Photo: Eddie Palmieri poses for a portrait during the filming of RBMA Presents The Note: Eddie Palmieri, at Red Bull Studios in New York, NY, USA on 22 March, 2016.
“Genius has a way of validating itself with time” observes Felipe Luciano as he reflects on Harlem River Drive, the seminal 1971 Latin-jazz-funk album by Eddie Palmieri in an episode of The Note, a new docuseries now available at Red Bull TV. You can watch the full episode at the end of the article, as well.
Palmieri, who celebrates his 80th birthday today, is one of the greatest American musicians of our time. Hailing from the South Bronx by way of Spanish Harlem, Palmieri is a first-generation Nuyorican who made his way, along with his brother Charlie, through the New York City public schools where he was exposed to jazz music. He first played Carnegie Hall at the age of 11, which portended well for the boy who would go on to become a pianist, bandleader, musicians, and composer who helped to shape the sound and style of Latin and jazz music over the course of seven decades.
The Note hones in on Harlem River Drive, a classic album that fused protest, political activism, and Puerto Rican pride into a sound that was unlike anything of the times. Palmieri brought together Latin rhythms, R&B soul, and jazz funk to create a record that embodied the spirit of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords during one of the most radical periods of recent life.
Before COINTELPRO succeeded in snuffing out the flames of the revolution, the people untied to speak truth to power, putting their lives on the line. While the government systematically instituted a policy of “benign neglect,” which denied basic services to Black and Latino communities leaving them to fend for themselves, the community came together to fight for their rights, taking over both Lincoln Hospital and Hostos Community College in the Bronx, evincing the words of Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand It never has and it never will.”
Palmieri embraced the energy and activism of the community, crafting Harlem River Drive in response, creating one of the most significant albums of all time as it brought together the struggles of the Black and Latino communities through the arts. The album title refers to the upper strip of the highway that runs along Manhattan’s east side, the quickest route to go between El Barrio and the South Bronx. As with so many things in New York at that time, a natural fusion between cultures manifest itself in the arts most evidently in music, which brought the people together in harmonious vibes.
The Note takes us back in time, then right up to the present, allowing us a glimpse of Palmieri in the studio, recreating this landmark album. Here he wears all the hats: composer, bandleader, and musician sonically arranging a triumph of the human spirit.
Although the album did not sell well, it proved itself to be one of the most influential works of its time, inspiring generations with its fearlessness approach to artistry. As with all classic works, Harlem River Drive is right on time, as true today as it was 45 years ago.
Tracks like “Idle Hands,” which warn of the dangers of the 1%, are very much the soundtrack of our times as we watch the President Elect build his cabinet, while “Seeds of Life” reminds us that we give this world to our children and as such we are charged as custodians of the earth to give it to them in better shape than we received it. But in order to do this we must cross boundaries, whether through love or art, to bring people together to remind them of the beauty, power, and joy of life.
Today, on his 80th birthday, Eddie Palmieri reminds us that everyone has a gift, something singular that each of us can contribute to the betterment of humanity, if we wish. He reminds us that success is not to be found in sales or material wealth but in the gifts of the heart, the mind, and the soul—and our courage to manifest them in our lives.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.