Early in his career, beginning in the 1950s, the pianist and bandleader Eddie Palmieri used to play mambo shows at the Palladium Ballroom, on Broadway at 53rd Street. The Ed Sullivan Theater was just across the street but seemed to belong to a different, distant world: while Sullivan’s popular Sunday night TV show was happy to book the likes of Señor Wences, the Spanish ventriloquist, the frenetically danceable Latin music that Mr. Palmieri played was thought to lack mainstream appeal.
But on Friday and Saturday, Jazz at Lincoln Center will sponsor a retrospective of Mr. Palmieri’s career at the Rose Theater, seven blocks north of his old stomping grounds. Next month he will perform in a show at the Kennedy Center in Washington; also next month the National Endowment for the Arts willl induct him as a “jazz master,” putting him in the company of keyboard luminaries like Count Basie, Dave Brubeck and Herbie Hancock.
“It’s about time,” said Robert Farris Thompson, the Yale cultural historian whose latest book, “Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music,” includes an essay on Mr. Palmieri. “We’re talking about one of the great figures in American vernacular music, a multifaceted world-class musician who blends and zigzags between cultures, between the modern and the ancient, going past all boundaries.”
Mr. Palmieri, an ebullient bantam of a man who turns 76 on Saturday, said he welcomed the distinctions coming his way, but also found a certain irony in them. He was born in Spanish Harlem and raised in the Bronx as part of an extended family that had recently migrated from Puerto Rico, and when he was playing stickball in the streets with Cuban and Puerto Rican music pouring out of nearby bodegas, he said jazz was the furthest thing from his thoughts.
“When I was growing up, I knew nothing about jazz, really, and I didn’t like it because I didn’t comprehend it,” he said last week. “My whole life was dedicated to Latin music.” Even now, he added: “I play jazz and use jazz structures and harmony. But I’m not really a jazz pianist, which makes this award unique.”
To both jazz and Latin music fans, Mr. Palmieri’s unusual style is instantly recognizable. His songs often feature angular melodies and modal passages, and he plays emphatically, almost like a percussionist, with lots of chord clusters, some containing hints of dissonance. On the mambo circuit, he recalls, he attacked the piano with such force that he was given the nickname Pancho Rompetecla, or Pancho the Keyboard Breaker.
Not coincidentally, Mr. Palmieri began his career as a percussionist, playing timbales at the age of 13 in bands led by or featuring his older brother, Charlie, a pianist who was his first big musical influence. He jokes that he switched back to the piano, which he had studied as a child, only because he got tired of hauling percussion gear around and wanted to save money by playing an instrument that club owners had to provide.
Read more: Larry Rohter, NY Times