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In Conversation with Drummer, Percussionist, Bandleader Bobby Sanabria



Drummer, Percussionist, Bronx Walk of Fame Artist Bobby Sanabria
Grammy Nominated, Drummer, Percussionist, Bronx Walk of Fame Artist Bobby Sanabria

Legendary drummer, percussionist, Bronx Walk of Fame artist and native Nuyorican S.O.B. (Son of the Bronx) Bobby Sanabria  brings his incredible 24 piece multi-Grammy nominated Multiverse Big Band featuring vocalists Janis Siegel (The Manhattan Transfer), Antoinette Montague (Duke Ellington Orchestra), and (multi-lingual powerhouse star of the Sugar Hill Nutcracker) Jennifer Jade Ledesna, to the Hostos Center for the Arts & Culture for an unforgettable evening honoring Puerto Rico’ s greatest composers.

I had the opportunity to talk to Bobby Sanabria via zoom, as part of our promotion for his upcoming concert in The Bronx, New York this Saturday, June 22nd, 2024.

Hi Bobby, what’s happening at Hostos Center this coming Saturday?

Hi Danilo, I’m going to be leading my multi-Grammy nominated Multiverse big Band at the Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture in the South Bronx at Hostos Community College, which is located at 450 Grand Concourse, right on the corner of E 149th St. It’s actually like four or five blocks away from where I grew up, which is amazing, and I’ll be there as I mentioned just now, with my multi-Grammy nominated Multiverse Big Band, which features 3 incredible vocalists, Janice Siegel from the Manhattan Transfer, Antoinette Montague from the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and I’m incredibly lucky to have a third singer, Jennifer Jade Ledesna, who’s half Puerto Rican, half Dominican but all Bronx, because she was born and raised in the Bronx, and she’s multilingual. She sings in eight languages, speaks 4 fluently: English, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. And it’s amazing when she sings in Portuguese because she sounds like a baiana, somebody from Bahia, in Brazil, because she’s lived there. And she was a former student of mine at the New School University many years ago, so I’m very proud of her. She also lived in Paris, so she speaks fluent French. I’m very lucky as a band leader, and I must say, I love to brag about the members of the orchestra because I feel I have the finest, most versatile musicians in the world.

24 piece multi-Grammy nominated Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band
24 piece multi-Grammy nominated Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band

My pianist is Silvano Monasterios from Venezuela, and David Dejesus on lead alto, he’s a Nuyorican, a former student of mine at the High School of Music & Art, Andrew Gould on 2nd alto, Peter Brainin on 1st tenor and Jeff Lederer on tenor saxophone, he’s also a virtuosic clarinetist. On this game, we will have Alberto Toro, who is a compatriot from Puerto Rico, he was also the co-leader and founder of Viento de Agua. He’ll be subbing for Jeff on tenor. Danny Rivera is half Italian, half Puerto Rican. He doesn’t speak Italian, he doesn’t speak Spanish, and he barely speaks English. So, he’s a baritone. 

And then on the trumpets, our regular trumpet section is Max Darché lead, Matt Hilgenberg on 2nd trumpet, but Nathan Eklund will be subbing for him. And then Irv Grossman will be subbing for Jonathan Challoner, and our regular 4th trumpet is Andrew Neesley.

Our regular lead trombone is Dave Miller, but for this concert Joe Fiedler, who’s the composer for all the music on Sesame Street and a former member of the orchestra, will be subbing for our lead trumpet. Noah Bless who is a compatriot of mine from the Mario Bauzá Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra is our 2nd trombone. Armando Vergara is a former student of mine at the Manhattan School of Music, he’s on 3rd trombone and on bass trombone I have the ubiquitous Chris Washburn. Leo Traversa is on electric bass and who’s missing? Our regular percussionist Orestes Abrantes (on congas) and Matthew Gonzalez (on bongo and percussion) can’t make the performance, but I have two incredible subs, Christian Rivera, who has recorded with the band and has played in the band before (congas and bongo), and the Great Willie Torres, who’s an incredible singer as well. We use a variety of percussion; a lot of people just think we play Cuban rhythms, but we play Venezuelan rhythms, Puerto Rican rhythms, Colombian rhythms, Brazilian rhythms. So, we use all that battery of percussion.

That’s a lot of people, more than 20.

Yes, more than 20 and with me. You’re missing me. I’m the commander of the ship. The Starship Enterprise, so to speak. I’m on drums. I do some vocals and percussion and I’m leading the band. So that’s that. Oh, I’m missing two more members, our regular flautist and piccolo player, that’s an extra chair in the band, she’s Gabrielle Garo, but she’s on tour with Karol G right now, I’m very proud of her. She was a former student of mine at the New School. And Ben Sutin is on electric violin. He was a former student of mine at the Manhattan School of Music, so that makes 23 musicians, and with me it’s 24 and people ask me, well, why do you have the piccolo flute chair and why do you have the electric violin? Because I’m a big fan of two incredible artists, Quincy Jones, he always used to put the flute or piccolo on top of the band, and on his big band writing, and Don Ellis, the Great futurist. He had a small string section electrified at his orchestra. That’s why I have Ben on electric violin. He stomps out a pedal and all of a sudden, he sounds like a whole chamber ensemble on stage, you know, so it’s a formidable band, we sound different than any other big band that’s out there. Our repertoire is different than any other big band out there. And you’ll hear it in full force. And we’ll be honoring Puerto Rico’s greatest composers, as well as honoring Duke Ellington, celebrating his 125th birthday.

How ‘bout the Danza Fiesta Ensemble?

Yes! the premiere folkloric Puerto Rican dance troupe, led by Gilda Rivera is going to appear with us as well. We’ve worked with them in the past and they’ve choreographed five, six numbers with us, so it’s going to be fantastic. 

Yeah, a great addition to the show. Fantastic!

Oh Yeah!

Danza Fiesta Puerto Rican Dance and Theater
Danza Fiesta: Puerto Rican Dance and Theater

Let’s talk about Hostos Center, about the importance of this institution for Latino arts and culture in New York. 

We’re going to be playing at a beautiful, gorgeous theater, the Performing Arts Center at Hostos that was founded by Wally Edgecombe, who’s actually of Cuban descent. His family is, I believe, from Great Britain, but he was born in Cuba and his name is Edgecombe. But we like to call him Edge Cumbé (a dance from Africa), you know, and he just recently retired, but he was the mastermind and genius behind Hostos Center. And I would say that is probably the busiest performing arts center not only on the East Coast, but in the entire country, there’s always three or four events happening every day at Hostos. It’s amazing, amazing, amazing. From lectures, concerts, there’s a lot of graduation ceremonies happening there now because school has ended in New York City, but it’s amazing the variety of music that Hostos has presented, mostly showcasing the Afro-Latin diaspora. When I say that, I mean Dominican based music, Venezuelan based music and from Puerto Rico, Cuba, etc., and jazz. So that’s a very important thing because as you well know, Danilo, we need always a platform for our culture and music to be represented and Hostos gives us that, we don’t have many of those platforms available to us. Occasionally you will see artists like Miguel Zenón at one of the major jazz clubs or even myself, but that’s fewer and far between. 

That’s true.

Yes, and on a regular basis Hostos Center provides us that opportunity. Especially when we do big events like this. And this concert is actually happening because I was thinking about the Puerto Rican Day parade, which just recently happened and believe it or not, about a month before I called up Felix Arocho, who’s the Director at Hostos, he was mentored by Wally, so, I told him I got an idea for a concert, and he goes, when do you want to do it? just like that. And he goes, what about? And I said, well, you probably don’t have anything available, but I was thinking June because of the Puerto Rican Day parade. He goes, let me see what I can do. He calls me back within five minutes. What about June 22nd? Great! I’ll move something around. And that’s how it happens, when you have that kind of support behind you, it’s incredible. 

That’s amazing!

Absolutely! So, kudos to Felix, and Wally, because all the great people that are sponsoring these types of events across the country don’t get the credit that they deserve. The musicians, we get the accolades, but the back behind the scenes people, the producers need that too.

That’s very important.

It is absolutely important, yeah!

Grammy nominated Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band
Grammy nominated Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band

Anything else happening with Bobby Sanabria and his various artistic personas?

You might know this but myself and my partner in crime, the great Elena Martinez, I like to call her the funky folklorist… Well, with Elena, we are the Co-artistic directors of the Bronx Music Heritage Center, which is a small street level art gallery space that hold about 60 to 80 people with a stage, we have full back line. And there we’ve done everything that you could possibly think of that’s done at Jazz at Lincoln Center, but in miniature form. Everything from lectures, classes on capoeira, percussion, mambo dance classes. I hate to use that word, salsa, but you know… 


And film screenings, panel discussions, you name it. I did some incredible interviews, one of them I’m very proud of, I interviewed Eddie Palmieri for almost 3 hours. And he revealed some things a lot of people don’t know about and that was very recent. Another interview I’m proud of is the one I did with Tito Matos, Héctor Tito Matos, who recently passed away. We did some live performances as well during the pandemic. I survived and kind of thrived through it because I got called up to do a lot of live streaming events. I got work as a side person and did a few concerts with my guitar chair. I’m sure in Canada performance arts organizations and individual musicians dealt with things in a similar way.

Yes, you’re right.

One of the things that the pandemic did was that it made us all miss live music and performances, but we evolved so much technologically speaking. I never would have thought that I’d be doing a live streaming concert, or doing interviews online…

That was unthinkable before…

So, we’ve been the Directors of the Bronx Music Heritage Center for the last 12-13 years. And we also in that space provide rehearsal space for the community at a very low cost, and if anybody needs it to have meetings or small art gallery showings, things like that, we provide it at a very low cost. 

The Bronx Music Heritage Center is the cultural wing of Wedco, which is the Women’s Housing Economic Development Corporation. It’s a nonprofit that was founded like almost 30 years ago by an incredible housing lawyer, Lancy Bieberman. 

And now we are putting the finishing touches on a 250-seat theater called The Bronx Music Hall, which is located on E 164th St. and in the South Bronx on Washington Place, and the Bronx Music Hall is on the 1st floor… It’s literally 11 blocks away from where I grew up in the South Bronx. The Bronx Music Hall has 250 seats, but we have an outdoor stage as well and, in the back, we have a small amphitheater that holds about 100 people. The outdoor stage holds about 200 people, 150 people comfortably. We have a huge lobby and art gallery space. October 18th is our opening. It’s gonna be three days of opening celebration. On the first night it will be on Monster Hip Hop, on the 19th, it’ll be yours truly, with the Multiverse Big Band. And on Saturday the 20th it’ll be a Family Day. We’re going to be having family events throughout the whole day, so I’m really looking forward to that.

If you would have told me when I was a student at the Berklee College of Music when I was a freshman in 1975, hey, you know what, man? One day you’re going to be the the director of this Performing Arts Center… And I’m just laughing. Get out of here, man. You know, I’m very proud because now I get to give back to my community in full force. So, we’re very, very excited and we’re going to have artists, world class artists. I’m hoping to bring people like Hilario Durán, who’s from Toronto, Jane Bunnett, my sister, and many other great artists. And that’s just from the Latin oriented side of jazz. 

Grammy nominated Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band
Grammy nominated Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band

I wanted to ask you what’s going on with your group Ascensión. I heard it is still active. Any plans of recording a new album? 

Everybody is asking me that. We just recently did a concert in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at the Performing Arts Center. We played in Brownsville, Texas. The Latin Jazz Festival down in Brownsville. So yes, we’re doing a couple of performances here in the summer in New York City. Ascensión, I would say that we are the oldest continuously run Latin oriented jazz group as far as New York City and probably in the country, because we started when I was in high school. I formed the band, and I was in high school from 71 through 75, so it’s coming close to 50 years now. That’s a pretty big thing. 

Yeah, you should celebrate it. 

We were doing things before Jerry González and the Fort Apache Band, and Jerry was my brother, and Andy too. Yeah, but we kind of got lost in the sauce in the jazz world because nobody paid attention to us. I mean, we got some coverage in the Village Voice, and in certain magazines like Latin Beat that existed at the time. But for the most part, the mainstream jazz world didn’t know of our existence. That has changed a bit because of the big band, the Multiverse. 

Right. You have a bit more exposure now.

Some people ask me in interviews about what other things I’ve done, and I start talking about us, and some of those interviewers tell me, how come I didn’t know about this? I go man. We’ve been playing, doing things, we played at the Heineken Jazz Festival, we played a bunch of things. I tell them, you know you haven’t been listening. I mean, you haven’t been paying attention, which is a big beef that I have with the mainstream jazz press, and I have to publicly state right now because anytime I get to use the bully pulpit, I do use it. Yeah, I feel that it’s an infamia. As our Italian brothers and sisters would say it. In the recent issue of Downbeat magazine celebrating their 90th anniversary, they printed a list of the 90 most important jazz musicians in history and their contribution. Not one Latino musician was mentioned, not even Mario Bauzá, if at least they would have mentioned him. Then I was OK. But be that as it may, we still have a long way to go, and we have to, when these injustices happen, we have to voice them. Because if you think… I’ll say this publicly. Again, Jazz would not have evolved to where it is today without the contributions of Latino musician. Because New Orleans is the northernmost city of the Caribbean, and there were Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Haitians there, And Mexicans, too. We got to keep saying it. Oh my God. Over and over.


Absolutely, man. So, if you can write a letter to downbeat and say, hey, what’s up with that?

For sure!

Anything else happening soon?

Yeah. I have another concert at the Cutting Room on June 26, a small version of the Multiverse Big Band, I call it the Miniverse. We’re gonna be accompanying Charles Fox, the legendary TV composer, movie composer… He started his career as a piano player with Ray Barretto, Joe Quijano and Tito Puente.

Great talking to you Bobby.

Thank you for the opportunity. We’ll see you at Hostos Center on June 22nd, with the Multiverse Big Band and Danza Fiesta.

Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band Honors Puerto Rico
Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band Honors Puerto Rico

Photos courtesy of Bobby Sanabria

Web Publisher. Founder, Editor & Webmaster for Latin Jazz Network, World Music Report & That Canadian Magazine. A passionate and committed communicator with a sensibility for the arts based in Toronto, Canada.

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