want to bring up a kid in, it was the hippest place and time to have grown up in.
My father José was into all kinds of music. He would sit at his Lazy Boy chair and listen to everything from Puerto Rican jibaro (hee-bah-roe) music, to big band Afro-Cuban jazz by artists like Machito, Tito Puente, small group Afro-Cuban jazz like Cal Tjader, doo wop, to James Brown, to Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66, etc. TV still featured jazz and FM radio in NYC was supremely hip as there were several stations that played jazz and the rock stations and R & B stations like WBLS also mixed jazz or jazz related music into their programming.
Tito Puente's orchestra came to the neighborhood to do a concert with Machito's Orchestra, and Ricardo Ray & Bobby Cruz's band. They set up in front of my building, 681 Courtland Avenue, where I lived in and did an incredible concert. I was 12 years old. It changed my life.
Howard King, the drummer for Gary Bartz at that time was going to Music & Art High School and was a friend of my cousin John Collado who lived in the same project building as Howard in the Melrose complex, #321. The well known bandleader and timbalero, Kako (Francisco Bastar) also lived in one of the buildings of the complex. I used to play stickball, softball, and basketball with his nephews. There was rumba in the park in the summers, music everywhere. You could choose from three types of medicine - heroin, sports, and or music. I was wise enough to choose the last two. I started playing congas in the park and brought a couple of drumsticks and just started teaching myself all the percussion instruments by watching and listening to what I heard and saw on TV. Particularly The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson with that incredible big band. There were great musical role models in the community because it was the last time in NYC that you would actually see and hear percussionists in the park in your neighborhood playing rumba.
That was also the last time the music wasn't looked at as an elitist art form that was only available to people with money to go to clubs downtown in Manhattan. Yes -- there were jazz clubs in Da' Bronx! The 845, The Blue Morocco, and The Royal Mansion are several places I can remember. And there were many clubs that featured Afro-Cuban-based dance music (salsa) like the Bronx Casino, Club Cubano, Tropicana, Tropicoro, Caravana Club, etc. Some places, like the Hunts Point Palace, featured both.
I hate being called a Latin jazz musician. I'm just a jazz musician who happens to be Latino. Jazz is the vehicle that offers me the most possibilities of expression. I wouldn't be able to do the things I do today if it wasn't for the ethos I developed when I was young.
In the 5th grade I took a test to go to a school in Manhattan for gifted kids called the Monsignor William R. Kelly School. There was no music program there but I met a fellow student David Carmona who also loved music and played a little guitar and was a promising trumpeter. We became friends and we always spoke about music. We both went to a high school that had a music program, Cardinal Hayes High School on the South Bronx which I picked because it was within walking distance of where I lived. We were in the band program at the school and I was finally getting some basic instruction in theory and was able to play in some type of musical setting as an orchestral percussionist. It wasn't jazz, but it was music and Mr. Ryan the band director was always available to answer my questions and was very supportive. He gave me and Dave free theory lessons after school for a year so we would be prepared for the college musical experience. Dave and I were the only ones interested in becoming professional musicians, so we formed a band and actually started getting a reputation doing covers of Eddie Palmieri and Santana tunes as well as original pieces playing all over the city.
Dave hipped me to the Berklee College of Music and we both auditioned and were accepted. While I was studying to be a jazz drummer there I sort of became the affirmative action percussionist because absolutely no one knew anything about the world of Latin music that was happening in NYC, which shocked the hell out of me. It was a blessing in disguise because it was an opportunity for me to not only play incredible music and learn, but also to teach others about my culture. You see the culture at Berklee at that time was very influenced by Weather Report and the whole fusion era. Groups like Weather Report, Tower of Power, Herbie Hancock, etc. were using percussionists. So Michael Gibbs, who was the Artist in Residence at the school at that time, asked me to be part of his Chrome Waterfall Orchestra my freshman year because he had seen Weather Report and wanted to add that element to his ensemble which was actually a class. It was an orchestra made up of the top players at the school along with some faculty members. Pat Metheny was the guitarist and Bill Frisell replaced him when Pat when on tour. Kermitt Driscoll was the bass player. Jaimie Glasier, who went on to play with Jean-Luc Ponty, was the guitarist. But as I said, absolutely no one in that group, least of all Mike Gibbs, knew anything of the cultural/musical tradition that I represented coming from NYC and they weren't really interested in learning about it. This brings up a point in terms of the perception of jazz musicians and Latin music. They were interested in Brazilian things because the bossa nova had become an integral part of jazz's musical repertoire because of its harmonic and melodic similarities to American popular song form. But anything Afro-Cuban was something they had no reference point too other than maybe them hearing a Santana record. Cal Tjader was not even on their radar scope.
When I went to Boston to study at Berklee, only one person on the percussion faculty had a clue who Tito Puente was -- Keith Copeland. Keith is African American from Queens, NY and a fabulous player and teacher who was Alan Dawson's protégé. He grew up with Billy Cobham in Jamaica, Queens. Keith's father, Ray had played lead trumpet with Tito Puente back in the 50's. Because we were both New Yorkers we hit it off. He gave me the gift of how to develop co-ordinated independence. He was the only one (along with Dan Newsom and Paul Kafun, arranging teachers of mine) who realized the musical potential I had and knew where I was coming from. But back then I quickly realized how lucky I was to have grown up in NYC. When I told Charlie Palmieri (Eddie Pamieri's late virtuosic piano playing brother) about this and what I was experiencing at Berklee, he looked at me and laughed. He said, "Hey kid, once you get past New Haven Connecticut, it's 'Tito who?' " My freshman year I would return every weekend to NYC and realized how disparate Boston and NYC were. But through concerts I would do at the school and in Boston I helped to start to get awareness at the school of our great traditions. Now the school has a whole hand percussion major and Tito is revered and the Latino population at the school is the majority of the student body. Things sure have changed.
After I graduated in 1979 I got called to be part of Mongo Santamaria's band as the drummer/timbalero. That started my career in a big way in NYC.
As far as NYC being the center of jazz activity today - that's debatable on several levels. In terms of jazz education: yes. In terms of clubs: yes. In terms of work: hell no. That title goes to Europe. You can't make a living here just by playing like you used to be able to. To do that, you have to travel. The opportunities to play in various musical situations have been depleted also. They still exist, but not to the extent that they used to when I was kid coming up and things have become more political.
When I was playing with Mongo, there were literally at least 30 clubs in Manhattan alone where you could perform, hear, see, or dance any style of Afro-Cuban based music. That's just Manhattan. You start counting all the clubs, catering halls, restaurants that featured music in the other boroughs and you had an incredible scene. There were about 100 bands that were all working, and that was just the Latin scene. There was an incredible loft scene in Manhattan that facilitated the creation of new music and the showcasing of new musicians. That's all gone.
That said, NYC offers me the opportunity to have access to the most versatile and experienced musicians in the world. As a bandleader I truly appreciate that. I have access to players that know Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, and other Latin styles, have superb technical skills, and can improvise in the vocabulary of jazz, rock, funk, etc. It cuts down on rehearsal time and makes me more inclined to play riskier music and/or music that is very demanding. In other cities I wouldn't have that kind of pool of players to choose from.
Versatility can only be learned by being able to experience a variety of playing situations and New York offers that. I've played virtually any and every style of music that you can think of in a truly authentic manner and that's because of this city. By experience I also mean musicians who have been here a while and copped that NYC attitude. I'm fortunate because I grew up with that attitude simply because I was born and raised here. For someone who is not from here, it takes a while. It's a question of technical prowess combined with attitude. It's not about being tough, mean, or anything like that. It's about being absolutely fearless when playing any style of music. It fits the jazz aesthetic well since to play jazz (in all its varied styles) one must be fearless because we're improvisers, taking chances laying it all on the line at any given time in a performance. You've heard of African American musicians giving moral support to each other yelling "reach!" to a fellow soloist in their improv's? There's no other city in the world where that is exuded more that this one.
My motivation for staying here, besides the ones I've mentioned is very simple. It's my home. I have mad love for this city, especially the Bronx. I still live in Da' Bronx. I hate when people down the city. They make up excuses, that it's too crowded, too loud, too many cars, etc. If you asked most of those people if they've ever explored New York in its totality, they'd probably tell you, no. All they know is Manhattan. That's jive. New York is also Da' Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens. I grew up here and I'm still discovering new things in the city. Personally, my attitude is fuck em', you can't hang. It seems to me to be disingenuous to down my city, maybe its better that you leave. Because, you know what, you're lucky to be here.
Jazz Studies Online: How did opportunities for work come about when you first began as a professional? Who helped you the most in that regard? What networks did you take advantage of, if any? In what way has that environment changed since then?
Sanabria: There were actually two people that helped me tremendously after my graduation from college, Victor Venegas and Mauricio Smith. Victor was Chicano from Chicago. He was a great acoustic and electric bass player who like most Latino musicians was very versatile. He had played with Cal Tjader, George Shearing, and many others. He was responsible for forming Mongo Santamaria's first group in NYC, the group that recorded Watermelon Man. I was teaching theory and an ensemble at a community music school in East Harlem known as the Johnny Colon School of Music. Victor also taught there and recommended me to perform with Marco Rizo. Marco was the true composer of the I Love Lucy Theme and Desi Arnaz's former musical director on the TV show. Marco needed a drummer that could read well and knew how to play Latin rhythms adapted to the drum set for his big band. Vic recommended me. My first gig was at the World Trade Center in its plaza. They used to have Wednesday afternoon concerts sponsored by the musicians union. They were called "green sheet jobs" by the musicians because you had to sign a long green payroll sheet in order to get paid. Victor was the contractor.
I got there early to set up and in the distance I see someone in the plaza pushing what looked like a cart. It was Candido pushing that stand he has with three congas. Then Ronnie Cuber shows up with his bari, Jerry Dodgion with his alto, Lou Marini with his tenor, Jerome Richardson with a tenor, Mauricio Smith with his alto, Barry Rogers and Jack Jeffers on trombone, Victor on bass, Victor Paz, Spanky Davis, Lou Soloff, Jon Faddis on trumpet, etc, etc. with Candido on congas, Vic on bass, and Marco on piano. It was the crème de la crème of NYC's studio elite and here I was this skinny kid drummer setting up. These were many of the guys I had seen on Cavett, Frost, Carson, etc. I was nervous but sight read the music and played my ass off.
Mauricio Smith who was Panamanian and probably one of the greatest sax doublers and flute players in the world came up to me after the concert and asked me "Hey kid. You do studio work?" I answered softly, "Yeah." "Be at Nola recording studios on 57th street at 9 am. Bring a set of timbales." It was a jingle date. When I walked in I recognized the gentleman at the conductor's lectern. It was the legendary Arturo "Chico" O'Farill who greeted me with a beautiful smile and some chit chat. It was a jingle date for Coca-Cola and I was to play drums and timbales on the session. Who shows up? Victor Paz, Faddis, Victor Venegas, etc., etc. etc. All of them kept telling me, "Hey, you look familiar."
Victor and Mauricio were my introduction to the last great era of studio work in NYC. That type of networking opportunity is gone today. It only still exists in L.A. because they still do most of the film work. Occasionally you'll get a producer who wants a "New York" band for a film, but today it's rare. The networking is happening in the colleges, but that sucks because it's all young guys clawing and vying for a handful of gigs. There's mentoring going on in the classroom but not on the bandstand because there are not enough organized bands with older players leading them. Younger players don't today don't even know how to speak to an audience because they're so inexperienced. There's also a bigger disparity between really good players and weaker ones with no middle ground. In other words you have a choice between excellence and mediocrity.
That's because a lot of colleges are letting in players that aren't qualified just to fill up seats to justify a jazz program. There aren't enough young players studying to be lead trumpeters, lead alto players, etc. in the high school arena. The standards have been lowered in jazz education progressively over the years and arrangers who write for these companies like Kendor who supply charts to high school and colleges are being asked to write simpler and simpler stuff. It's breeding a culture of mediocrity.
The first step in curing this cancer is to acknowledge that it exists.
Jazz Studies Online: What is, or was, your favorite NYC venue (or venues) to perform at? Why?
Sanabria: That's a loaded question. One has to take into account not only the sound, stage, and lighting, but also how the musicians are treated, which no one wants to address or is willing to address. I'll mention two places that are completely at opposites ends of the spectrum in terms of their infrastructure.
First, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the Loisaida section of Manhattan. It's completely unpretentious. The stage is directly at the same level as the audience. You have to actually walk through the audience to get to it. That creates a certain vibe with the audience where they feel directly connected to the artist, like the old loft scene. It's actually the last vestige of that era. Since the place is also utilized for poetry and theater, their lighting can be adjusted to various create moods during a performance that can only be described as theatrical. There's no food served. The draw is just the music, or whatever else is going on there.
It's located right in the center of the community, much like many jazz clubs were in the outer boroughs, most notably the Bronx and Brooklyn, back in the day. Once you had performed there and got the respect of Julio at the door and Miguel Algarin, the founder, you could approach them with an idea for a musical event they would give you complete freedom. Places like the Jazz Gallery get attention for that, but the Nuyorican was the place that really started that. The jazz community (in terms of the people that cover jazz) in NYC were completely asleep as far as the Nuyorican and they still are.
I premiered my own multi-Grammy nominated big band there. Artists from Cuba like the Muñequitos De Matanzas performed there along with my nonet Ascensión. Chris Washburne started his SYOTOS band there. We had a summer series were we featured guest soloists like Ronnie Cuber, Chico Freeman, and others with my nonet Ascensión. The New School Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra which I direct performs there every last Sunday (except during holidays) of the school year. No jazz venue in N.Y.C. gives those kind of opportunities. There has been a lot of history that has gone on there that is legendary, that jazz critics in this town were, and are, completely asleep on.
The Nuyorican unfortunately isn't getting the attention that other higher visibility clubs get. There are several reasons. One is that it doesn't serve food. The other is its location, and the fact that it was never looked at as a club that features jazz, but more of a cultural center for poetry and theatre. The venue features jazz only on Thursdays with occasional special things on weekends. It also doesn't have an acoustic grand piano, which is essential for a performance venue to feature jazz and to be taken seriously as a jazz venue. The sound isn't the greatest, there are no monitors and limited miking. It is what it is, but I always love playing there.
The other venue I love performing at is Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola. It's what you would want if, as a musician, you built your own club. It's not huge. So you still have the intimacy of a a small club. The backdrop is breathtaking with that picture window behind the stage which gives the musicians a sense of majesty and elegance. They have high quality sound and a staff of qualified sound people that run it and a staff that loves jazz in all of its forms. The only drag is that the dressing room is too small.
Now here's the kicker. I've never been booked there as a leader. I've only performed there conducting the Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, which by the way has just been nominated for a Latin Grammy. In the beginning when those appearances started happening, I did perform several times with my Quarteto Aché for an after concert set which the club payed for. I stopped doing it to give the school orchestra more time to perform. Every single time I've performed there with the school orchestra, it has been completely sold out, standing room only. But as far as me being featured as a headliner there? Never, despite the fact I've been nominated for a Grammy 4 times as a leader.
The third place I dig performing at is a venue not known for jazz but for cabaret acts that is slowly starting to book jazz there. Feinstein's in the Loews Regency Hotel on Park Avenue and 61rst street. I recently worked there in a trio setting backing up a great jazz vocalist, Pucci Amanda Jones. It was acoustically perfect. The setting was superbly intimate because of the way the audience surrounds the stage. It forces you to utilize extreme dynamics because the patrons are literally on top of you. The drag? It's a club for high rollers, meaning it's very, very expensive to get in.
Jazz Studies Online: Have you noticed any major changes in the audiences for jazz at live performances in NYC since you started your career or came here? That is, in their knowledge of or appreciation for the music? In their demographics or personal background? in the way they act and react to the music? If so, why do you think the nature of live audiences might have changed?
Sanabria: The audiences across the board today for jazz are for the most part in their 40's and 50's. I've been campaigning a lot on my gigs telling audiences that they have to start bringing young people to see/hear/experience jazz. They shouldn't think the music is too esoteric and inaccessible for young people to get into. That's the bullshit image jazz now. It's too hip for kids. Hell, I was a kid when I fell in love with jazz as I'm sure you were when you got into the music. The difference is that you and I had a chance to be exposed to the music through radio and TV besides listening to the rock, pop, etc. of the day.
I always tell young people that if they don't experience jazz they don't know what they're missing out on. Without jazz and the blues, there's no rock, pop, R & B, funk, or even Latin jazz. Kids today don't get that chance and that's why the audience for jazz has steadily been shrinking. When the jazz community comes to grip with that sad fact, perhaps their will be a pro-active approach to remedy the situation. I do what I can in my own appearances, be it a performance with any of my groups, a guest artist spot, clinic/masterclass, the school concerts I conduct, and in all the media interviews I do where I purposely bring up the topic. But that's just me, my colleagues have to start doing the same thing.
The major clubs in NYC are catering to and seeking out tourists. The prices to get into a club have gone up making it unattractive for a young person to even contemplate going to a club. I don't blame them. Why go to a club to hear music you have no reference point to when for the same money you can go to a Dead concert or a hip hop event. I have no problem with a bus of Japanese tourists driving up in a bus to the Blue Note. In fact that's great. But when I was a kid, we were all trying to sneak into jazz clubs because you knew that was where the hip music was or you were at least saving your money to get into one. I don't see any kids doing that today. By kids I mean teenagers and younger.
The music has become an elitist, adult, esoteric, never-never land for young people to get into. The only teenagers that I meet that are into jazz are the ones who are studying an instrument, and that's sad because I come from the last generation of young people that were down with the music as just fans because it was part of our culture. In the projects everyone knew who Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey, Tito Puente, Machito, etc. were. Today, they barely know who Santana is, and they'll look at you and say "Herbie who?"
But all is not lost. The school concerts I've been doing over the last several years are always sold out and more and more young people are attending them. The last appearance I did at Dizzy's with the Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, a young married couple brought their 18 month old son in a baby carriage to the second set and a few tables were made up completely of college age students. I spoke to them and they told me they had been to one of my concerts and heard my message about exposing young people to the music. I was so taken aback that I gave them a free CD as a gift and told them, "Play this for your kid while he's going to sleep." I've also begun to tell people at concerts to make sure they share the music with anyone and everyone that they know that isn't a jazz fan. But that Rubicon of getting teenagers to go to the clubs to check out the music is still yet to be crossed. But don't worry, I'm still working on it.