Percussion maestro Bobby Sanabria tells me he's "a beneficiary of growing up in tumultuous times." The Bronx native came of age in the rich New York scene of the late 60s/early 70s, experiencing the highs and lows of the civil rights era while absorbing the cities' diverse musical heritage. "In terms of variety. New York radio was at its zenith. You would hear Miles Davis, Carlos Santana and Mahavishnu Orchestra," Sanabria says. While those influences played a role in his musical development, it would ultimately be the Latin sounds of his Puerto Rican heritage - particularly Latin jazz, that drew Sanabria to pursue a career in music.
Sanabria has now joined the ranks of the percussion giants who inspired him as a bonafide icon of Latin jazz, establishing himself as a formidable leader with his critically acclaimed, Grammy nominated big band recordings.
Sanabria has also become a major advocate for music education. His tireless campaign to expand the audience for jazz and Afro-Cuban music finds him regularly performing at free concerts and benefits, while holding down teaching gigs at institutions like the Manhattan School of Music.
"I always tell my students that jazz is the last hope for humanity. Jazz exudes four things: truth, freedom, revolution and virtuosity," Sanabria states with grave sincerity. The comment is representative of Sanabria's deep passion for music, which he consistently demonstrated during our ninety minute conversation.
I recently spoke with Sanabria via phone. The world renowned percussionist will be performing with the Butler University Jazz Ensembles this Saturday, April 20 at the new Howard L. Schrott Center for the Arts.
NUVO: You spend a lot of time working in academia. You could certainly make a living off touring and recording - what draws you to music education?
Bobby Sanabria: It's the only way the music will be preserved and passed down to the next generation. Afro-Cuban jazz and Latin jazz are the most marginalized forms of jazz and jazz itself is a marginalized music these days.
Most people in the mainstream today don't listen to jazz, or even know what it's about - which is sad because it's America's greatest art form. The institutional activities I do help to combat that.
NUVO: Your time in Mario Bauzá's band was very influential for you. Can you talk a bit about Bauzá's importance in American music?
Sanabria: He's one of the most important musicians of the 20th century along with people like Igor Stravinsky, Jimi Hendrix and Louis Armstrong. The scope of Mario's influence is very wide. He was the co-founder of Machito and his Afro-Cubans. Machito was his brother-in-law, he was a great vocalist and together they formed this orchestra in 1939. They were the first orchestra to fuse jazz instrumental techniques with Afro-Cuban rhythms. Thus creating the first form of Latin jazz and they did it in New York City which means Afro-Cuban jazz is an American art form.
Mario performed with many of the great big band leaders of the 1930's: Chick Webb, Noble Sissle, Jimmie Lunceford, and Cab Calloway. So he had experience playing with all the great black jazz bands of the day. He brought that to the table in addition to his Cuban heritage and his experience there with the son and danzón. This experience put him in a very unique position to form this orchestra with Machito and realize his vision which was to have a big band, but with an Afro-Cuban rhythm section. He showcased the virtuosity of jazz soloists and used jazz arranging techniques, but it was still a dance band at the same time. He really advanced culture and music.
He was also very important in terms of the civil rights movement. Just the name of the band - Machito and the Afro-Cubans, up to that time nobody had used the title of a band to make reference to Africa. Also, they were a fully integrated band. They started with Cubans, Puerto Ricans and African Americans, but eventually they had Jews, Italians and Irish people in the band.
NUVO: In 2009 you reproduced Machito's classic 1957 LP Kenya in its entirety. Why is that album important to you?
Sanabria: It's considered the greatest album Machito and the Afro-Cubans ever recorded. By 1957 the band had been around 18 years and they were being taken for granted as the elder statesman of the music. At that time Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez were on the rise as hot young bandleaders. Morris Levy, who was president and owner of Roulette Records loved Machito's band and he was upset that Tito Puente was getting so much publicity. At the time Puente was signed to RCA and he was releasing albums like Cuban Carnival, Night Beat and Puente Goes Jazz that were making a big, big ruckus.
So Morris went to Mario and said I want you to record an all instrumental Afro-Cuban jazz album and don't worry about the expense. So he spared no expense and the orchestra was reinforced with some great talent, like Joe Newman form the Count Basie Orchestra on trumpet, Cannoball Adderley who at the time was a hot young alto sax player from the Miles Davis group and Candido was brought in as a soloist. It was a powerhouse list of A players on this album and the result was an incredible album that has stood the test of time. On every level this album is of the highest caliber, from the playing to the writing. It's required listening for anyone that's into this music.
NUVO: Many casual Latin music fans who dance salsa or listen to reggaeton are unaware of the music's deep African roots. Can you talk about that African influence?
Sanabria: Africa has influenced everything we do in American popular music - from jazz to rock to hip-hop to funk. It all basically comes down to the clave, which is a five beat rhythm we inherited from West and Central Africa through Cuba. For people who aren't familiar with clave, it's a rhythmic mantra we use as a foundation in Cuban music. If you've ever hear that phrase "shave, haircut - two bits," that's the basic clave of son which is the foundation music of what we call salsa today.
You can hear that rhythm in every style of American popular music today. It's very pronounced in New Orleans second line music, in funk and hip-hop. You hear it in all genres of rock, from punk to heavy metal. This rhythm really unites us and ties us to the music's roots in Western and Central Africa.
But nobody knows about this in this country. Unfortunately, teaching about this culture or sharing it with young people is frowned upon. All of us in jazz education and all of us jazz musicians, we're all representatives of this music and we need to take a more revolutionary advocacy position for this music.
NUVO: You work a lot with big bands. You grew up during the 60s and 70s, a period when big bands weren't exactly the hot new thing. I'm curious what attracted you to that form?
Sanabria: You have to understand, I come from a different culture. I'm Puerto Rican and in New York City we had big bands in the Latin scene. Most salsa bands have eleven pieces with horns. So your hearing horn music in that culture constantly. Also the great funk bands of that time had horns sections, groups like Mandrill and Brass Construction. So that always attracted me.
The big bands in terms of orchestration, composition and just the majesty of power is something that is very godly. When you hear a big band that's really swinging it's the most powerful thing on planet Earth.
Also, I grew up hearing this music on TV. All the cartoons had big band jazz. All the talk shows and variety shows featured jazz bands. I was lucky because my generation was exposed to it. But in today's generation some young people don't know the difference between a trumpet and a trombone.
That's why I'm so adamant about music education, because today we live in a culture where DJs are more respected than musicians. I have nothing against DJs, but it takes years and years to master an instrument, learn composition and in terms of the jazz tradition to learn to improvise. Mastery of improvisation is an ongoing process that takes a life time. Basically, anybody can take a computer and be a DJ in half an hour. There is some skill involved, but it's a mechanized skill.
Some people might think what I'm saying is controversial, but it needs to be said because our music is dying in terms of the mainstream American culture. Music programs are being cut all across the country. We have less and less people in tune with what a melody is, or what harmony is. The way you fix that is by talking about it and addressing the situation.
I'm a big advocate of politicians being held accountable. The first thing I ask when I meet a politician is what are you going to do for the arts? One of the things I'm championing is that jazz needs to be a part of the curriculum of every social studies class on the public school level. So when you're in 5th grade and start learning about the Louisiana Purchase you also start learning that this incredible music was born in New Orleans from the African American experience.
I'm probably going to piss a lot of people off by saying this, but most people in jazz education are in a bubble. Not all of them, but most of them. They don't see the bigger picture. In other words they're not actively out there trying to get new fans to the music. They're just teaching and doing concerts at whatever institution, but they're not out in the community trying to get the community involved in the music and to expand the audience of the music. They only way jazz will survive is to expand the audience. Otherwise it becomes a museum piece.
NUVO: How do you feel about DJs and producers fusing Afro-Cuban rhythms with electronic music? For instance, last year I interviewed British dubstep pioneer Mala who went to Cuba and recorded an album with pianist Roberto Fonseca and his band. Can projects like that help expand the audience?
Sanabria: I'm all about expanding the parameters and I'm not against using technology. I have nothing against technology, but when the technology takes over the music making you have to start questioning things.
Right now you have to look at the computer as a musical instrument. Anything we record today uses digital technology. Even if you're recording an acoustic jazz quartet, you're using digital technology to record. The problem is the equation is askew. The way popular music today is produced, everything is done in a cut and paste manner. In other words, gone are the days when Frank Sinatra sings with a whole orchestra live in a recording studio. The performance had to be spot on and impeccable. The artist had to be on point and professional. Today if the singer sings out of tune, they can autotune it. There's no accountability in terms of professionalism. What that leads to is lack of emphasis on musicianship and the production values of arranging and composition. I'm very concerned about that.
NUVO: I wanted to ask you about a recording you played on early in your career, Mongo Santamaría's 1984 album Espiritu Libre. That record is a favorite of mine and it has a cult following among Latin jazz fans. Any memories of that session?
Sanabria: I remember we did the whole album in one afternoon. We did it live with no overdubs. The next day we were leaving on a four week tour of Europe and we had to get that recording in fast. It was one long five or six hour session.
That album was important for me because I took a big timbales solo on "Power Struggle" and people started talking about me because of that solo. In the insular world of the Latin Jazz scene people were saying "yo, did you hear that guy Bobby Sanabria on that solo?"
NUVO: As a young man, you played with many icons of American music from Tito Puente to Dizzy Gillespie. Was that intimidating?
Sanabria: It wasn't intimidating because I'd been dreaming of playing with those people since I was a young person. I'd been preparing myself for that. I always dreamed about what I could contribute to those groups. So when I played with them, I was ready. But it's very profound meeting your heroes.
I'll tell you one story. Dizzy Gillespie used to play a lot with us when I was in Mario Bauza's Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. One concert we did for Mario's 80th birthday, we did the original version of "Manteca." What I mean by the original version is that Dizzy walked into the studio and started handing out the sheet music. I started examining it and it looked very old. I said "Diz, is this the original copy?" He goes "yeah, so don't lose it." It was the original arrangement Walter "Gil" Fuller did. I don't know where that music is now, but hopefully it's in the Smithsonian.
It was always gratifying to be in these groups with musicians who changed the course of music history. But that doesn't mean I made a lot of money, because nobody makes a lot of money in jazz. I remember Dizzy told me, "you want to be a jazz musician? You're going to be paying dues for the rest of your life."
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's podcast features a selection contemporary and classic Latin jazz.
1. Art Blakey - Cubano Chant
2. Bebo Valdés - Mississippi Mambo
3. Cachao y Su Ritmo Caliente - A Gozar Timbero
4. Machito - Congo Mulence
5. Dizzy Gillespie - Manteca
6. Sabu Martinez - I Remember Carmen
7. Kenny Dorham - Basheer's Dream
8. Mongo Santamaria - Che-Que-Re-Que-Che-Que
9. Cal Tjader & Mongo Santamaria - Afro Blue
10. Tito Puente - Ti Mon Bo
11. Tito Rodriguez - Descarga Cachao
12. Ray Barreto - Acid
13. Bobby Matos - Raices
14. Dave Pike - Latin Blues
15. Pucho & His Latin Soul Brothers - Psychedelic Pucho
16. Willie Bobo - Psychedelic Blues
17. Clark Terry & Chico O'Farrill - Spanish Rice
18. Mulatu Astatke and His Ethiopian Quintet - Shagu
19. Gato Barbieri - Merceditas
20. Eddie Palmieri - Comparsa De Los Locos
21. Irakere - Bacalao Con Pan
22. Los Reyes 73 - Un Lamento Hecho Cancion
23. Mongo Santamaría - Espíritu Libre
24. Roberto Fonseca - Yemaya
25. Rubén González - Cumbanchero
26. Harold López-Nussa - La Jungla
27. Roy Hargrove - Mambo for Roy
28. Bobby Sanabria - El Saxofon Y El Guaguanco
29. Bobby Sanabria - The French Connection