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Eddie Palmieri: Now A True 'Jazz Master'

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Pianist Eddie Palmieri has been given many nicknames. He's been called The Latin Monk because of his Thelonious Monk-inspired dissonances. He's been called The Piano Breaker Man, because he hits the keys so hard. He's even been called the 'madman of Latin music.' He's taken many of the innovations of modern jazz pianists and brought them into his Latin bands. But he's never stopped playing good dance music.

In 1994, Palmieri's lobbying culminated in the announcement of a new Grammy Award category for Afro-Caribbean Jazz.

"I proposed the category to give proper distinction to that segment of jazz music based on rhythmical elements and instrumentation of Africa, as opposed to jazz which developed from blues, gospel and other expressions of African-Americans," he told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 1994.

Now the great Latin band leader has just receive another honor: a Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, for his lifetime of achievement in jazz.

To celebrate, Fresh Air honors Palmieri with excerpts from a 1994 conversation about his work.


Interview Highlights

On why his mother wanted him to learn piano when he wanted to play the drums

"Well, because she passed the Depression here. And actually, in 1929, she was here already. She arrived in '25. And a lesson was 25 cents, and the idea was you couldn't--you know, try to get the 25 cents. With $1.25, they made a whole grocery shopping. It's amazing what happened in the years of the Depression. And because my brother was already playing piano and he was nine years older than me, then my mother certainly insisted on me to play piano, too. And I did. And I couldn't thank her, you know, enough for that."

On Tito Rodriguez

"He was so sharp. The orchestra all in uniform because he was the best singer that we had here as far as an orchestra leader, and he had the preparations to do it. And he just kept improving constantly because of his competitive edge, you know, that he always had with Mr. Tito Puente. If Tito Puente played vibes, Tito Rodriguez wanted to learn how to play vibes, you know? It was one of those things. He just couldn't stand--you know, mostly Tito Rodriguez towards Tito Puente. There was something that just irked him, you know, but when I was working with him from the year '58 to '60, I certainly learned a tremendous amount from Mr. Tito Rodriguez, and may he rest in peace, but he knows that he's in my heart."

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