Conversation with Bobby Sanabria

Conversation with Bobby Sanabria

Bobby Sanabria talking about jazz is music in its own right. Think about it, even his name sounds like a drum solo: bob-by-sa-nab-ria! When he talks, there’s rhythm, there’s depth, there are nods to the greats and visions of the future, and there’s his trademark ability to expand the listener’s mind. You may not know the first thing about drums and Afro-Cuban jazz but once you watch him explain the basics, you will question the quality of life without a drum set. It’s not that only his passion for jazz is contagious; Bobby Sanabria will infect you and teach you how to pass on the virus.

K: Your audience is always presented with such an incredible mix of music, history and culture that one can’t help but wonder: how do you always manage to send a message in every single piece that you play?

B: Well, that’s easy because I love music, I love what I do. I feel that a great way to connect with the audience is to explain to them what the pieces are about — it gives them a doorway into the culture. What happens with music is that most people just don’t understand it. They don’t know it has rich history that’s tied directly to the history of the country, so my job is show that door to people so they can go through it. Once they learn about the music and culture, they all fall in love with it as well.

K: There are people whose lives were about to go a million wrong ways but luckily, they found salvation in music. You once said that music doesn’t exist without spirituality. Is spirituality the power that allows music to play such a significant role in people’s lives?

B: I think the main job of music besides entertaining someone is to inspire them. Music inspired me when I was young. It enriches your life and takes you to a different place. Most definitely, yes, spirituality has lots to do with it. In terms of what we do, particularly Latin jazz, that spiritual connection is inherited in music because the rhythms we utilize stem from West and Central Africa.

K: Do you agree that history finds its reflection in music? Does music become just an emotional outlet in times of major social changes?

B: Most forms of music are emotional, whether it’s punk rock or Latin jazz. Art, in general, provides an avenue of escape for everyone, so that’s just a given. When you hear music, you could tell in what time period it was made, whether it’s Miles Davis playing music from Bitches Brew album in the 1970s or Charlie Parker playing Ko-Ko in the 1940’s. Music is always a reflection of the time period it was made in, in all the aspects — the melody, the rhythm, the harmony.

K: The public generally doesn’t draw the connection between jazz and Latin rhythms. What do you think is the reason behind listeners being so oblivious of the roots of music? Is it the lack of education or the absence of the desire to explore?

B: The reasons are ignorance, racism, cultural imperialism [laughs]. Most Americans don’t even know much about jazz, which is the greatest American art form. You would think that most Americans know about the greatest art form that this country has produced. Yet today in the mainstream culture the subject of jazz almost doesn’t exist. There are a lot of reasons for that. The tendency in this country is to downplay culture and not appreciate it. Unfortunately, jazz in particular is a victim of that.

K: Speaking of the mainstream music, people who listen to hip-hop are often completely unaware that it wouldn’t exist if not for jazz.

B: Again, it’s cultural ignorance. This country doesn’t appreciate the value of culture and art. Anything related to jazz is a good example of that. You talk to a 16 year old kid from Europe, and you can have a conversation about Duke Ellington, whereas a 16 year old kid who’s African American and from Harlem probably wouldn’t be able to talk to you about Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and jazz culture in general. He wouldn’t even know who those people are.

It’s a very troublesome thing, and it’s our job as musicians to fight that. But we need help. We need help from the public at large. Jazz doesn’t have the presence on the radio anymore; jazz doesn’t have the presence on TV anymore. When I was growing up, I was a part of the last generation that was exposed to jazz. Jazz was on TV, jazz was is in all the cartoons, jazz was in movie soundtracks, in variety shows… That doesn’t exist anymore. One of the ways that we could fix that is having advocates for the music. There are a lot of rock stars who talk about how they love jazz and are influenced by it but they really don’t do anything for the music. If they really love it, they should do something to support it.

K: So it would take a continuous joint effort to make people excited about jazz again?

B: Yeah, I mean, educate the people about music ’cause they don’t know about it. You have to expose them to it. Jazz is a very unique language, and to know and understand something about it, you have to be exposed to it. These days, if you turn on any of the late night shows like Conan O’Brien or Jimmy Fallon, or any of these shows, there’s no jazz there. Whereas when I was a kid, we’d turn on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, or The David Frost Show, or The Dick Cavett Show, or Merv Griffin, The Ed Sullivan Variety Show, The Hollywood Palace, or any other show, you would see and hear jazz. The house orchestras on these shows were jazz orchestras. It was part of the mainstream culture. Every concert that I saw when I was a kid had jazz in it.

Then, for example, in New York City we had a 24-hour jazz radio station, WRVR, which ceased to exist in 1980. Now we listen to jazz from the station in Newark, New Jersey, WBGO. New York City doesn’t have a 24-hour jazz radio station, and we’re supposed to be the jazz capital of the world? That’s weird to me. Jazz is in a weird place right now.

Like I said, it’s America’s greatest art form, but most Americans don’t know anything about it. It’s like a treasure buried in your own backyard — and you don’t know it’s there. It’s our job as musicians to not just play the music but also be the advocates for it. We have to be more boisterous in making sure we get the music out there, and people talk about it. I do as much as I can, I am teaching and recording. But I am only one person. And we all have to do that.

K: It is so exciting to watch your educational videos and hear you talk about music and history. As a teacher, how do you engage your students — the ones that just want to play without learning more about what they’re playing?

B: The history of the music itself and all the instruments is fascinating. The best players in the world of any art form have always known the history of their art form. So it is important. The thing about the history of Latin jazz is that it goes all the way back to Africa, and you could trace it directly there. It’s just fascinating. If you don’t know the history of your art form, something will always be missing in your playing. Knowledge is power, so why wouldn’t anybody want to tap into that?

Anybody who studies with me is going to learn about history in some way. You’ve seen me perform when I talk about the music and describe it on stage to people — you say you were engaged and fascinated, so you know there is nothing boring about it at all. In fact, people always come to me thanking for teaching them about the music, saying that now they have come to appreciate the music and the culture even more. They say, “I used to like it on a visceral level. Now I have respect for it.”


K: Artistic dignity. What does it mean to you? How do you explain this concept to your students? Is it possible to teach someone to be dignified in their profession?

B: The concept of artistic dignity is to be proud of what you do as a professional. Many times in this country musicians are not being viewed as serious artists. Often, when a young person studies, when they have enough talent and desire to become a professional musician, adults would tell them, “Well, it’s not a real job. Study something else.” That’s wrong because what we do as musicians is very important. We’re avatars of culture and history, and our job is to make people happy, to inspire them. Why wouldn’t you be proud of that? I help students realize that they also have a big responsibility because they are representatives of the culture as well. If you are a jazz musician? Wow, that’s really heavy. Because really, everything we do today in popular music comes from two things: blues and jazz. That’s something one should definitely be proud of.

K: What about respecting your fellow professionals?

B: Oh, of course! Respect the others, and especially respect the elders. Respect those who had come before and given it so much.

K: Isn’t it common for young people to sometimes look down on the achievements of others?

B: That’s because this generation is very entitled. Very entitled, because everything is being given to them, whereas the previous generation had to struggle so much to learn this music and evolve it, take it to the next level. Everything is available to young people on computers. They don’t have to do a lot of work that was once necessary.

However, to really play this music you have to do a lot of work in order to live up not only to the expectation of being a great player, but also to be a confident composer and arranger, and then, the final step would be to be able to teach, to pass the music on to the next generations. It takes a lot of work. It’s not easy. There are no shortcuts.

K: Last year, you took part in Made in NY Jazz Competition gala. What does jazz look like in the big picture?

B: I was surely proud to be a part of that last year. The greatest thing about it is that Made in NY Jazz Competition demonstrates the power and reach that jazz has to bridge cultural divides. All the musicians that I met last year were from different countries, and it was just so gratifying how serious they were about learning the art form; how great they were in their performances. In the sense of bringing people together, jazz is the greatest tool the United States has. People ask, “How do you stop wars?” And I go, “Man, jazz!” [laughs] I’ve been all over the world. No matter where I go, if the people don’t like the politics of the United States, once you say “jazz” — all of a sudden you have a new friend. They might say they hate the US but what they hate in reality is the politics.

K: But they love Louie Armstrong.

B: Yes, they love Louie Armstrong. They love Miles Davis. They love Machito. They love Tito Puente. It’s amazing. One word — and all of a sudden you’re having a conversation. And when you talk — it’s already a beginning of a relationship. And a good relationship always leads to friendship. And respect. And love. So, the greatest tool that we have for all that in the US is jazz. Made in NY Jazz Competition is a perfect example of that.

K: So what do you think, will the treasure of jazz remain buried in our backyard, or are we going to finally dig it out and put it on display?

B: [laughs] I’m trying as hard as I can! Trying as hard as I can! Things like Made in NY Jazz Competition are helping but we, the musicians, can’t do all the work ourselves. I always ask fans of the music, “What are you doing to spread the music?” They look at me, and they go, “What do you mean?” And I go, “Well, you know, you love the music so much, are you sharing it with your friends? Are you trying to get them into the music? Your neighbors, your family members? Are you passing the music on to your children? Are you exposing them to it?” They often say, “Well, my son, you know, he’s into hip-hop…” And I go, “Yeah, but you have a computer, right? So why don’t you bring him to the computer and show him some videos of Buddy Rich, the greatest soloist on drums in jazz that ever existed? If you show a young person a video of Buddy Rich and his swinging big band and that doesn’t get them into jazz, then I can’t help you — it must mean they have no soul!” [laughs] Or, “Your daughter’s into heavy metal? Well, why don’t you show her a video of Jimi Hendrix soloing, and then, from this, show her a video of Wes Montgomery, the guitarist who influenced Jimi Hendrix.” There are ways to make these connections. Part of the hip-hop is funky beats, so show them a video of Tower of Power. Or James Brown, because without James Brown there would be no hip-hop. And he always had jazz musicians in his band — he loved jazz! There are many ways to get young people into jazz. Adults just have to make the time and be patient, for they have all the tools at their disposal, particularly with YouTube.

Instead of giving your son or daughter the latest video game for their birthday, give them some jazz recordings. But you have to be smart about it. You’re not going to start right away by giving them the jazz giants’ stuff; you have to give them something they understand on a visceral level. Young people understand rhythm. So, like I said, give them the album of Tower of Power. That’s an entry-level way to the music.

There are also artists that use jazz all the time, like Jeff Beck or Carlos Santana. You could sit down and explain, “You hear how Carlos Santana is improvising? So listen to Afro-Cuban rhythms. ” That’s how you can get them into the music of Machito, Tito Puente, Cal Tjaeder and, of course, Bobby Sanabria.

We, the musicians, have to get the support of music fans and pass the music on to young people. And then, when those young people fall in love with the music, they’ll do the same thing. They’ll bring their friends to concerts. Do it with your kids — bring them to concerts, show them how exciting music is live. I remember when I was a kid and I saw great musicians from TV, I was always so excited to see them! I would see Oscar Peterson Trio on TV. Then I would see groups like Cream on TV with Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton. Now, that’s a different kind of trio, a rock trio. But I would still see how they were improvising; just like jazz musicians, they were taking chances. And I would make the connection between the two.

As adults, we have to do the same for the young. Because you know what, we can’t blame them. They don’t have a chance to hear the music like I did at their age. You have to introduce them to new things. And if they ask you why you want to expose them to jazz, you tell them — because you’re an American! It’s a part of your culture. It’s your right as an American to learn about jazz, our greatest art form. And plus — you don’t know what you’re missing out on!


Exclusive for Made In New York Jazz Competition

by Katia Mukminova, a freelance writer and jazz lover. Currently lives in Brooklyn.

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