Eddie Palmieri: Rebellious Perfection
Latin jazz’s greatest living bandleader reigns comfortably
For a few months at the end of 1963, Eddie Palmieri spent every Wednesday evening outside a small dance hall in Midtown Manhattan, barking in the street and trying to draw foot traffic to his gigs. That meant luring away dancers en route to the nearby Palladium Ballroom, where famous acts like Machito, Tito Puente and his own brother, Charlie Palmieri, performed. “Not there, folks!” he remembers hollering. “Over here, folks!”
The pianist had been gunning for a gig at the Palladium with his eight-piece band, La Perfecta, but the venue’s owner dragged his feet, so Palmieri adopted a guerrilla strategy. “La Perfecta was hot; people knew about the band. So I started drawing people,” he says. “Any people I took away from [the Palladium] was hurting them.” It wasn’t long before he had the attention of the ballroom’s owner, who finally buckled and booked Palmieri for 90 dates over the following year. It was his Rubicon.
Within months, La Perfecta was facing off on the Palladium stage against Puente’s large orchestra, often outmatching the reigning King of Latin Music. “They were really the only band that would give Tito Puente’s band a run for their money,” remembers the percussionist Jose Madera, a frequent audience member in those days who went on to spend 30 years in Puente’s ensemble and now performs with Palmieri. La Perfecta held its spot at the Palladium until it closed in 1966. But the coup at the theater was far from the only time Palmieri would find himself at odds with an institution and have to work his way in—or out.
Generally speaking, Palmieri, 76, is no big fan of the system; he’s been brushing up against it since he was a teenager. The pianist, composer and bandleader, who will be honored in January with a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship, knows what it’s like to be booted from high school, hunted by the IRS and locked in a pitched battle with record labels.
Palmieri’s is an unbending disposition, built to barge past impositions, so the system he subscribes to is one of his own making—a sort of Palmieri party platform that governs his views on everything from music to politics to personal health.
It’s the conflict between that personal doctrine and the one built by society that has produced Palmieri’s monumental contributions to Latin music and American culture. It also helps explain the trials that have dogged him along the way. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, an intransigent disdain for authority—which sometimes meant skipping gigs to escape the pursuit of tax agents—earned Palmieri a reputation as the “madman of salsa,” and he ended up frozen out by major venues and labels.
Yet the past 20 years have seen Palmieri in relative equilibrium with his environment, touring internationally with his three bands and earning royalties that he was unjustly denied for decades. Not that he’s softened his views. “I don’t have to read the newspaper; I know exactly what’s in there,” he says during a recent interview, gesturing toward his copy of the New York Daily News. Palmieri is a warm and energetic man, with bottomless confidence in his ability to persuade. “They’re different names, but it’s going to be the same symptoms, because we never get to the core. The reason is poverty. Low wages create crime, wars, tariffs. But that’s another story.”
Palmieri applies an equally sharp formula to his own health, something he picked up from reading books on yoga and natural healing. “After a certain amount of years, you don’t get blood into your vertebrae. So how are you going to keep them intact, for your sympathetic nerves and your parasympathetic nerves?” he says. “It’s a whole study. So before I go play, I lay on the floor, straighten out my spine.”
For music, too, there’s an irreducible chemistry. “I find out scientifically why it works and excites you,” he explains, alluding to his study of the Schillinger System, a mathematical approach to music composition. One of Palmieri’s inescapable catch phrases is “I don’t guess I’m going to excite you with my band—I know it.”
Also see: Five Essential Eddie Palmieri recordings.
Originally published in January-February 2013