In conversation with bobby sanabria

by Eugene Marlow

Intense. Intense. Intense. Add to this passion, dedication, encyclopedic historical references, a strong sense of professionalism and discipline, a genuine generosity of spirit, and a down-to-earth Nuyorican attitude and vocabulary and you have pretty much described multi-Grammy-nominated “Drummer of the Year” composer, arranger, producer and educator Bobby Sanabria.

                                                      Bobby Sanabria

Sanabria’s latest Grammy-nominated album, Big Band Urban Folktales (JazzHeads 2007) is testimony to Sanabria’s eclectic musical worldview. With cuts ranging from the traditional (“Besame Mucho”) to the irreverent (Frank Zappa’s “The Grand Wazoo”) Sanabria once again shows his mettle by melding the old and the new, the traditional with the innovative. In a conversation with’s Eugene Marlow, Sanabria talks about the past, present, and future of the jazz tradition, and a host of other topics.

I have seen you perform on many occasions and it doesn’t make any difference if you’ve had two minutes, two hours or two days of sleep, maybe you just got off a plane from another gig from another city. But you always put in one hundred and ten percent of energy into your performance and you always engage the audience. It doesn’t seem to make any difference the context, whether it has a thousand people in the audience or there are fifty people in the audience. What drives you to perform at this level all the time?

I just love playing and performing. That is the only thing I can tell you. I really don’t subscribe to the approach that well there’s only a few people in the audience, so I am not going to perform that well. I guess I have a similar kind of work ethic to what actors have, the way they are trained to always be on even if there are only a few people in the audience. I’ve always felt you would be cheating people if you didn’t give them one hundred and ten percent or even more than that.

When I was older I started reading stories about people like drummer Buddy Rich. There is that famous story that when Dizzy Gillespie meets Buddy Rich for the first time it was at a jam session with Charlie Parker. Dizzy goes to Charlie and says, “Hey, your friend Bernard is crazy,” and Parker says “What are you talking about?” Gillespie says, “He plays every tune like it is the last time he is ever going to play it.” Parker says “I thought that is the way it was supposed to be.” They both laughed.

Have you always been this way or did one of your early mentors give you this kind of work ethic?

I have always been this way. From when I was a young kid in school, everything I approached I approached intensely -- which helped me a lot when I was younger. I was very much into sports. I am not a large person by any stretch, but that kind of intensity, I guess it is really passion that helped me in sports a lot and I just transferred that into music. I am a child of the sixties and seventies. Those were very intense times, politically, socially and musically. I grew up in the south Bronx in the projects. It was pretty intense growing up in that kind of environment.

What kind of sports were you into?

Major sports, baseball, football and track and field in high school. I did very well in track and field in high school.

Where did you go to high school?

Cardinal Hayes in the South Bronx. Track and field was very interesting because other than relay races, basically besides being a physical sport, it’s a mental sport because you are basically alone. It is not really a team sport. To this day I like to watch track and field on TV, what little of it is left in terms of being broadcast. Basketball. I was very much into basketball also. All those sports helped me tremendously as a drummer and a percussionist.

How so?

Because of your reflexes and strategy and how you approach things, especially when you are a drummer. Being a drummer you have the most powerful position because you actually lead the group. Whether most drummers know that or not, that is the truth. It is like Panama Frances used to say, “The drummer drives, everybody else rides.”

The usual cliché about a jazz band is that the bass player leads, not the drummer.

Bass players and most people have been under the wrong assumption for years. The bass player, you could say, leads harmonically, but really it is the drummer who is the driving force and the instantaneous arranger on the bandstand. You can have a great band but if it doesn’t have a great drummer that great band will be reduced to mediocrity. If you have some musicians who are not that great but you have a great drummer, all of the sudden it raises the level of intensity and performance to another level. Drummers don’t really don’t get the recognition and the deserved kudos they should get.

Why is that?

Because drummers aren’t looked at as musicians. For many, many years that was the case. Most drummers were not as proficient on the technical side of music as, say, a saxophone player, trumpeter, bass player, pianist, or a trombonist because drummers, for the most part, in jazz groups, especially in small jazz groups, don’t read music. But that has completely changed over the last, I would say, thirty years and even going back further because you have drummers now who are fantastic writers and arrangers.

Give me a couple of examples.

Well, the most immediate example that comes to mind is Tito Puente as an all around musician. He is the epitome of musical excellence: an arranger, composer, incredible virtuoso on percussion.

And a dancer.

Yeah, a great dancer. A great vibes player. A lot of people don’t know he was also a great piano player, and he played clarinet and alto saxophone. He was the quintessential bandleader. He was a pretty good drummer and the reason he was such an incredible player was he studied drums formally and transferred that technical aspect to other instruments, particularly the timbales. He is a great example of what drummer Max Roach said. Max Roach used to say any change in music in any form of music always historically starts with the instruments of rhythm. In other words, when those instruments start changing the way they are played and approach the music, then you start getting innovation in music. Of course, at the center of that in terms of the world of jazz and Afro-Cuban music or Latin-American music in general are the drums and the percussion.

Let’s talk a little bit about Afro-Cuban and Latin music. What, in your opinion, is the status of that music today? There was a strong heyday for Afro-Cuban music in the forties and fifties starting with Mario Bauzá and others and there is a whole lineage of people in that category. Where is it today and where do you think it is going?

As far as Afro-Cuban music being at an incredibly high level of visibility in the mainstream in the forties and fifties you have to understand that at the time Cuba was open to travel. Not only obviously to the world, but also to the United States and it was an essential port of entertainment. Of course, that involved casinos, gambling and prostitution. It was the Las Vegas of the day. That changed dramatically because of what happened politically: the takeover of Cuba by Fidel Castro and then the trade embargo in 1960 and then the travel embargo in 1962. So, the epicenter of the music was disconnected from the United States.

The recording industry stopped recording artists from Cuba -- all the mainstream labels that had artists signed from Cuba and from other parts of Latin America. They stopped; they cut off the source of the music, the entertainment industry. All the casinos closed in Cuba, the hotels, all that closed. So the music went underground and the epicenter became New York City, especially with the Puerto Rican community that adopted the music and kept it alive and forced it forward. It is kind of sad because from a cultural standpoint in mainstream America the music disappeared and then with the advent of the British Invasion, the epicenter of the industry we know as music completely changed and that also was basically a deaf knell to jazz in terms of jazz maintaining its position as a main stream music.

Didn’t that really change right after World War II with bebop coming along and swing ceasing to be a part of the popular culture and then add to that rock and roll?

I think that was the beginning of the end, especially when Frank Sinatra came on the scene as a vocalist. Many historians point to Frank Sinatra as killing jazz as a popular or instrumental music in general as a popular mainstream form.

How so?

Because the emphasis was on the singer becoming this incredible larger than life entity who would be getting radio airplay that was promoted by the publicity machinery of the large labels, etc., and it killed instrumental music. Don’t get me wrong. Jazz was still a viable force in the 1950s, even up until the early sixties, but once the British Invasion came in, forget it. Once the transistor radio was developed, I think it was 1956 or 1955, which coincidently was the height of the mambo era, once the transistor radio was invented, southern white kids started listening to African-American music, R & B, everything started changing and it happened very, very rapidly. We live in a society where everything happens almost instantaneously.

But, as you know, jazz was still a viable force to a certain extent and even had a small kind of resurgence in the late sixties, early seventies with the fusion movement, which to me, was an incredibly creative time period. You had certain groups opening up for rock bands, like John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra opening up for Aerosmith. People like Larry Coryell, the Eleventh House, etc. Of course, Miles Davis became the darling of the rock set. Everybody from Crosby Stills and Nash to the Grateful Dead were into Miles Davis after the Bitches Brew album. But slowly but surely the mainstream ties that jazz used to have to mainstream audiences disappeared.

This all relates to politics. When Ronald Reagan deregulated the FCC, all of a sudden all of these radio stations were up for sale and Viacom and Clear Channel bought up all them. They made them into pop, rock and MOR stations, over a thousand radio stations. Most of them were jazz and black oriented music stations. That really killed jazz. Today we only have I think about six or seven stations left in the country that play jazz.

That are purely jazz stations?

That are purely jazz stations. That is like an infamnia, like people in the mob would say. Which is ironic too, because they had so many ties to the music industry. It is sacrilege we only have six or seven jazz stations in the country right now. I don’t even know if that is the exact figure, it might be less.

What would it take for it to change?

It would take cultural consciousness. The public’s perception of the music would have to be completely retooled and the only way to do that is through education, through increased jazz radio and people who are always talking about how much they love jazz, like a lot of the people who are rock stars promoting the music. They always say they love jazz, that they listen to jazz. They need to make a concerted effort to start talking about the music and the great artists etc., who perform the music. In terms of education, not only the public’s perception of the music, we have to start making jazz part of the curriculum of every public school student in the United States. That is not so farfetched because you figure that this music is the greatest contribution this country has brought to the world.

I think you mean culturally.

Culturally, yeah. It should be part of the curriculum of every public school student. That doesn’t mean every public school student has to start playing a tenor saxophone, but it should be part of the curriculum, such as Social Studies. As soon as you get to the fifth grade jazz has to be taught as part of American history. It is a great tool for demonstrating multiculturalism, how people came together, the evolution of this country, and all the other popular music forms we have today come from it. Without jazz we don’t have anything that is happening today in the popular music world. And, of course, within the realm of jazz we have to talk about the blues, obviously, because the blues is part of all popular forms of music in one way or another -- whether it is a rock guitarist playing some blues licks or one of these pop-tart singers I hear all the time singing with a blues inflection.

I would like to talk to you about a parallel issue here. You are a dedicated educator. You teach at the Manhattan School of Music and the New School in New York City. And at every performance I have ever seen you do, including when you are fronting your own big band, you are an educator, a teacher talking about the background of the music and the composers and the performers and the historical context. Parallel to this, in the last twelve months or so there have been some press about the fact that there are hundreds of jazz programs at the high school, college and post graduate level and all of these young people, all of these musicians are very well trained being churned out from these programs, but there are not enough places for them to play. How do you respond to that?

A lot of them have to move to other parts of the world if they want to play this music. People talk about the war in the Middle East, but I am more concerned about what is happening here with this very issue. We seem to be like ancient Rome. It took one thousand years for the Roman Empire to fall. The same thing seems to be happening in this country, but obviously at a very rapid, rapid rate because we live in a technological society. Jazz is the best representation of what this country has to offer--from a spiritual level, from an intellectual level, obviously from a completely artistic level. It represents intelligence, but with strong spiritual roots. It has a very visceral quality. It has everything that anybody would ever want in terms of something that challenges your mind and excites the human organism.

And I am talking about all forms of Jazz. When I say “jazz” I am talking about the whole entire realm or scope of the art form. Depending on who you talk to, they have different opinions of what jazz is and we live unfortunately right now in a very, very conservative time where this whole neo-traditionalist movement is choking the creative possibilities of the art form. I think the last incredible creative time period in jazz was during the fusion era when people experimented with combining rock with jazz, combining different types of world music with Jazz. A perfect example of that was Weather Report and the recently departed Joe Zawinul. If you don’t believe me in terms of my opinion regarding the conservativeness in jazz, all you have to do is look at the jazz polls for the best fifty albums of the last year.

What would it take for things to change?

Well, jazz is a music to me that represents three things: truth, freedom and revolution. Artists like myself and others that I think are pushing the envelope in terms of the various forms that were involved in jazz need to be heard more. That is why I am glad you are interviewing me because I get a chance to discuss these issues, but we need a chance to perform and get out there and the critics themselves have to be more open-minded. They need to take a look at themselves and realize all this great music that is happening out there, especially in terms of world forms of jazz. By that I mean, anything that is outside of the normal, like straight-ahead swing. Artists who are combining Columbian rhythms with jazz, combining Brazilian rhythms with jazz, combining Middle Eastern rhythms with jazz, artists who are utilizing rhythmic structures from the world of rock with jazz -- all these types of jazz forms need to be explored more by the critics.

It is funny to me. We are kind of, in a sense, going backwards. For example, a person who was progressively minded and had a futuristic conception of composition and performance was a person like Don Ellis, performing in the sixties and seventies. There is nobody like that today. Look at the Don Ellis big band. Imagine a whole big band with the trumpet section, saxophone section, the trombones all electrified with wa-wa pedals.

I saw his orchestra perform in San Francisco in the early seventies.

The whole string section had wa-wa pedals and different electronic devices. He invented a four-valve trumpet so he and his trumpet section could play quartertones. Amazing. And forget about the stuff he did without meters. The time period right now in jazz is not conducive to free thinkers like that because it so, so conservative. We have got to break down those walls of conservatism. Historians always say that art reflects the time period it is created in, so it saddens me, but it doesn’t surprise me because we live in very, very, very conservative times in this country and that is reflected worldwide. There are great artists doing things in the world of what we call jazz, voices that are not being heard or they are not being written about, or, for whatever reason, people are not getting to hear their music. A part of that is the fact that we only have about seven or six jazz radio stations left in the country. All you have to do is look at who is popular, who are the highest selling artists in jazz today. They are mostly vocalists, I believe.

Diana Krall, Dee Dee Bridgewater?

Exactly. Now, they are great artists but they aren’t really doing anything new in terms of the art form and that is not to disparage anything they are doing. They are vocalists and they do the established repertoire that is part of the American songbook. It is very non-threatening, so it gets played on the radio. Not only on the little jazz radio that is left, but also on middle of the road stations, and what we call smooth jazz.

Now that is not to say that rock and hip-hop are at the same cerebral level as jazz, but I respect those art forms just as much as I respect the art form I represent, the jazz tradition, because those art forms came from jazz, but I think most jazz musicians, when they get mad about the way things are and they put down other forms of music, I think it is coming more from the fact that jazz is not getting the same play as those other art forms.

In the jazz world everything is downscaled. If you are talking about a rock concert, on a small level, you are talking about maybe five thousand people. . . In jazz you are talking about filling up a club with three hundred seats at most. There is no comparison. We have jazz festivals, but little by little, even the ones in Europe are starting to book artists who are outside the realm of jazz to attract people to come to these festivals.

These are issues that have to be brought to the table by the jazz community and addressed. For this music to survive, we have to illuminate the minds of young people and show them how this incredible art form relates to their cultural experience. That is the only way the music is going to grow and survive.

I will give you an example. I used to be able to buy Down Beat at any newsstand in the Bronx when I was a kid. Now I can’t even find it in Manhattan. That tells you a lot. I did see one interesting glimmer of hope though. The other day I was walking by a bus stop in the Bronx and I saw an ad in the bus shelter for Diana Krall’s new album. I did a double take and I looked at it and I said, “Oh my God, wow. So that means people from the ‘hood are going to be waiting at that bus stop and looking at that ad and saying ‘I wonder who this person is.’” It was funny. I saw a couple of young brothers standing at the bus stop saying, “Do you know who this lady is?” The other one says, “Nah dude, what the f--- does she do, bro?” I started talking to them: “Man she is a great jazz singer. She’s married to Elvis Costello,” and they go, “There was only one Elvis, bro.”

A closing question. If there were one question you would like to be asked that you would like to talk about, what would that question be and what would the answer be?

If I wanted to talk about one thing?

What would it be?

I wasn’t expecting that. Let me try to give the hippest answer I possibly can. I probably would want to talk about two people: Buddy Rich and Tito Puente.

Why those two?

Because they are fascinating. Those two completely lived and represented the American experience. They were born during the time of vaudeville. They experienced that world. They experienced modern technology developing over the 20th century. They were child prodigies: Buddy as a tap dancer and a drummer, and Tito as a piano player, dancer, and a drummer. They were child performers. Tito’s first recording, I believe, was when he was sixteen years old, with vocalist Johnny Rodriquez on a recording called Johnny Rodriquez and his Stork Club Orchestra. I have a taped copy of that. It is amazing. Buddy always performed as a child star. He and Jackie Coogan were like the highest paid child stars at the time. Then they went on to serve their country with distinction. Tito in the Navy, Buddy in the Marines and then as bandleaders after the war they completely revolutionized their art forms. Tito on the timbales and Buddy on the drums. Beyond that, Tito, as an arranger and a composer, completely revolutionized what we know as Afro-Cuban dance music in terms of bringing it into the modern day world. He was just amazing. I think if you just looked at Tito only as an arranger, his place in history would be cemented. And Buddy with his championing of the big band to the very day he died. Besides growing up in the vaudeville era, they completely made the transition through every era of jazz, from swing to bebop to cool jazz, hard bop, jazz rock, etc. and survived. Pretty amazing guys, both of them. Fascinating.

Obviously your heroes.

And Albert Einstein. I am reading his biography, Walter Isaacson’s book on Albert Einstein. He is another one of my heroes.

How many jazz musicians read about Einstein?

I’ve got a lot of heroes. Those are just three of them. I am just the sum total of everybody I have listened to and that is all reflected on my album, Big Band Urban Folktales. A lot of people have commented, how could somebody who is Puerto Rican from the South Bronx be into Frank Zappa?

Why not?

Yeah, I say why not.

My father told me, good music is good music. Unfortunately, young people today don’t get a chance to hear the variety of music that is out there, that is really good and hence we have this dumbing down of society now. This generation is going to inherit what we leave them and then the generation after them is going to inherit that. We kind of are living in dire straits right now. People are so concerned about whether the world is going to get blown up or whether they are going to have a paycheck to pay for their house or apartment that they are forgetting about “Man, I need to nurture my mind, intellectually and spiritually.” You do that by obviously reading the great works of literature, but you do that primarily by listening to music and it just saddens me that a fifteen-year-old or fourteen-year-old African-American kid doesn’t know who John Coltrane is or Duke Ellington. It saddens me that a fourteen-year-old kid from New York City that maybe is of Puerto Rican descent doesn’t know who Tito Puente is. It saddens me in general that most people don’t know who Tito Puente is. People like Tito Puente are true Americans. It goes beyond the fact that he was a person of Puerto Rican descent, that he grew up in New York. This guy is an American icon, as is Buddy Rich, as is Jimi Hendrix, as is Leonard Bernstein, and you could name a bunch of other people.

The other thing I wanted to mention is this. I was thinking about your first question about where I get this drive to always exude on stage. I was witness when I was a child to great performances by people like Buddy Rich and Tito Puente and Jimi Hendrix and when I saw them I was fortunate. You always model yourself off those epiphanies that you have and each time I saw or heard these people, people like vibraphonist Cal Tjader and John Coltrane, I heard them at their maximum, playing to their maximum capabilities. That taught me that when you go up there on stage you are not supposed to be bull-shiting, that what you do is a gift and you should take it very, very seriously. I don’t take myself seriously. I always laugh at myself, but I take my profession very, very seriously.

That is obvious.

And that is why I love the jazz world because when you get up there people basically judge you on what you say on the instrument and if what you say is something that is revolutionary, truthful and shows the freedom of thought that you have, then it doesn’t matter what your ethnic background is. You are accepted as a person of this world. Now saying that doesn’t really transfer that well into the world of critics and radio sometimes, so that is a barrier, a Rubicon we still have to cross. I am very happy this new album has helped to do that because a lot of people have been talking about it, people I respect. I want to be able to bridge that gap, especially for Latino musicians who have always been involved in the jazz world, to get the respect they so rightfully deserve. You asked me before what the future holds. Well, the future of jazz is in Latin America. And we are at the epicenter of that movement. Just listen to my Big Band Urban Folktales CD and you’ll hear why.

Terrific. Thank you Bobby Sanabria.

Bobby Sanabria’s web site is and is part of the JazzCorner community of hundreds of official jazz web sites and more.


March 18, 2008 · 1 comment

  • 1 Marvin Sparks // Mar 19, 2008 at 07:45 PM
    Am awesome interview with a real musician, educator, and person. There is much wisdom in the words he speaks!!! Kudos to Bobby S from Sparks!!!