Eddie Palmieri & Bobbito Garcia on Why ‘Harlem River Drive’s Social Justice Spirit Is Still Relevant

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This past Saturday at around 3 in the afternoon, a dozen couples from ranging in age from about 10 to 70 danced to Afro-Caribbean rhythms in front of the stage at the Richard Rodgers Ampitheater at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. As part of New York’s annual Red Bull Music Academy Festival, Eddie Palmieri, the great pianist and bandleader, was revisiting his classic socially conscious Latin funk album Harlem River Drive for the first time since 1972, and Harlem was very ready.

Harlem River Drive was also the name of the band that Palmieri recruited for the project. Its new incarnation is a sprawling 18-piece orchestra with all the brass and percussion you could hope for, plus organ, guitar, upright bass, and several vocalists. The band is largely composed of young musicians that Palmieri has been playing with in his other ensembles for a few years. And, of course, there was Palmieri himself, with his famous percussive style, playing a baby grand. A lot of the original players have passed on, but drummer Bernard Purdie and timbal player Nicky Marrero have survived to help complete the new lineup, and will be part of a new recording of the album.

At the first notes of the title track, Harlem River Drive came screaming back to life, at once ethereal and seething with humanity. On the album, the sounds of black and Nuyorican New York City in the 70s form the musical backdrop, while the Manhattan artery of the title serves as a central metaphor – a symbol of deep social divisions, but perhaps also of New York City’s always restless lifeblood. The music has aged extremely well and the lyrics sound as relevant now as they did in the 70s. Lines like “Things get worse every year/You can’t really live when you live in fear” from “Idle Hands” address the experience of poverty – the song also makes the observation that extreme economic disparity does not come about by accident.

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Palmieri, a multiple Grammy winner at 79, was thrilled to be putting together a new Harlem River Drive, particularly because he feels its message still matters. “The message of Harlem River Drive is the past, present, and future. We’re talking about conditions that exist past, present, and future and why we struggle to survive. We’re talking about the unequal distribution of wealth; we’re talking about broken homes,” he told Remezcla over the phone.

“We’re talking about the unequal distribution of wealth; we’re talking about broken homes.”

An ambitious album of progressive Latin funk might not seem like an obvious choice for a bid for mainstream success, but that is what Palmieri set out to do with the project. It was his attempt to infiltrate the rock airwaves. Carlos Santana was making his mark with Latin rock and Chicago was shifting units with a mean horn section. According to him, the instigating figure in all of this was Calvin Clash, a black writer from Harlem whom Palmieri knew, and who contributed lyrics to the album, which were given voice by Jimmy Norman.

Palmieri recalls, “Calvin Clash said ‘Why don’t you consider doing a rock album?’ He decided to do just that. With his brother Charlie he enlisted jazz and soul players like Purdie, who backed up Aretha Franklin. The elements of the project were catalyzed by the poetry and grit of Clash’s lyrics. Palmieri calls Clash “one of the most incredible writers that we’ve had. Nobody knew it, but I did and then I put music to his lyrics,” he says. The result was collaborative, radical, and experimental for an album aimed at the charts. It was not a hit, nor was it critically well-received.

“I did it to cross over. I wanted to do it to sell more records, but I didn’t sell more records, I just brought the FBI and the CIA to the record company,” he says. In Palmieri’s version of events, members of the radical left group Weathermen were apprehended with Harlem River Drive in their car, which brought the feds down to the offices of Roulette Records, the label that released Harlem River Drive. Owner Morris Levy was not happy. The following year, Roulette released two volumes of live music from a concert the band gave at Sing Sing, the band’s only other recordings. After that, everyone kind of let the subject drop. Today the record is hard to find, a collector’s holy grail.

Of his overtly political work, Justicia is better known in his extensive discography. A Nuyorican native son of the Bronx by way of Harlem, Palmieri moved from being the hardworking leader of one New York City’s hottest Latin dance bands to a musical explorer whose songs called for justice and told the story of his community, sometimes in words. Other times the medium was the message.

DJ and all-around cultural historian Bobbito Garcia, who warmed up the crowd for Palmieri at Marcus Garvey Park, pointed that out in a phone interview. “He can do a descarga with no lyrics. That’s still revolutionary. A descarga is a song that doesn’t have any lyrics. It’s all instrumentation and arrangement and a lot of improv…It doesn’t even have to have thought-provoking lyrics in it.”

DJ Bobbito Garcia. Drew Gurian/Red Bull Content Pool
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Though he has been accused of being a communist, Palmieri will tell you his political perspective, which is reflected in Harlem River Drive, is drawn mainly from lived experience. “I just saw it in the street. I got my masters at the Palladium Ballroom and I got my doctorate in the jungle, which is New York City,” he avers. He was also taking classes for a time at the progressive Henry George School of Social Science.

“He can do a descarga with no lyrics. That’s still revolutionary.”

Playing prisons was another way that Palmieri expressed his point of view. Before the Sing Sing concert, Palmieri already made it a habit. On one occasion he performed with with Dizzie Gillespie at Rikers Island. It’s an important part of where Harlem River Drive was coming from, and where Palmieri was coming from as a musician. Garcia observes: “That’s not something that every artist will do or would even conceive of. It takes a level of character to do that. I’ve performed inside prisons and done speaking engagements and it’s not an easy day. It’s very heavy and you have to go through security and go through paperwork and you see the faces inside and they’re so familiar.”

Palmieri confirms that it’s something he sought out because it had particular meaning for him: “I did that because of the sadness [that] was unfortunately happening in the streets at that time. You smoke one joint of reefer and they give you 10 years or something like that, the Rockefeller Laws. That was a real injustice, for example, and that’s all in Harlem River Drive. I had friends in different prisons and I played Attica twice. I did one in South America. You have to see those conditions. We did that just for my heart.” During the concert, Palmieri made sure to mention that, in a heartbreaking irony, Calvin Clash died in Sing Sing.

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For Palmieri to say that the message of Harlem River Drive, with its scenes of urban struggle, is the future as well as the past and present might seem pessimistic, but anyone who knows there is a struggle going on knows it’s far from over and, while “Idle Hands” and the eight-minute meditation on poverty that is “Broken Home” are pretty grim, “If [We Had Peace Today]” at least presents a vision of a brighter world. “Seeds of Life” presents a view of the human condition as an uncertain mixture of bitter and sweet, but the driving tempo and brassy chorus makes it feel like an affirmation.

For what it’s worth, the album’s creator definitely believes in the future. After decades of innovating and exploring in music, he now teaches master classes at Rutgers, another activity he finds particularly meaningful. “When we’re talking about students, that’s the future. So it concerns me to the highest degree,” he says. With a new lineup and plans to record, his once-forgotten funk project might just have a future to look forward to as well.

Watch the trailer for episode 2 of Red Bull Music Academy’s documentary series The Note – featuring Eddie Palmieri – below: