A series of interviews with the members of The Latin Jazz
Discussion List. All the questions were submitted by other members
of the group, their peers. Each artist was given a number of
questions with the option of answering as many as they wished.
Further discussion with the artist in this forum is invited...
New York City
Bobby Sanabria was born and raised in the South Bronx. He recieved
B.M. in Applied music in 1979 from the Berklee College of Music
where he actually was the first student of Puerto Rican descent
The degree required him to be fluent in both the Classical and
traditions and he recieved the Faculty Association Award for
his work as an
instrumentalist. Since his graduation he has performed/recorded
veritable who's who in the world's of Jazz and Latin music including
Santamaria, Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mcphearson,
Louis "Perico" Ortiz and the legendary Mario Bauzá
to name just a few. He
has also been featured on numerous studio sessions for commercials
as soundtrack work, most notably "The Mambo Kings"
and "Hombres Armados". In
1981 he was the recipient of a National Endownment for the Arts
grant as a
jazz performer. His ensemble Ascensión has been critically
acclaimed for its
multi-cultural outlook on the Latin-jazz continuum and their
CD "NYC Aché"
(1993) was nominated for a NAIRD award. His latest work, Afro-Cuban
Live & In Clave!!! (2000) is a big band performance recorded
at NYC's famed
Birdland and was recently nominated for a Grammy. He is on the
The New School and The Manhattan School of Music.
Latest CD: "Afro Cuban Dream - Live and in Clave"
Q: "Tell us a little bit about your childhood - where were
you born and
Oh brother, here goes...
My full name is Robert Dennis Michael Sanabria. My father told
named me after two of his favorite people, Robert Kennedy and
Menace. I'm not kidding. Michael is my confirmation name. I have
Joanne who lives in Chicago and is two years younger than me.
I was born on
June 2, 1957 in St. Francis Hospital in the Ft. Apache area of
Bronx in NYC. Just a bit of trivia, Nicky Marrerro was also born
the hospital no longer exists. I'm a true S.O.B (Son of the Bronx).
My father's name is José Sanabria and he hails from Guanica,
and comes from a family of fifteen - 9 sisters and 6 brothers
(he was the
14th). My mother, Juanita Ortiz, hails from Yabucoa, Puerto Rico
from a family of thirteen - eight sisters and five brothers (she
eight born, and the only one from her family to come to NYC for
life). Both my mother and fathers families are farmers, or as
proudly say "Jibaros del campo". The barrio in Guanica
that my father is
from is Ensenada. My fathers brother, Ray (the youngest), married
Ramos who is Yomo Toro's 1rst cousin. When I first met Yomo years
soon as I told him my name, the first thing out of his mouth
si yo conosco a todo tú familia!!! Yomo is from the same
barrio in Guanica.
The barrio in Yabucoa that my mother is from is called Jacanas.
and his brothers learned how to play golf as boys because there
country club built by the American owner of the sugar refinery
and they became caddy's for the club members. Since both of these
were historically sugar refining centers I inherited the spirit
machete from both of my parents. They met at a house party here
Bronx. My mother was a "costurera" (dressmaker) and
was involved in the
early protests to get fair treatment for the Puerto Rican women
who made all
the dresses for Fashion Ave. and were payed slave wages. My father
NYC not knowing a word of English but he learned from an Italian
of his at Bronx Vocational High School. He learned the trade
and worked for a firm in Long Island that made parts for the
the Vietnam era. After many years he eventually left that and
for the Post Office. My mother eventually learned English from
me and began
to assist in the local Public School and eventually through her
and her big heart, became involved in teaching mentally retarded
used to help her with her lesson plans. My father's passion was
about history and listening to music. They are both now retired.
I mention them is that I'm very proud of them and their tireless
Bronx was not a pretty place in the 60's and 70's.
My childhood was a dichotomy. The 60's were a very exciting time
socially, culturally and of course musically. I remember that
jazz and Latin
music were everywhere. On T.V. I remember seeing Candido on the
Show, there was jazz to be heard on cartoons, variety shows,
and on dramatic
T.V.. I remember staying up late to see Ed Shaughnessy playing
drums for the
Johnny Carson Tonight Show, then I would switch the channel to
Rosengarden on the Dick Cavett Show. An hour before that I would
David Frost Show and see Grady Tate playing drums. The one thing
was that they all had music stands and were reading music. That
impressive. Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Louis Bellson were the
drummers at the time and they would be featured as guests on
these shows and
would play explosive drum solos. How could you not fall in love
music and the instrument. Also Dick Cavett featured cutting edge
really deep interviews. I saw Frank Zappa, La Lupe, James Brown,
others too numerous to mention on that show.
NYC radio was incredibly progressive at that time. Frankie Crocker
the program director at WBLS and came up with the concept, THE
EXPERIENCE IN SOUND. That meant that a typical segment would
Mandrill, Earth Wind & Fire, Santana, Buddy Rich, and El
Frankie was a jazz lover but of course it was Black station playing
core R&B, but he knew of the power of the Latino community
and knew the
common connection we all had was Africa. He also didn't care
that Grand Funk
Railroad or Edgar Winter were white, he just cared that they
had soul. I was
also listening to Symphony Syd, Joe Gaines, Dick "Ricardo"
Sugar. Jazz wise
I would listen to Les Davis on WRVR. After all was said and done
listen to WNEW the progressive rock station. They had a DJ named
Schwartz. He was another closet jazzer so he would play Alice
follow it up with Blood Sweat and Tears and then say, "Now
the Count Basie
of Latin music, Tito Puente!!! Alison Steele was also on WNEW
and she would
play The Mahavisnu Orchestra, King Crimson, Focus, Genesis, progressive
Felipe Luciano had a Sunday afternoon show on WRVR, NYC's jazz
station called "Latin Roots" He would play classic
Arsenio, Sexteto La
Playa, Tito Rodriguez, etc. but he would also play all the hip
things that Eddie Palmieri, Larry Harlow, Tipica 73 and others
producing. The difference was he looked at the music as great
art and he
would interview the musicians, have collector/historians like
Max Salazar and Henry Medina and of course others on the show
to talk about
the history of the music. It was like going to school every Sunday.
(the timbalero for the Alegre All-Stars) lived in the neighborhood
I grew up
in (The Melrose Projects) and so did the timbalero for Ricardo
Ray and Bobby
Cruz, Candido (not the famed Cuban conguero). My older cousin
introduced me to one of his friends, Howard King. Howard also
lived in my
neighborhood and was the drummer for tenor saxophonist Gary Bartz.
only eighteen years old. I saw them perform on Public TV (channel
13 in NYC)
at the Montreaux Jazz Festival of 1970 -71. I also saw Mongo
Armando Peraza on that same show. Tito Puente, Machito and Ricardo
performed a concert in my neighborhood when I was twelve. It
blowing. My father took me on my fourteenth birthday to see the
Tito Puente and La Lupe at Madison Square Garden. Tipica 73 opened
Azteca from the West Coast performed with Lenny White on drums.
was packed and Tito Rodriguez had just died. Felipe Luciano asked
to light a match and they turned out the lights and he payed
homage to him.
At night in my neighborhood you would here the sound of guaguancó
resounding through the canyons of the projects in the summer.
passion was sports, mostly baseball and track but I excelled
in football and
b-ball. I got my reflexes from this. I wanted to become an astronaut,
astonomer, race car driver, second baseman for the Yankees (those
Horace Clark years so there was a distinct possibility). The
you could do all of these things at the same time was music.
The other half of the dichotomy? Drugs, gangs, graffiti. Heroin
was the drug
of choice in the South Bronx during those years. That, along
of the Cross Bronx Expressway, political corruption (Mario Biaggi,
Simon), a weak mayor, the lack of jobs, substandard housing and
led to the South Bronx becoming the poster child for urban decay
the world. I strongly believe that the only thing that kept it
the explosion of music that was being produced during those years
Records. In 1974, 40,000 screamin' freakin' mostly Ricans showed
important part music is to the Latino experience at the Fania
concert at Yankee Stadium. That was the real Latin Explosion.
What the press
is talking about now is a lot of bullshit. The difference today
there are so many of us that they can't ignorace us anymore.
So much for
birth control. But by 1977 the city imploded with the blackout.
I was lucky,
I never got into drugs and by high school music consumed me.
Q: "When did you first fall in love with Latin music?"
When I heard the early Cal Tjader recordings with Willie Bobo
Santamaria and when I heard Tito's early version of Para Los
the 50's. The virtuosity of the drumming and the hipness of the
me in. I also went to an aunt's wedding at the old Luigi's in
the Bronx when
I was very young. My family's table was right next to the band
opened up with a descarga to loosen up. I was transfixed on every
was happening. Also the concert where Tito, Macho and Ricardo
in my neighborhood was a turning point. The first recording I
heard when I
was kid was "Recuerdos de Navidad" by Trio Vegabajeño
from Puerto Rico on
78rpm. I would play that when I was 4 or 5 over and over again
the beautiful requinto guitar and the martillo of the bongo and
of course I
drove my mother crazy. Then I got into the Beatles but came back
music through Santana and what I mentioned before. What was the
record I heard after Trio Vegabajeño? "I'm in With
The In Crowd" by Dobie
Gray and then "Reach Out, I'll Be There" by The Four
Tops. That was because
my father had the most eclectic taste of anyone I've ever met.
everything from hardcore Jibaro music, to tango music, and hardcore
well as Cortijo, Puente, Basie and Brazilian music, etc. and
his love of
history. He shaped my open minded aesthetic.
Q: "What piece of music made the most impact on you and
That's a hard question, because there are many answers. I would
excerpts of Ligetti's "Atmospheres" from the soundtrack
to 2001 a Space
Odyssey. My father took me to see that film when it first came
was only one theater in NYC showing it because it was in Panavision.
believe it was 1966, 67 or 68 but I'm not sure. You see "Atmospheres"
piece of music completely for voices. It is one of the most haunting,
frightening, beautiful works of all time. When I heard that along
I was looking at (the astronauts discover the monolith on the
realized the sacredness of sound and the power of art.
Q: "At what time of the day are you most creative?
It really doesn't depend on what time of the day. It really depends
the project I'm working on and how
inspiring it is.
Q: "Who is an artist/s you think more people should be aware
There are three. Marco Rizo Ayala, Ricardo Pons and Jorge Sylvester.
Marco was Lecuona's protegé and studied composition with
Stravinsky. He never was completely taken seriously because he
tended to do
light jazz and was not in the public eye. But his harmonic conception
totally coming from advanced compositional technique and I got
to study some
of his works for large orchestra. He was the only person who
really knew the
history of Cuban classical piano in this country and I'm proud
the premiere of his last work, Suite de Las Americas in Philadelphia
years ago after his death. His claim to pop culture fame was
he was the
pianist on the I Love Lucy Show and the true composer of the
He's also responsible for getting me into teaching, but that's
story. Marco was a Santiaguero. I've never met anyone in my life
who was so
humble. There was not one pretentious bone in his body. I would
people check out his CD "Habaneras". It traces the
history of Cuban
Ricardo Pons is probably the greatest jazz musician Puerto Rico
produced. And that's with all due respect to you David Sanchez,
Cepeda fans out there. Some of you may be shocked by that statement,
shit you not. I think if he gets the opportunity he will prove
he's already proven it to me. He was in the vanguard in fusing
Rican rhythms with jazz and making this fusion palpable to the
oriented audience a long time ago. He's a great arranger and
still do not understand why he is not mentioned by his fellow
Puertoriqueños. Jealousy, envy? Jive seems to be more
the answer, which is
really a by product of the previous two things I mentioned. Unfortunately
there is a lot of "hipocresia y falsedad" in this business
when it comes to
other cats giving respect where it is due. That's why I'm more
than happy to
talk about Ricardo's talents. Besides his jazz playing his classical
playing is ridiculous and his Cuban style flute playing is also
Ricardo was a last minute replacement for the "Live &
In Clave" CD. He made
one rehearsel and played everything flawlessly and took a fantastic
"Manteca" on baritone, which is not his principle horn
(alto is his axe). He
has since left NYC because he was offered a teaching position
in Puerto Rico
at a university. He knows the Bomba and Plena inside and out
and is a
fantastic "barrilero". He's is a priest of Obatalá
in Ifá. A beautiful cat
and great father, Puerto Rico is very lucky. Check out his Viento
CD, "De Puerto Rico Al Mundo".
Jorge Sylvester is from Panama. His principle horns are alto
soprano. Another cat that people are asleep on. Jorge is a combination
Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins,
and Dave Leibman. He has his own style and won't budge for anyone.
to be commended because he wants to have his own identity. Compositionally
Jorge is on another planet. People don't get what he's doing
(not even the
musicians) because there are so many sub layers to what he's
writing that to
really appreciate it you have to get past the technical demands
the players. Most people today are lazy (including many musicians),
don't want to be challenged in any part of their lives and that
listening to music. He's got two solo projects out "Music
Collage" and "In
The Ear Of The Beholder". Check them out, but if you do,
please sit down and
Q: "Are you a songwriter?"
No, I'm a composer.
Q: "What are your priorities when you get to the stage?"
If I'm a sideman, to make sure that all my equipment is functioning
properly so that I can give the artist I'm working for the best
performance of his or her music. Obviously that means respecting
vision. If they are secure with themselves they usually allow
me (or anyone
else) to make a suggestion, they know I care about the music
and that is my
only concern. If they're incompetent or not serious or they don't
I'm at the point in my career where I won't even deal with them.
If I'm a
leader the same holds true except I have many more responsibilities.
the music together, what is to be played, featuring everyone
I also have to make sure I inspire the players and audience to
performance to the next level, the spiritual. That is why I'm
with who I use. It's not enough to be technically capable, you
understand and respect my vision also.
Q; "Which one of your CD's that you have recorded would
you keep if the
others were forever lost?"
The Afro-Cuban Dream... Live & In Clave!!! CD because of
the totality of
the work, from a writing, arranging and playing standpoint.
Q: "Which one of someone else's CD's would you keep if all
Another tough question with many answers but off the top of my
"Caravanserai" by Carlos Santana.
Q: "Name an All-Star band of your favourite musicians."
That's very easy to answer, the musicians in my quartet, big
Q: "What musicians or band would you have wanted to play
with from the past
Another easy question to answer...
Cal Tjader - where else would you find an opportunity to play
straight ahead jazz as a drummer and good Afro-Cuban jazz as
a timbalero in
an authentic manner?
Frank Zappa - the combination of sarcastic humour, absurdity,
music, theater, improvisation played with a rock n' roll attitude
is a dream
Machito and Tito Rodriguez - discipline, combined with elegance
sophistication You also get to solo and play for people who know
dance on the "2".
Tipica 73 - I would have loved to bring my knowledge of modern
drumming to that band in its heyday.
Count Basie - it was Buddy Rich's favourite band.
Don Ellis - Don was the supreme futurist. He was light years
everyone compositionally with his use of odd meters and understood
Afro-Cuban as well as East Indian classical music.
Charles Mingus - another futurist but from the Black American
Q: "Are critics important or do you rather see your music
reviewed in the
vanity press? Are you susceptible to bad reviews?"
In pop music critics aren't that important (most of it is superficial
anyway). In jazz, classical, Latino oriented music, etc. they
important because the market is smaller and the decision of the
purchase a CD is directly tied in many ways to what a reviewer
assume by vanity press you mean a friend, or someone who is recruited
label or yourself to give you a favourable review? That exists
in the pop
world where there are big budgets for that. In jazz the writers
are fans and
love the music too much. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist,
but it's on a
much smaller scale. That also doesn't mean they are completely
about a specific genre like Brazilian or Afro-Cuban based jazz.
I see a lot
of incompetent writing by critics. In defence of critics, they
get a lot
of pressure to listen to a lot of product in a short amount of
sometimes they only listen to the first couple of tunes of a
CD because they
have twenty or more CD's to review for three different magazines.
As far as bad reviews are concerned, they affect everyone. In
hard because you want to take chances, it shows you are growing
artist. But that goes completely against the mandate of most
companies. Don't kid yourself, anyone that tells you different
is full of
shit or doesn't know what time it is. Bad reviews affect whether
another chance to record, sales etc, everything. I will say one
noticed that people who are in the superstar category, be it
theater, recording, are influenced less by it since they have
certain level of immunity because of their status. But believe
me, if Tiger
Woods loses three matches in a row, the press will have a field
challenge is always to be consistent with your work and that
comes from not
just accepting "well, that's OK. it's good enough".
Q: "Do you believe in music as art as opposed to a product
It's both. After you complete the work you want as many people
possible to hear it. I don't believe in this "museum piece"
jazz, folk, experimental or classical records. If it is good,
it should be
heard, if it is great it should be heard by everyone. You can
in this country, unfortunately that includes mediocre music.
Great art is
not just for a small group of privileged elite pseudo intellectuals
then discuss it over tea and crumpets while they laugh about
how ignorant or
deprived the rest of the world is. Great art is meant to be shared
many people as possible so that it can "... wipe away the
dust of everyday
life"... as Art Blakey said about jazz.
Q: "How do you see yourself in relation to the tradition?"
I'm a participator, educator and hopefully an innovator.
Q: "What music do you listen to when you are relaxing?"
I don't listen to any music when I'm relaxing.
Q: "Give us a mental image of your favourite view in the
Having an afternoon constitutional on the banks of the Lake in
Q: "What changes or landmarks in your life can you attribute
to the music
It's made more people happy and inspired more positive energy
other thing I can think of.
Q: "When the music is at its best in your opinion, what
is happening (to
make it the best) and what do you feel?"
Well that's an easy one and a complex one at the same time. I
on and on but it's very simple. There is a spiriual communion
happening with the players and the audience that is fed by this
positive energy that is being transmitted through the players.
happen all the time but it's starting to happen more and more
because I have
in my ensembles players who are really competent and respect
That gives you alot of options on an improvisational level. Q:
still be a musician even if that means you would die of hunger?"
If your question is literal, hell no, my son needs me. If it
well I've been hungry many times but music has always provided
because - I'm proud to say - I know my craft. If I died of hunger
was a musician that would be pretty lame because it would mean
I was a lousy
Q: "If you had to choose a short segment (a few bars) from
your work to
represent you, which would it be?"
I want to meet the person that came up with this question. O.K.
goes. The drum fill that I do on "Nuyorican Son" on
second chorus leading into the bridge to introduce the trombones.
Q: "What food would you most liken your music to?"
A big fat juicy "chuleta" followed by a nice glass
Q: "Do you believe in Aliens?"
Ñamnu rictus veractu!!!
Q: "One piece of advice for musicians."
Take your craft seriously but try not to take yourself too seriously.
Respect comes from knowing your craft well and honoring those
who have come
before. I was fortunate to have learned this at an early age
René Lopez. He always would say "Honor those who
have come before, don't
just remember them". Unfortunately today most musicians
I've met in my age
group or slightly younger are very self absorbed. Not everyone
is like this,
but most are. In contrast I've found that older players are truly
supportive. They are
as interested in how one is doing personally as well as professionally.
Pass on what you know, but only to those who show respect for
culture and who really want to learn. It is a great honor to
be a good
musician, your job is simple, to make people happy. Oh, and probably
most important thing, get plenty of sleep!!!
I almost forgot, learn how to dance. It is the only way that
learn the importance of the proper tempo for a piece of music.
I know that's
more than one piece of advice, perdoname.
Oh and by the way, I'd name Hermeto's rooster and pig Tom and
Q: One piece of advice for listeners (or dancers).
For listeners, please read the liner notes and find quiet time
For the dancers, learning how how to come off on "2"
is essential... in
mambo on the "2" side of the clave... Learn Samba and
See you on the scene!!!
Allan Johnston - format questions
Eliseo Cardona - translations
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