Even on the phone, Eddie Palmieri sounds like he's smiling.
"People should expect to dance when they come to see us in Madison," he says enthusiastically. "It will be an exciting presentation."
In pictures and on stage, Palmieri's infectious grin captures the energy and vitality of the Latin dance and Latin jazz bands he's been leading for the past 50 years. Palmieri, 74, grew up in the South Bronx during the golden age of Latin dance music. His older brother, Charlie, played with Tito Puente and the Picadilly Boys just as promoter Frederico Pagani started booking Latin dance shows at the Palladium Ballroom.
The Palladium was one block away from the hub of New York jazz venues on 52nd Street. The proximity sparked musician exchanges that helped develop Latin jazz.
Palmieri began playing professionally with the Eddie Forester and Johnny Segui bands in the 1950s. He formed La Perfecta in 1961, a variation on charangas, the Cuban flute, string and percussion ensembles. Palmieri added two trombones and jazz arrangements.
In 1994, Palmieri set aside Latin dance to fully embrace Latin jazz. He hired players with strong jazz credentials, including Wisconsin's own Brian Lynch. Palmieri's album Palmas broke ground in the genre.
In 1995, Palmieri persuaded the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to carve out an award category for Latin jazz. "We needed our own category," says Palmieri. "When I was a NARAS governor I showed them why, and they agreed." Palmieri has won nine Grammy awards.
When he appears at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Nov. 5, Palmieri will perform with trumpeter Lynch and alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry. The rhythm section will consist of Jose Claussell on timbales, Little Johnny Rivero on congos, Orlando Vega on bongos and Luques Curtis on bass.
Palmieri's piano will fuel the show. He plays with more intensity and passion than a rock 'n' roll keyboardist. His body sways to the driving rhythms. When the music builds, Palmieri does what he does best. He smiles.