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February 14, 2014IM -
Percussionist Bobby Sanabria of Local 802 (New York City) has always stood up for what he believes in. Last year, when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) announced that it would be eliminating 31 categories of Grammy Awards, including Latin Jazz, Sanabria couldn’t just sit idly by.
“You have a moral obligation to say something when something is wrong, and this was beyond wrong,” he says, explaining that many others joined the cause—Herbie Hancock of Local 802, Carlos Santana of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA), and even some not involved in the jazz community like Bonnie Raitt of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA). “Unfortunately, there were a lot of people who didn’t fight.”
Getting nowhere with his initial plea to NARAS, Sanabria and three other plaintiffs—Eugene Marlow, Benjamin Lapidus, and Mark Levine of Local 424 (Richmond, CA)—filed a lawsuit; attorney Roger Maldonado took the case pro bono.
“During the fight for the Grammys the union was supportive,” says Sanabria. “We got letters from Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), Local 802, and some nonmusician locals in New York City, as well as the AFL-CIO.”
“I’ve been a union member since 1979. When I graduated from college, it was the first thing I did,” he adds. “The union has always fought for the rights of musicians; the word ‘union’ in and of itself tells you what it’s about. Whenever you see anything wrong, as a union member, you should speak up.”
Sanabria applauds the union’s most recent efforts to help New York City’s jazz musicians through its Justice for Jazz Artists campaign. “The thing people have to do is stop complaining and get involved,” he says. “For any type of movement to be successful the mainstream public has to be aware and right now they have nothing to do with jazz. Part of that [Justice for Jazz] has to be showing people in the mainstream what jazz is and how important jazz is.”
And that brings him to what might very well be his next cause.
“Unfortunately, jazz has been taken away from the educational system in a big way,” says Sanabria. “I want to have congressional hearings on jazz to make its history part of the educational curriculum of every middle school kid.”
“Jazz is America’s greatest art form,” he continues. “Without jazz, as Louie Armstrong said, there is no rock and roll. It’s sad to me that jazz has fallen to the wayside as far a consciousness of the average American. It’s your birthright as an American citizen to be exposed to jazz.”
Sanabria also believes that all jazz musicians should be both advocates and activists. “The first part is easy, because we are already advocates for the music—we studied it, we play it, we live it and breathe it. The activist part is the hardest part. That’s one thing I learned from my fight with the Grammys.”
He says that disagreements within the jazz community can be part of he problem. “Talking with jazz musicians sometimes is like talking to warring political parties,” he says. “You get what I call ‘bebop Nazis’ who say, ‘Oh, that’s not really jazz.’”
Sanabria’s definition of jazz is broad. “It has so many tributaries,” he says. “The trunk is the blues, but it also has roots in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and of course those roots go back even further to West and Central Africa. My philosophy is that it’s all jazz as long as you are using jazz harmony and arranging technique.”
South Bronx Roots
Sanabria thanks his upbringing in the South Bronx during the ’60s for this openness to different forms of jazz. He says growing up in the troubled borough that became a symbol for urban blight was “both sacred and profane.” After the Cross Bronx Expressway cut through its heart, neighborhoods were destroyed and property values dropped. Predatory landlords burned tenement buildings in order to collect insurance money.
“You are talking about a vibrant community completely destroyed,” he says. “At one time, the Bronx had more nightclubs, catering halls, restaurants, and venues for music than Manhattan.”
“Despite the fact that the Bronx was like Dante’s inferno, it was the music that kept us alive and fed us,” says Sanabria, who learned to pound out rhythms as a kid. “Conga was the first instrument we played in the streets. Car bumpers were made out of metal in those days, so you didn’t need a conga drum; you get three guys on a car, and all of a sudden there’s a rumba happening.”
“I grew up in the milieu,” he says. “It was all around in the streets. On the first day of summer you would heard two things: the sound of the Mr. Softee truck and congas playing Cuban rumba in the parks.”
Adding to the upheaval of growing up in the South Bronx was the turmoil going on all around the country during Sanabria’s formative years. “It was a really cataclysmic time period because you had the Vietnam War going on, the civil rights movement, the Black Panthers, and the Young Lords in New York.
Sanabria says the wide range of musical influences he grew up with profoundly influenced his music. “The whole ethos is represented in my latest recording, Multiverse,” he says. The big band album was nominated for two Grammys, including one in the Latin Jazz category.
Among Sanabria’s biggest influences growing up was Latin jazz composer and musician Tito Puente. “I got to know him first through recordings that my father had, and then I would hear him on radio shows, where he’d speak about the history of the music,” says Sanabria.
“Our heroes were musicians, people like Miles Davis, and for the Latino community, Puente and Machito were gods,” he says.
The first time Sanabria saw Puente live, as 12-years-old, he knew he’d found his passion. “In order to squelch the rioting in poor neighborhoods, they started sponsoring concerts in the summer. One afternoon they set up a stage near the Melrose Projects, where I grew up,” he says. The concert, which felt like a mini-Woodstock, included Ricardo Ray and Bobby Cruz, who had the hottest Salsa band at the time; Machito, known as the father of Afro-Cuban jazz; and Tito Puente and his orchestra.
Looking down on the stage from his friend’s 9th floor apartment, Sanabria had to get closer. “When I got to the front of the stage, Tito points to the saxophones, and they stand up—it was majestic—then he takes a timbales solo. That was it.”
Years later, while studying at Berklee College of Music, Sanabria played with Puente for the first time. One of the first Latino students at Berklee, Sanabria’s peers didn’t even know who Puente was, so Sanabria went alone to the gig in a Boston suburb. Then, he mustered the courage to ask to sit in.
“Puente says, ‘Sure, what do you play?’ and I say, ‘Timbales.’ Puente turned to the band and says, ‘Guess what? The kid plays timbales.’ It was like a scene from a movie. I got up there and raised my hand with four fingers, which for a jazz musician means you are going to trade fours. We started trading and the audience loved it, and he dug it. Ever since then we were friends,” Sanabria recounts.
Passing on the Tradition
Over the years, Sanabria has played and recorded with Puente and many other big names in jazz and Afro-Cuban music—Ray Barretto, Mario Bauzá, Paquito D’Rivera, Dizzy Gillespie, Chico O’Farrill, Arturo Sandoval, and Mongo Santamaría. Sanabria says that it should be important for every jazz artist to try to pass on some knowledge to the next generation.
“Art Blakey used to say that the best ensembles are combinations of youth and experience. You get the fire from youth and the knowledge from the experienced older players,” Sanabria says, adding, “The youngest person in my big band is in his early 20s and the oldest person is 82 years old.”
However, Sanabria says that kind of collaboration is a rarity now. “Today’s jazz musicians are basically mentoring themselves; you don’t see young musicians playing with older musicians,” he says.
“We pass the tradition to the next generation as it was passed to us, in hope that they will represent the music with integrity,” says Sanabria, who has definitely done his part to inspire young jazz players. He’s taught 20 years at The New School and 15 years at the Manhattan School of Music, and for 10 years at the Drummers Collective in New York City. “I taught a whole generation of drummers about Afro-Cuban rhythms,” he says.
Sanabria’s instruction and leadership goes way beyond just teaching. “At the Manhattan School of Music, we’ve gotten two Grammy nominations for the two albums we’ve put together,” he says. “It’s a win-win situation. We put out high quality albums on the level of any professional orchestra and most of the money goes to the school’s scholarship fund.”
“Next year, in November we are coming out with an album dedicated to Rafael Hernández, Puerto Rico’s greatest composer,” he adds.
True to His Roots
Over the years Sanabria has been honored in many ways, including seven Grammy nominations as a bandleader. When asked what he’s most proud of, he returns to his roots in the South Bronx where he was inducted into the Bronx Walk of Fame in 2006 and a street on the Grand Concourse is named for him.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’m an SOB, son of the Bronx. When your hometown recognizes your contributions to the world, that’s a good feeling,” he says. “People still have the image of Howard Cosell saying ‘the Bronx is burning.’ But, it was also the only borough with people from all these disparate communities: Jews, Italians, Germans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans, African Americans, Africans, Hondurans, Jamaicans, etc. It’s the most ethnically tolerant borough. Everybody comes together in the Bronx. That’s why hip hop, doo-wop, R&B, funk, salsa, disco, and jazz co-exist there.”
To help preserve that heritage Sanabria is working with folklorist Elena Martinez to curate the Bronx Music Heritage Center, which opens in 2015. It will include housing for the elderly, a theater, recording studio, and archival library with digitized music. “We’re curating monthly concerts and film screenings that are free to the public,” he explains. “We are bringing art and culture back to the South Bronx.”