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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One of the best stories that Sanabria shared with me is about his venture while still a student at Berklee to the far-away and unknown suburbs of Boston to see Tito Puente play at the Harbor House Hotel & nightclub.

After the long and difficult job of finding out how to get to the venue, he walked right up to the stage and waved his hand in Tito’s face causing the Maestro to ask “Can I help you young man?” to which Sanabria replied, “Yes. Can I sit in with you?” With that kind of bravery and gumption, Tito then asked him what instrument he played and the response was, “The timbales!”

At this point during our interview, I was dying of laughter at Sanabria’s nerve to even say that to Tito, but Tito and his band got a kick out of him and asked him to join them on stage where he ended up jamming away with Tito to a crowd who loved the show. This may be one of the best lessons in bravery, albeit with a bit of fear as Bobby admitted to me, but it does show that success can happen when desire, talent, preparation AND opportunity intersect.

After this encounter, he became friends with Tito with whom he continued to have a great mentoring relationship with, occasionally subbing in on gigs after he finished college, and having Tito record with him on his first album as a leader, !New York City Ache!

Sanabria credits his third influential mentor to be Keith Copeland who had been a teacher at Berklee.

In Bobby’s early freshman year, he was struggling and needed to get his mechanics and technique adjusted so that he could attain the sophistication of a jazz drummer. Copeland was a protégé of Alan Dawson, a prolific teacher of drum rudiments and coordinated independence. Although Keith had a waiting list of students, Sanabria hunted him down begging him to take him on as a student.

Keith had heard about him and realized after meeting Bobby that he was certainly a “hungry” enough student who was serious about committing to his challenging and rigorous private lessons and told him he would see what he could do.

Two days later, Sanabria received a note stating that he was officially now a student of Keith. He credits Copeland with making him a professional drummer, teaching him how to read anything musically, play in different styles, and finessing his coordinated independence skills. Bobby states, “Keith changed my life. Within a week I had made vast improvements.”

When Sanabria completed college with his B.M. degree, he began gigging with the legendary Afro-Cuban conga player and bandleader Mongo Santamaria.

He also began teaching at the East Harlem School of Music which was run by trombone player, Johnny Colon. Here he met an elite group of musicians in the Latin music scene which helped to give him the type of exposure that he could never have dreamed of. Marco Rizo whom had previously been the musical director and piano player for the “I Love Lucy” show had a big band and was looking for a drummer to fill in for a gig.

It was an every Wednesday gig played in the plaza of the World Trade Center for lunchtime concerts.

Sanabria agreed and wanting to make a good impression showed up early with his drum set. He had no idea who else would be on the gig, so he was beside himself when a “who’s who” list of legendary musicians began to show up one by one starting with Candido on conga drums, Jerry Dodgion - lead alto sax for the Village Vanguard Orchestra, Barry Rogers - legendary trombone player and salsa musician, Jon Faddis—Dizzy Gillespie’s protégé, Lou Marini tenor saxophone with the Saturday Night Live Band, and Ronnie Cuber - baritone saxophone, to name just a few.

This highly seasoned roster of icons with whom he now had to play with provided him with a combination of nervous energy and admiration which he used to his advantage while also trying to stay cool.

He sight read the music and after the gig he received several compliments for his playing from members of the orchestra. He was then asked by tenor saxophonist Mauricio Smith (another original member of the Saturday Night Live band) if he did studio work.

Mauricio instructed him to be at the famed Nola recording studio, located in Manhattan’s Steinway Building the next morning at 9AM to do a jingle date.

Upon showing up, Chico O’ Farill, the legendary arranger & composer was at the conductor’s stand and many of the same musicians from the previous days concert started to arrive. This is how Sanabria entered the elite world of studio work in New York City. His abilities as a crack sight reader and versatility on both drums and percussion along with a command of a myriad number of styles continued to build his reputation in the music business.

He would record soundtracks and jingles (sometimes multiple appointments in a day). “Besides recording there were gigs for Broadway, nightclubs, weddings and banquets.” Sanabria states that it was a golden time in NYC with many great salsa bands, and lots of places to play. “There was a great jazz scene as well as a pop & rock scene—truly an amazing era with great quality music.”

Sanabria truly loves his profession but knows that there is a difference between music and the “business of music.”

He feels that most people often don’t recognize what he does as a legitimate profession and many view it as superficial and not a “real job”. “What I do requires a lot of technical skill combined with artistry.”

He says that musicians are just as interested in entrepreneurship and having a successful business that reflects the time invested in learning ones craft. The job also requires inspiring people and making them happy with the music one produces.

That’s why Bobby encourages everyone to make sure to see some live music every month and learn to dance to truly appreciate music and the business of music citing that, “… we just don’t have the appreciation for the arts such as music, poetry, theatre, etc. as it has been removed or lessened in our schools so that our children are not being exposed to these types of skills and potential career choices.”                                   

Next page- An exciting moment for Sanabria at the Grammy awards

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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.