Bobby Sanabria Infuses Latin Jazz Into Perennial Favorite "West Side Story"

West Side Story Reimagined Bobby Sanabria

Photo credit: Sarah Escarraz

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Sanabria is a firm believer in mentoring and it’s very obvious in the fact that not only is he an exceptional musician, he is also a teacher of the music and its traditions today.

He shares with me that all along the journey of his life, schooling and career path, he has always been given advice and great learning experiences from important mentors. He credits as his most important teacher, his father José. As a hard working blue collar machinist with a 2 hour commute both to and from his job, his father’s ritual upon getting home from work was to eat dinner and settle in to his lazy boy chair and enjoy listening to music.

He had an extreme love of a variety of music and as a young child, Sanabria would join his father while doing his homework and listen to what his father was listening listening to. That meant everything from Harry Belafonte, Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66, to Puerto Rican folk music, and Mexican ranchero music.

His father helped him, by showing him on a globe the placement of countries on opposite sides of the hemisphere to understand how via the slave trade the sounds of hand drums and percussion were brought over from Africa and became part of the culture of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil and the rest of Latin America.

In this same manner he explained why the Portuguese language sounds a bit like Spanish because of its proximity to Spain on the map, and that as Portugal took over Brazil, the language migrated over and that’s why we hear it in their music like samba and bossa nova.

Bobby Sanabria

Sanabria fondly speaks of his father opening up a whole new world to him as a child about music and culture. “My father was into everything. I remember he brought a 45 rpm over of James Brown’s current hit which was then Sex Machine. I couldn’t believe it. I asked him, ‘Papi are you really into funk?’ “ He just laughed and said, “Of course, it’s good music!”

At this young age, Sanabria was also listening to Hispanic radio and watching many favorite American TV shows, where he recognized jazz in the theme music of shows like Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, the Mike Douglas Show, Frank Sinatra specials, and cartoons like the Jetsons and Johnny Quest.

At 12 years old, Tito Puente came to his neighborhood to play with his orchestra and Sanabria pushed everyone aside to see the King of the Timbales.

He states, “That was my rubicon because Tito was so exciting as both a bandleader and virtuosic timbale player. I had never seen or heard anything like that on that level before - a big band live with that kind of power. It was life changing.” At this moment he knew exactly what he wanted to do in life and that he wanted to go to college to study music.

At the same time he was also influenced by mainstream American bands like Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Tower of Power, and Cream in which he could hear the underlying jazz elements.

As Sanabria was finishing high school, he would meet his second mentor, his high school band director, William Ryan.

Ryan recognized how serious about music Sanabria and another classmate and fiend of Bobby’s were and that they both wanted desperately to attend the famed Berklee School of Music. He knew that these young boys certainly had the talent for it, but also knew that they would never pass the theory part of the audition to be accepted in. 

He made them an offer to teach them music theory 3 days a week after school for 1 hour to help get them prepared.

This little bit of extra help and attention that Mr. Ryan provided them was exactly what they needed as they both passed the audition to enter the school. Sanabria also credits him being as the first person to demonstrate to him what it was to be a true professional musician.

Although Bobby idolized Tito Puente for his virtuosic timbale playing and bandleader abilities, he also noticed that when he looked at the back of all of his albums that he was credited with arranging and sometimes composing his own music.

Sanabria truly desired to have the same well rounded musical background and hoped that by the time he finished his schooling at Berklee, he would achieve his goal of being a bandleader with the skills to arrange and compose and be a legitimate jazz drummer. But as a freshman at Berklee in 1975 he’d find he was in for true culture shock as he realized he was the first Puerto Rican at the college.

As he recalls, “There were a couple of Brazilian and Argentinian students and only a couple of African American professors…” but it was truly a homogenized population at the school with no one speaking Spanish, knowing about Latin culture, or knowing who the most recognizable Latin jazz musicians or bandleaders like Tito Puente or Machito were. Because of the lack of Latino awareness at the school, Sanabria became by de facto what he calls a “cultural ambassador.”

Students, friends, and faculty would soon be talking about the student from NYC who had some knowledge of authentic Latin music style and would flock to him asking to hear his album collection. He found himself becoming a teacher just as his father had been to him. With the frequent questions about his own culture continuing to come at him while at school, he desired to find out more and immerse himself in his Latino culture. 

Next page- One of the best stories that Sanabria shared

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About the author

Tina Trevino

Tina Trevino is the Senior Design Director of KBL Group Intl. Ltd. in NYC and manages their large creative design team. Partner and Director Community Relations for Latin Business Today. She shares all of her insight on upcoming fashion trends for the season with her team to start the collaborative design process. The company specializes in sweaters, knits and wovens. It provides product for ladies, men, contemporary, jr, and children. Tina specializes in coordinating directly with large US retailers to design exactly into their targeted customer needs. With many years under her belt in the industry, she has also gained the ability to go beyond the fashion component and help to work through sourcing, fitting, production and merchandising issues as well.