Eddie Palmieri is one of the most important figures in the history of Latin music. Over his six-decade career, the 78-year-old pianist, composer, and arranger has demonstrated total mastery of the music’s traditions—and an astonishing ability to expand them. With his landmark 1975 album, The Sun of Latin Music, he was the first musician to win a Latin GRAMMY®—his first of nine such awards. He received a Jazz Masters award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his music is enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.


eddie-smallIt’s hard to say which is more widely admired: Palmieri’s electrifying compositions. His adventurous and rhythmically potent piano work. Or the genre-busting arrangements that blur the lines between jazz and Afro-Caribbean music, sometimes melded with funk and R&B. Just don’t call his music “salsa,” a term Palmieri hates.

“Salsa is a misnomer,” he states. “Those rhythmic patterns all have proper names: guaracha, son montuno, danzón, mambo, cha-cha-cha. They lumped them together under the word salsa to commercialize the music. But they removed its essence—the tension and resistance—and what you have left is just Latin pop. It’s just a singer and a bland arrangement. Nowadays, if you go dancing with a partner, you should bring two pillows, because you’re going to fall asleep on the dance floor.”

Palmieri was born in New York City, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants. Eddie was the family’s second musical genius—his older brother Charlie, who passed away in 1988, was a pianist/bandleader responsible for many classic Latin recordings.

“Charlie was my complete inspiration,” says Palmieri. “At 14, he was playing professionally. We got along so wonderfully, and I miss him dearly.”

Eddie started as a singer, accompanied by Charlie. He took up piano at age eight, though his first gigs were playing timbales. “By 13 I was playing professionally,” Palmieri recalls. “But my mother would say, ‘Eduardo, don’t you see how beautiful your brother looks when he goes to work and doesn’t have to carry an instrument? When will you learn?’ So I switched to the piano.”

Meanwhile, the young pianist took the train from his Bronx home to Manhattan for lessons with famed pianist/composer Margaret Bonds. “But my greatest teacher,” Palmieri says, “was Mr. Bob Bianco, who took me into the world of Joseph Schillinger.” The theories of Schillinger, a composition teacher and mathematician who numbered George Gershwin among his students, still inform Palmieri’s compositions to this day.

Palmieri credits Bianco with setting him on the path of composing and arranging. “He took me into the harmonic world of jazz. Through him, I started to get the confidence to write.”

Palmieri played with some of the era’s leading bands, but he made history with his own group, La Perfecta. Their self-titled 1962 debut won raves for blending adventurous jazz harmonies with traditional rhythms. Even on the first of his 37 albums, Palmieri broke boundaries.

His creativity has never let up. Every album is a gem, though several were particularly influential, including the 1965 smash Azucar Pa’ Ti and the groundbreaking Latin/R&B fusion of 1971’s Harlem River Drive. Palmieri’s albums are an explosive mix of adventurous harmony and complex rhythm. “Everything we do is rhythm,” he says. “Just moving is rhythm. Rhythm is the underlying principle of music.”

Palmieri has played many pianos over the years, but he currently favors aYamaha AvantGrand N3. “I can’t play an acoustic piano live, because you can’t amplify it enough to cut through the band without getting feedback,” he says. “So I’ve got to have a Yamaha N3. It’s like a small grand, but it’s electric. I like its percussive sound, because piano is a percussion instrument. It’s my favorite instrument to play now.”

Some 65 years after his first professional gigs, Palmieri continues to tour, record, and teach at Rutgers University. He’s also preparing his next album: a tribute to Iraida Palmieri, his recently deceased wife of 60 years.

“I’m dedicating it to her,” he says. “I’m calling it La Luz Mayor—‘My major light.’ The music goes back to the roots of what doesn’t exist anymore. Our genre is in a disastrous state. It’s the saddest part of my life, a dismal feeling in my heart and soul. The only thing I can do about it is record the way it’s supposed to be done.” The disc will feature surviving greats from the genre’s golden era, as well as guitarist Carlos Santana.

Despite his grave assessment of lightweight Latin music, Palmieri’s passion for the real stuff still burns. “You have to live this music,” he declares. “You have to love it. It’s the pulse of my life. Latin jazz combines the highest harmonic structures of jazz with the world’s most exciting rhythmic patterns, the ones from Africa filtered through Cuba. I don’t guess I’m going to excite you with my music and my band—I know it.”