By Enrique Lopetegui
What went through your mind when you found out NARAS had eliminated the Latin Jazz category, for which you fought so hard for many years?
What went through my mind was that I thought the French had gotten rid of the guillotine. Because they just cut everything off without letting anyone know. They did it in a terrible way. It was preconceived for the last two or three years and in the last minute [the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, NARAS] announced that they were going to 12 states they had chapters in to explain why they did it. All we had was one day to get prepared for it here in New York City. It was a terrible way to do it. [When the category started in 1995] we were so elated. Before that, you were quite honored to be selected and put in the jazz category. But if you’re a young Latin pianist coming in and recording a fine CD, you were going to be put in the jazz category, which meant you had to go against a Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner
Or if you were a saxophonist like David Sánchez you still had to go through Wayne Shorter, Branford Marsalis
There is nothing wrong with being in the category and fighting to see if you get the nomination, that is wonderful. But the odds were so against you. So we needed our own category. And sure enough, look at the jazz players that are now in our category. A lot of the jazz players are now recording their own style of Latin jazz so they are falling in to the Latin jazz category. With all that said and done, they chose to remove it because they figured that it wasn’t getting the attention that it should’ve had, not getting what they called “submissions” coming into that category, and they decided to abolish it completely and put restrictions on it and make it more difficult for any young artists to be able to be nominated in that category [NARAS rules require at least 25 submissions in each category to be considered for nomination].
Did anybody consult with you?
Nobody consulted me about getting rid of the category. They were applauding as we slept. It was a very terrible thing, and it will be there forever. They will never change it. When I was a governor at NARAS they came up with the idea of LARAS [the Latin Recording Academy]. Then I said, “Whoever came up with that idea, let’s surround him and kill him,” because that was a quote from the retired general Colin Powell referring to the Iraqi army. Once they allowed that to happen, they were phasing us completely out of NARAS. LARAS is now viewed as such a successful program, but it has nothing to do with the essence of the best albums. It’s really a hit parade.
No matter which one, they both turned into hit parades. By having LARAS, they’re telling us, “What’s the big deal? You have a Latin jazz category in LARAS.” No matter what you try to do, it won’t work. They are trying to sue them and all these kinds of things [on August 2, Latin jazz musicians Ben Lapidus, Mark Levine, Eugene Marlow, and Bobby Sanabria sued NARAS for the reinstatement of the category]. It’s all worthless, going nowhere, because LARAS exists. Mira
[look], there’s not two Oscars, two Tonys, or two Emmys. Why do we need two Grammys?
For me LARAS works because, when you only have one Grammy, there’s not enough room for all of our categories.
What we needed to do was expand the categories in NARAS.
But still, how many categories can they extend it to? They can’t extend it to 48 categories. And even if they did, we would be lost, especially on the TV show. It’s all about the ratings
We don’t have any new categories in LARAS. It’s the same thing. There’s no extra categories there. The only thing is that it features more of the Latin artists, mostly the Mexican Tex, Tex-Mex, whatever it is. That’s all fine and good, but still all that could have been put into NARAS because that’s the real Grammy-type situation. By having LARAS, you see what’s happened to the categories that we had and that we fought so dearly for. You can’t fight something that’s successful, and LARAS has been successful. It’s the most viewed program to go out to the Latin American countries, but that’s not the real essence of the Grammy and of the award. It comes from here, NARAS, and when you go into LARAS, it’s another ball game. It’s never going to be the same to certain artists, me included. It should’ve been amplified in NARAS and not get involved with LARAS because now whatever we do and whatever they take us out of, they go, “What’s the big deal? You still have it in LARAS.” But that’s not the deal.
OK, let’s move on to the San Antonio show. What will we see?
We are bringing La Perfecta Dos there. We are doing classics and some we didn’t record. “Muñeca,” “Azúcar,” and others.
Is this the format you’re most comfortable with nowadays?
I just got back with a [jazz] quartet from touring all over Europe. So we are doing all kinds of presentations, but when I do Latin, we have the big band. I have a DVD coming out at the end of the month, my first.
There will be a DVD release party at the end of this month. It’s the 50 years of Eddie Palmieri. It was [filmed] about four or five years ago in a concert in Connecticut. My son has been handling it, and it is about time that we release my first DVD. The only problem is mathematically I do not know how it works out, because it says [it is] my 50th year and I’m only 24 now.
[laughs] It’s because “Chocolate” Armenteros, the Cuban trumpet player, taught me that after 50 you start counting by one again. I would tell everybody that I was born in 1898 and that I was a friend of Tito Puente then. And Tito would say, “Eddie, don’t say things like that!”
Do you think the 9:35 “Azúcar” was to salsa what “Hey Jude” was to rock?
It wasn’t just the length of the song. There we broke a precedent. I was already recording a little longer. Remember, when I started to record you could only record two minutes and 45 seconds. And when “Azúcar” came out, it began with a typical number and after the piano solo it turns into what I call “instrumental mambo.” You didn’t utilize the word “Latin jazz” then. It was “instrumental mambos.” They were exciting during the time of Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez
They were very exciting arrangements for the dancers. Within “Azúcar” you had the typical, the expanded piano solo, and then the instrumental which was in a Latin jazz format. It’s piano and flute solos while the trombone player is holding firm on a typical basis. It’s a combination that had never been heard of, in my opinion, had never been done in that form and it became something very special. It became a tremendous hit. It helped us tremendously. It established a precedent, in my opinion, on how to use an orchestra that would give you two different types of sounds in one, one typical and one taking the Latin jazz form. And at the same time we were quite honored with the Library of Congress taking it in as one of the greatest recordings. I'm quite proud of that, too. That song was very special because I wrote it two years before I recorded it. It was a hit in the street. That’s how I landed up with Roulette Records.
Once and for all: Were you born in Puerto Rico or New York? I’ve seen conflicting stories
I was born in Manhattan. My mother arrived in New York from Puerto Rico in 1925 and my father in 1926. They got married here. And then my brother [musician Charlie Palmieri, who passed in 1988] was born in 1927. And I was born in 1936, on 112th street between Madison and Park. And by the time I was about five to six years of age, we moved to the Bronx and I was raised there.
So when did you live in Puerto Rico?
Much later in my career, in 1983. I had gone there naturally a few times but not to stay. I went there to take care of my mother when my brother had his first heart attack. My wife sold our second home in Long Island, and then we moved to Puerto Rico and I formed one of the greatest orchestras that I’ve ever had with Tito Torres, el gran trompetista
[the great trumpet player] of Puerto Rico, and that orchestra was the first orchestra that traveled from Puerto Rico on an extensive European tour. It was really my first European tour, even though they had been looking for me for about 15 years to travel to Europe. And that’s the orchestra that won three Grammys for Fania [Records] in 1984. We were the first band period to win a Grammy from Puerto Rico.
What about new music? Are you recording or about to record anything?
The problem is that I have so many different ventures and different bands that I do not know which direction I should take. And now I just got on with a quartet. We were traveling with a quartet throughout Europe. That was the first time I had done that. Never was I playing as much piano, my brother. We went all over Europe. Well, we didn’t do all of Europe but we mostly did Italy, Switzerland, and the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland. We also played in a place called the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy. Such a special place to play. I had never played that festival and it was about 10 days of music coming in and out and people walking up there. It was up on a mountain. It was really a way to close out. It was just gorgeous. Chucho Valdés was there with his presentation and so was Michel Camilo. And we had three pianos. I opened up the show, Michel came in second and Chucho closed the show. It was really a night to remember there and never forget. So they are talking about recording the quartet. They are talking about recording the big band again, which is three trumpets and two trombones with vocals. I won’t do La Perfecta again. But either the big band or the quartet or the Latin Caribbean jazz ensemble, which can be a sextet, septet or octet.
Last one: Are you willing to fight for the re-instatement of the Latin Jazz category at the Grammys with the same intensity you fought for its inclusion?
That’s not going to happen. They already made their decision. They cut it out. And it’s fruitless to try to go into any discussion on that. I see that you are very up on LARAS. I wish you the best, I wish you can enjoy the program every time it goes on, every year. To me, [the Grammy and Latin Grammy Awards] are both hit parades. It shouldn’t be about who sells the most records. It should be about who makes the best recording in their genre, and they took that away. It’s very sad.