Jazz and Latin music fans in New York City got a extra treat this past June. The third weekend of the month was not only the official start of the summer 2014 season. But Charlie Palmieri and Dr. Billy Taylor, two piano players were honored with the naming of their own street signs. What made it so special was that it was back to back events honoring the world of jazz and latin music.
The first ceremony was for the late latin pianist Charlie Palmieri on Friday June 20th. The pianist who was known as 'The Count of the Keyboards' received his due at the corner of 112th Street and Park Avenue. This is a area that is known by the names of East Harlem, El Barrio and Spanish Harlem. It is also a area where Charlie Palmieri grew up in. The large crowd that assembled was made up of Palmieri's family, fellow musicians, politicians, and fans.
In a career that lasted over forty years, Charlie Palmieri has played with many musicians in and out of the world of salsa music. Some of them were to name a few are Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Ray Barretto and Herbie Mann. Palmieri who died in 1988 also played with his younger brother, fellow pianist Eddie Palmieri-who also attended this event.
Charlie Diaz of the Stickball Hall of Fame Gallery in East Harlem officiated the event. While emotions were running high for Charlie Palmieri, it seemed at times that Diaz and this event were totally surrounded by politicians and their representatives standing in for those who couldn't make it to the ceremony.
There was a representative from the office of the Manhattan Borough President who is Gale Brewer. There were reps from the office of Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright. There was a rep from the office of US Representative Carolyn Maloney. There was even a rep there for the Speaker of the New York City City Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito.
Congressman Charlie Rangel of Harlem attended and was a very visible presence among this sea of reps and their greetings. He was facing a reelection bid on the upcoming Tuesday June 24th primary. This is nothing personal against politicians and their greetings. The public needs their support to get these street renaming bills signed into law.
It just would of been nice to hear from Charlie Palmieri's fellow musicans and friends. There were no shortage of them in the crowd. Some of the musicians who attended were Benny Bonilla, Jimmy Delgado and Juan Rodriguez. Also in the crowd was Joe Conzo, Sr, the longtime manager of the late Tito Puente. Among the photographers covering this event was his son, Joe Conzo, Jr. Also attending this event was the cultural and music historian Richie Blondet. It would of been great to hear any of these men speak about Charlie Palmieri. They and many others in the crowd would of added personal insight. It would of added more substance than a elected official's greeting.
But nonetheless, the love was there for Charlie. In the end, Congressman Rangel may have said it best when he stated, 'It's not how much we lost-which is inmeasureable. But how much we gain from his life and music. It's his spirit that brings us all out today.' Rangel read a proclamation declaring, 'June 20th, 2014 as Charlie Palmieri Day in New York City.'
Eddie Palmieri who was the last speaker talked of growing up in the area. He spoke of solid plans to a Charlie Palmieri School of the Arts near the block where they grew up. This school would be a major cultural center which would include a radio station. Eddie stressed to the crowd that the radio station broadcasts would serve the needs of the community.
Eddie was very proud of the street sign named after his brother. Eddie said, 'Beyond what we all expect, my heart goes out to him.'
This sunny day got more sunnier and the crowd very excited of the official unveiling of the street sign on the corneror 112th Street and Park Avenue. There were no musical performances at this ceremony. Instead, music would take place the following night in a special concert tribute to Charlie Palmieri at the nearby El Museo de Barrio. All the proceeds would go to benefit the Stickball Hall of Fame Gallery in East Harlem. The headliner of this special tribute concert on June 21st was no other than Charlie's proud brother, Eddie Palmieri.
The next day Saturday June 21st was the street renaming ceremony for the late jazz pianist Dr. Billy Taylor. A large crowd of family members, musicians, politicians and fans gathered at the corner of 138th Street and Fifth Avenue. The corner street sign was right in front of the Riverton Houses Development in Harlem. It's a important connection due to Billy Taylor lived in the corner building for many years.
A few feet away from the street sign was the Riverton parking lot. It was here that a make shift stage was set at it's entrance. The stage was right next to the intersection of the Madison Avenue Bridge. It connects Harlem to the Bronx and the Major Deegan Expressway. A special VIP seating area was set up for Taylor's family, guest speakers and politicians. It was such a nice and sunny day that many of the guests were walking around within the crowd.
Some of the visible faces walking around were former New York Mayor David Dinkins, and Leonard Schonberg the head of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Attracting attention was former New York Knick player and present day community leader Cal Ramsey.
There were fans-mostly seniors who were setting up chairs on the side under the trees for shade. The small talk that ranged among them was on who in the family was planning on showing up to the famous faces in this crowd to restaurants in the area.
Dr. Billy Taylor who passed away in 2011 had a career that dated all the way back to bebop movement in music. He played along with many musicians in bebop and for many years was the house pianist at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. It was at Minton's where bebop was created. Billy Taylor made many recordings and with his trio traveled all over the world. He help formed JazzMoblie, a program that bought free jazz concerts to all five boroughs in New York City. He was a correspondent on CBS News Sunday Morning for many years. Taylor was also Artistic Director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington DC. He also hosted many jazz shows on public radio stations.
Glenn Hunter, a co-founder of the Harlem Cultural Archives was one of the organizers to get the street renamed. He officiated the event and talked of the anxiousness that arose due to the sign finally arriving earlier that morning to be assembled.
One of the first speakers was Robin Bell-Stevens, the director and executive producer of JazzMoblie. She talked of Billy Taylor starting the organization many years ago. She said, 'Billy Taylor worked hard in supporting JazzMoblie throughout the years. He co-founded JazzMoblie back in the late sixties. It was his way of bringing free music to the various neighborhoods in the city.'
Local reporter Magee Hickey from PIX 11 NEWS shared her memories of Billy Taylor. The crowd was surprised to hear about her connection to the late pianist. It turns out she was in the same third grade class as Taylor's daughter Kim. Hickey reminisced, ' On Parent's Career Day, Billy Taylor played the piano and all the kids were impressed with Kim's father. We thought Billy Taylor was so cool.' Hickey went on to mentioned that as she got older, she could see that Billy Taylor was firmly committed to jazz. When Hickey was a reporter at WCBS-Channel 2 News, she ran into Taylor at the CBS News Sunday Morning studio. At that time, Billy Taylor had a regular weekly segment on the show. Taylor told Hickey, 'I'm bringing jazz to those who don't know jazz.' Hickey concluded by saying, 'This is a great day for a jazz musician who gave back to his community.'
The recollections took a break for some musical enjoyment. A trio consisting of Danny Mixon on piano, Wilfred Harper on drums and Chip Jackson played bass. They played Billy Taylor's 'Back Home' up on the make shift stage. The tune started slow and then developed into a fast lively piece. It was interesting to see the trio swinging away against the traffic of cars that was coming off the 138th Street Bridge. It should be noted that Wilfred Harper and Chip Jackson played with Taylor and both were part of his final working band.
Flutist Bobbi Humpreys recalled meeting Billy Taylor in 1970 when she first came to New York City. She said, 'Billy stressed the importance of authenticity. Billy was a chorus of excellence and saw jazz as a powerful figure and not as background music.'
Humpreys finished out by indirectly touching on the subject of lack of musical education in high school and today's restless youth in the inner cities. She stated, 'Billy Taylor knew if you put a instrument in a child's hand, it would give the child the power to be positive.'
Jazz drummer TS Monk spoke of attending and playing in the JazzMoblie concerts in the late sixties. He recall seeing Billy Taylor at the Newport Jazz Festival each year as a child. His father the pianist Thelonious Monk played the festival for many
years. TS Monk joked, 'As a child, I grew up thinking Billy Taylor was just a MC in life. People forget that he was the MC for the festival for many years. It wasn't till I got older that I realize that he was a piano player.' Monk also told a story that Taylor told him many years ago. When Billy Taylor first came to New York, a fellow piano player took him to the home of pianist James P. Johnson. Willie 'The Lion' Smith the piano player was there as well as other piano players. There was a piano in the living room and Billy Taylor ended playing it. Everyone was impressed with his playing. A fellow piano player came up to Taylor and personally congratulated him. Billy Taylor gave praise back to this player. It turned out that the piano player happened to be Thelonious Monk. TS Monk then stated the point of this story, 'Billy Taylor was a example of greatness recognizing greatness.'
The trio of musicians came back out this time with Antoinette Montaque. They performed 'I Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free.' It is one of Billy Taylor's most famous tunes and was written during the turbulent civil rights movement in 1964. It is a jazz tune that is a mixture of blues and a spiritual. The melody itself can invoke a sense of sadness when it's played. But the group and Antoinette Montaque performed it in a very upbeat joyous gospel way rather than a sad blues. The song's message was still very apparent with the group invoking a upbeat feeling of a new day is coming soon. Afterwards, the trio finished out the set with 'All The Things You Are.'
Newcomer Christian Sands spoke and pointed out that Billy Taylor lived in the corner building 2065 Fifth Avenue right in front of the street sign. Sands talked about appearing with Taylor at the Kennedy Center of the Arts. Sands finished out by talking about how much he learned from him, but more importantly considered Billy Taylor a friend.
At the Charlie Palmieri ceremony the day before, politicians dominated the event. Here it was in reverse with musicians and friends. Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright spoke on how great it was for the sign to bear Taylor's name in front of his former residence. Wright also talked about himself growing up in this neighborhood and how his late father, Judge Bruce Wright knew Billy Taylor and many other musicians. Wright introduced Congressman Charlie Rangel to the stage.
Looking fit and tan like the day before, Rangel stated, 'Billy Taylor has not left us completely. We still have his music to listen to. What a person, what a talent who was so great on the keys.' Rangel would go on to talk about the jazz clubs he loved attending while growing up in Harlem.
The pianist Geri Allen when it came for her to talk, had to deal with a microphone that was slowly dying out. But she managed to tell the crown clearly about Billy Taylor and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. where he worked at the jazz program. Geri Allen went to talk how Taylor was not just a great influence on her as a piano player, but as a person as well.
The last official speaker was Taylor's daughter Kim Taylor Thompson. She spoke of growing up in Riverton Houses and how her father's classic tune, 'I Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free' was written right here at 2065 Fifth Avenue. She also spoke about her father being committed to jazz. and how he saw that the downtown clubs were becoming too pricey for many to attend. She said, 'My father saw JazzMoblie as a way to bring jazz to neighborhoods like Harlem and around the five boroughs.'
Everyone gathered around for the unveiling of
'Dr. Billy Taylor Way' street sign and huge cheer with applause was given.
These two events honoring Charlie Pamieri and Billy Taylor was in many ways a great kickoff to the summer 2014 season. But in a larger scale, it was a great way to honor the world of jazz and latin music. Hopefully, this is a sign of events to come.
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