African American Studies
Bobby Sanabria Summary
Summarized by Ian Smith, August 2022
Bobby Sanabria is a drummer, percussionist, composer, arranger, conductor, documentary film producer, educator, bandleader, and activist. He is a 7-time grammy nominee as lead, and his versatility as both a drummer and percussionist, from small group to big band, has become legendary. His knowledge of latin jazz, both as a historian and as a maker of its history, has earned him worldwide acclaim.
Bobby Sanabria’s family were from rural Puerto Rico. Bobby was born in 1957 at the historic St. Francis hospital in the South Bronx. When he was 3, his family moved from a tenement into the projects, which was “every working class person’s dream at the time.” All the Sanabrias who made it to the Bronx also made it to the projects. They lived there in the Melrose houses, in a couple of different apartments, for most of his childhood.
He saw PS 1 being built and then attended it for kindergarten, and then went to Immaculate Conception, the oldest Catholic grade school in the Bronx, when he was six. In 5th grade, he took a test (usually intended for only white kids) and got into a progressive, experimental Catholic school run by leftist-Franciscans called Msgr. William R. Kelly. This middle school provided disadvantaged kids from across the city an opportunity to get into prep highschools, but unfortunately closed only a couple years after Bobby left.
Starting in 1968, Bobby rode the subway to that school on the upper west side everyday, just as the city began slipping into an era of malfeasance and urban decay. By 8th grade, Bobby was a hardened New Yorker from his time riding the “iron horse” everyday and exploring the city. Bobby comments on the crazy character of life in New York in the 80s, specifically areas like those around Times Square which were “like Disneyland run by Lucifer”. After Msgr. William R. Kelly, he went to Cardinal Hayes highschool because it was just a short distance from his home.
Bobby recounts the uneasy alliances and coexistence of different ethnic groups in the South Bronx in the 1960s and ‘70s. In Catholic grade school at Immaculate Conception, the kids were diverse but ethnic antagonism existed there just as it did throughout the neighborhood. Bobby got punished for standing up for a German immigrant who couldn’t speak english in 2nd grade, an early demonstration of his lifelong commitment to civil rights.
As a young kid, he sometimes faced harassment when walking to the grocer or the Italian deli from older Italian and Irish folks in the neighborhood. However, there were always some “neutral zones, like the pizza place, the barbershop, and the candy store”. The main times when ethnic differences could be largely forgotten was when it came to sports, in the school gym, and lust or love, at the school dances.
(Min 85) Bobby recounts stories of beauty and artistic creation even while whole neighborhoods deteriorated around him in the 60s and 70s. People would play drums in the dead of the night and no one would say anything. Junkies would have respect for the elders, opening doors for them and saying hello. “Even though these guy’s lives were destroyed they still had their dignity and respect for elders. We don’t have that anymore.” Bobby shares other stories of the heroin epidemic from his perspective as a child and teenager.
Bobby’s mother worked as a school teacher with special ed kids at public schools, and his father was a hard working man who traveled 2 hours to Long Island to go to work, only to face racism and bigotry from his coworkers at the machine shop. His father was passionate about music and reading, both of which he passed on to Bobby.
He always looked at a life beyond the projects, and it was music that called and guided him out. Bobby was enamored with music, sports and music, since a young age. In Melrose, Puerto Rican guys would play congas regularly, on stoops and in alcoves of PS1 and other schools. When he was 11 years old he gained “hood celebrity status” by stepping up and playing cowbell perfectly with a group performing on the street– without ever having played drums.
Bobby knew what he wanted to since he was 12. It was at that age that he met Tito Puente, one of his idols, in person for the first time. They went on to be good friends; Puente played on Bobby’s first album and Bobby occasionally subbed in for Puente’s band. Bobby also later met the honorable Sonia Sotomayor when he was being recognized at Cardinal Hayes highschool for his achievements in the world of music and beyond. Only a year or two after meeting Tito Puente, Bobby got some friends together and starting playing gigs around NYC.
Encouraged and taught by his music teacher at Cardinal Hayes, Bobby auditioned for and got into the Berklee School of Music, one of the most distinguished music schools in the world. (Min 110) In his first year at Berkelee, no one could play congas, bongos, timbales, or Brazilian percussion. But Bobby had learned all of them-“taught by the streets”. He immediately began playing with the exclusive band of teachers and the most elite students at the school. Michael Gibbs was one of his mentors at Berklee, as was Kieth Copeland who was taught by Allen Dawson, who had developed a world famous pedagogy of jazz drumming.
Making a name for himself through his musical ability and ability to find community and friends wherever he went, Bobby earned a reputation at Berklee and throughout Boston before graduating in 1979.
Since then, Bobby has performed and recorded with every major figure in the world of Latin jazz and salsa. He has also won a host of awards including DRUM! Magazine’s Percussionist of the Year (2005), Percussionist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association in 2011 and 2013, 2018 Jazz Education Network (JEN) LeJENS of Jazz Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2006, he was inducted into the Bronx Walk of Fame.
Every single one of his big band recordings, seven in total, have been nominated for Grammys. His 2018 recording, West Side Story Reimagined, reached #1 on the national Jazz Week radio charts, was nominated for a 2018 Grammy, and won the prestigious 2019 Record of The Year Award from the Jazz Journalists Association. Partial proceeds from sales of this double CD set go to the Jazz Foundation of America’s Puerto Rico Relief Fund for musicians. He is the Co-Artistic Director of the Bronx Music Heritage Center and the forthcoming Bronx Music Hall. His lifetime dedication to spreading the history, culture, of jazz and Latin jazz to the general public as a performer, as well as educating a new generation of players, composers, arrangers, has no parallel.
Naison, Mark, "Sanabria, Bobby" (2018). Oral Histories. 347.