New faculty member Bobby Sanabria brings an impressive array of experiences to his role as a professor in the Music Education program. Sanabria is a proponent of and expert in Latin Jazz music, and he will be infusing this expertise into his teaching. He is a composer, bandleader, radio show host, Grammy-nominated musician, and co-artistic director of the Bronx Music Heritage, in addition to teaching Community Music and leading our All-University Jazz Orchestra. Dr. Elise Sobol, director of our program in Music Education, noted that Sanabria is emblematic of her mission to “align the program with the diversity of New York City.” Sanabria answered a few questions about his work and what he hopes to impart to his students here at NYU.
We are so happy to greet you as a new faculty member. You are a drummer, percussionist, composer, arranger, bandleader, and educator, among other things. What are some career highlights you'd like to discuss?
Headlining at the Apollo Theatre with my Multiverse Big Band to celebrate the 100th birthday of Mario Bauzá, father of Afro-Cuban Jazz. Getting the Jazz Education Network Lifetime Achievement Award for my work as an educator, specifically in Latin Jazz. It’s important to me because I’m not just a performer. I want to pass the knowledge I have to the next generation.
Suing the Grammys and reestablishing the Latin Jazz category. They had cut the category back in 2010 and through a lawsuit I initiated against them with three other plaintiffs, we got the category back. That was important because they were disenfranchising our community by taking away a category we had fought so hard to get. Having my name read into the Congressional Record by Dennis Kucinich recognizing my work as a musician and educator.
Our performance at Lincoln Center Out of Doors of West Side Story Reimagined for over 8,000 people. It was momentous because we united the entire city.
Being inducted into the Bronx Walk of Fame and this past summer being named the Godfather (El Padrino) of the Puerto Rican Day Parade. That was important because I was being recognized by my own community. There are many more, but those are just a few.
What is a typical day like for you?
I’m always grinding. Besides teaching, I lead my multi-Grammy-nominated Multiverse Big Band, which is 21 musicians, but also Quarteto Aché and Sexteto Ibiano, and my nonet Ascensión, as well as an experimental group I call Project X. I also work as a solo artist doing master classes and clinics, and I’m a side man for several groups. I’m also the co-artistic director of the Bronx Music Heritage Center and forthcoming Bronx Music Hall, where I host events that are grounded in all of the cultures that exist in the borough. I get to engage directly with the community. So, my days are always filled with activities.
How do you bring people from different backgrounds together through music?
By demonstrating to them that we have more things in common than differences. If anyone comes to any one of my performances, in whatever context it’s in, they’ll walk away with that feeling. Jazz is a great platform for that because the music in and of itself was born from cultures coming together - African, European, etc. - but in the spirit of the improvisor. In Latin Jazz that fusion is even more pronounced since our rhythmic roots are so Afrocentric. But there is a rich European harmonic tradition as well that is present in forms like the Cuban danzón or a style like Brazilian choro. My teaching is based on that concept. There is a lecture that I do called “Clave: The Key - From Africa To The New World” where I demonstrate how that one basic rhythm unites us all because it is the foundation of everything we do in popular music. It’s obvious in forms like salsa from Cuba, NYC, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. But it gets pretty moving when I demonstrate to people how it’s in funk, rock, jazz, R&B, hip hop and more, and I’m doing it in real time - singing, playing, and lecturing while maintaining the clave with some limb of my body.
Congratulations on your West Side Story Reimagined album being nominated for a Grammy! What was your vision for this project?
My vision was to approach the music in an even more contemporary way, providing a platform for the musicians as jazz soloists. To do that we modernized the music rhythmically and harmonically. People asked me, “How are you going to tell the story without the lyrics?” Through the rhythms of New York City, which means Latin rhythms. Maestro Bernstein only utilized Afro-Cuban and Mexican forms in his original score; I expanded on that by demonstrating how the Latin community of NYC has expanded from just being originally Puerto Rican and Cuban. So besides the original Mexican and Cuban forms Bernstein utilized, I’ve added Venezuelan, Colombian, Haitian, Dominican, Brazilian, and most importantly, authentic Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms to the mix. People don’t realize that the Puerto Rican community completely transformed the city through our culture, dance, art, food, politics, and of course, music. But we’ve never been given the credit for that. So West Side Story Reimagined is an homage, a love letter to that community through the music of Maestro Bernstein.
Studying Latin music will increase your rhythmic knowledge, improve your sight reading skills, increase your precision as a player, and expand your possibilities as a composer, arranger. and most of all give you a multicultural view of the world. These are all things that will make anyone a better music educator.
As a teacher, how do you impart your knowledge and passion to your students so that they keep it going?
I teach through example. Lecturing, physically demonstrating, showing archival videos, playing archival recordings, bringing in guests, bringing my students to a Caribbean restaurant, etc., to totally immerse them in the culture. For me, the students having historical knowledge of a musical form is important because if they know where the style comes from, they will have a deeper appreciation of it learning that it has a majestic history. This is especially important for people outside of the culture. Humanizing the subject matter is important. If you get to know a culture outside of the wheelhouse of your life experience, you won’t fear it anymore. You’ll realize it’s cool and the people that represent that culture, music, etc. are cool. Our country isn’t big on teaching cultural heritage. To me it’s an essential part of the learning experience.
Please tell me about the Bronx Music Heritage Center where you are the co-artistic director.
The Bronx Music Heritage Center is the cultural wing of the Women's Housing Economic Development Corporation (WHEDCO). It’s a non-profit that has built and refurbished several buildings in the South Bronx. It was founded by Nancy Biberman 26 years ago. In one of the buildings Nancy took it upon herself to build a ground floor space similar to an art gallery. She happened to be a fan of my work and eight years ago she asked me and my wife, the noted folklorist Elena Martinez, to run the space calling it the Bronx Music Heritage Center. We turned it into a multi-use space featuring not only visual art, but music, theatre, comedy, and dance. We have guitar, piano, and percussion classes for the community as well as Brazilian capoeira and Mexican folk dance classes. It only holds about 80 people, but it’s a first class performance space as we equipped it with a state of the art sound system, a baby grand piano, electric keyboard, and bass and guitar amps, as well as a drum set, congas, timbales, bongo, percussion, and music stands. It’s equipped for film and video screenings as well. We even have a set of timpani and vibes there.
When performances aren’t happening, it’s available to the community for rehearsals and meetings. We came up with a series called Bronx Rising, reflecting the borough’s rich musical history. Dr. Mark Naison, professor of African American Studies at Fordham University, has stated that, “More forms of music have been nurtured in the South Bronx than in any other place in the United States.”
So, that’s our mission in a nutshell - to preserve, nurture, and bring that musical history out. We always print a detailed booklet handout for the audience that addresses the background of the artist as well as describing the history of the music they are performing. We make sure that everything that happens at the BMHC is Bronx-centric. For example, for a Halloween event, we screened George Romero’s classic film Night of The Living Dead. George was born and raised in the Bronx of Cuban and Lithuanian descent. As an educational component, we featured a panel discussion on the film and I performed a live soundtrack with my Project X group. To this day, we have represented every musical and cultural community of the borough in this space through concerts, lectures, panel discussions, film screenings, music, and dance classes. We’ve had NY Times bestselling authors present their books, comedy, dance, and theatre works.
Everything we do there we are going to be doing over at the Bronx Music Hall, which will be opening in August of 2020. This new larger space will give us a 250-seat multi-use theater on the inside and an amphitheater on the outside. One of my plans is to start a youth Latin jazz big band at the BMH. What Nancy has done is to give us the opportunity to do what Jazz at Lincoln Center is doing but to make it completely Bronx-centric. One of the ways I’d like to involve NYU music students is to provide internships for them so they can work directly with young people in the community.
How can increased awareness of Latin music culture help our students become better music educators?
There’s a multiverse of knowledge that Latin music has to offer. For example, take classical music. Latin America has produced some of the greatest orchestral composers in the world. There are forms that I’ve mentioned before, like the Cuban danzón, Brazilian choro, and others like the Puerto Rican danza, that are completely rooted in European classical forms. The rhythmic complexity we have in Latin music is awe inspiring. It’s only natural since our rhythmic vocabulary, no matter what Latin American country we may be talking about, comes from Africa. That rhythmic complexity carries over into all genres of music. Studying Latin music will increase your rhythmic knowledge, improve your sight reading skills, increase your precision as a player, and expand your possibilities as a composer, arranger. and most of all give you a multicultural view of the world. These are all things that will make anyone a better music educator.
Congratulations on the success of the All-University Jazz Orchestra concert in December. This coming spring semester you will be leading the All-University Jazz Orchestra again and teaching our Community Music class. Who are some of the special guests our students can look forward to interacting with this semester?
In terms of the Community Music class, I’ll be bringing in artists that represent the various diverse cultural/ethnic groups in the city to directly expose the students to the musical multiverse that makes New York so special. But it’s not limited to just musicians. I’ll also be bringing in arts presenters to talk about how they run their organizations, and I plan on bringing in dancers. This is to get the students to understand the connection between music and dance and to get them to break out of the confines of the boxes that may be holding back their musical expression.
The keyword as an artist is perseverance.
Do you have any advice for students or alumni pursuing a similar career?
Learn as much as you can. Be the perpetual student. Be respectful of others. In particular, your elders; they are constant sources of inspiration and knowledge. And the keyword as an artist is, perseverance. As the great James Baldwin once said, “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”
What’s next for you?
I’m extremely excited about the forthcoming opening of the Bronx Music Hall in 2020. It will be a game-changing center of culture, art, and knowledge and a source of pride for not only Bronxites but all New Yorkers. It will also be a focal point for anyone the world-over to learn about the Bronx’s rich musical history. I’m also excited about my radio show on the #1 jazz station in the country, WBGO. I’m the new host of a show called the Latin Jazz Cruise which is broadcast on Friday mornings. It gives me a worldwide platform to get the music out there while educating the public about this unique American art form which was born right here in New York City.