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Jazz Master Eddie Palmieri Doesn't Miss A Beat at 81



Grammy-winning pianist, National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, composer and bandleader Eddie Palmieri has been a mainstay in big band Latin dance music for years. His roots go back to the golden days of big band mambo in the 1950s of New York City. But he has always been at the cutting edge of Latin jazz and dance music, even at 81 years old. "Sabiduria" is Eddie Palmieri's first album in 10 years, and he joins us now from our studios in New York. Welcome.

EDDIE PALMIERI: Oh, good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Good morning to you. Your birthday was Friday. Happy birthday, sir.

PALMIERI: My birthday was Friday. I was 31 years old.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We got your age wrong. I'm sorry for that...

PALMIERI: No, no, no, no. The reason is there was a great trumpet player called Chocolate Armenteros who died at 92. And he taught me that after 50, you must start counting by one again. Now, one, two, three. So I'm now 31 with 50 years of experience behind me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) So speaking of years, it's been 10 years since we've heard new music from you. How come?

PALMIERI: Well, the music business has changed so drastically. It's a sadness in my heart. It's nothing like the way I was weaned into the business. What we have now is the major companies doing Latin pop and nothing to do with the genre of Afro-Caribbean music that started Afro-Cuban music.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Speaking of Afro-Caribbean music, the first song on your album is "Cuerdas Y Tumbao." Let's listen.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: The name gives it away. It's got all the elements of Afro-Cuban music. Tell me about it.

PALMIERI: That is Alfredo de la Fe on violin - Cuban and a master violinist.


PALMIERI: And on top of that, every musician that's on that CD is a legend in his own right. And my son Eddie Palmieri II was able to put them all together. And that CD will be there forever for any young student that wants to learn how to play any instrument that's on that CD. He can't go any further than that. That is the maximum.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to turn to another song on the album. It's called "Life," and it's about, actually, the death of your wife. Let's listen to that.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me the story of how this came about.

PALMIERI: Oh, that's - you're putting a very, very wonderful feeling in my heart because that's my girlfriend for 62 years. And she is the one that directed me in everything of my career. She heard "Life" when I was writing it as she was dying the second time she got cancer. And I couldn't be more elated that she heard it, and she loved it. I do know that when I was recording it, my son always puts her on the phone, and she was hearing me recording it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So she heard it over the phone while she was dying. Your son was holding the phone up to her so she could hear...

PALMIERI: Yes. He always did that when we were doing concerts, but Iraida Consade Plana (ph) was one of the most incredible women. And she is - I mean, there's nothing that I can say that she didn't do for me. Her life was me. And until the day I die, I will dedicate all my music to her.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: You grew up in Spanish Harlem.

PALMIERI: I was born in Spanish Harlem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And you are, of course, of Puerto Rican descent. And I want to ask you about the island because, you know, Puerto Rico's obviously been through a lot this year after Hurricane Maria.

PALMIERI: Oh, yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I just wondered how the Nuyorican community has been dealing with it.

PALMIERI: Well, they're doing the best they can. We're very resilient, you know, under conditions that exist that we have to deal with. It was unfortunate that the greatest country in the world, the United States, didn't come to Puerto Rico's aid sooner than when it did and better than what it did and more certainly, especially when our president was throwing paper towels at them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to listen now to the song named after the album, "Sabiduria."


GARCIA-NAVARRO: When people look at your legacy - I mean, you're one of the giants of music and Latin jazz in particular. What do you think your legacy will be?

PALMIERI: Well, I have to then relate now to a great philosopher called Aristotle. And he said merely that an artist or a musician is an inspired madman. So Eddie Palmieri was an inspired madman and a sincere student of music.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Eddie Palmieri's album "Sabiduria" - thank you so very much for your time.

PALMIERI: Thank you so much.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: You can listen to a five-song Spotify playlist of Eddie Palmieri's classics chosen by NPR's Felix Contreras on our website Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.