As a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Palmieri helped create the Latin Jazz category within the Grammys in 1994. Then suddenly, earlier this year, his accomplishment was undermined when the academy restructured the awards and eliminated 30 categories, including Latin Jazz.
"It's a shame. This decision marginalizes our music and disregards the contributions of outstanding artists," says Palmieri, who is spearheading a campaign to reinstate the category. His efforts have garnered support from musicians from other genres, such as Paul Simon and Carlos Santana. "Some say we still have the Latin Grammys, but my response to that is, just like you don't have the Latin Oscars, they shouldn't separate us or, as in this case, wipe out an entire music category."
But Palmieri's musical accomplishments are at least as eloquent as any argument that could be made for the legitimacy of Latin jazz. The Smithsonian Institution has recorded two of his performances for its musical catalog at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. And in 2010, the Library of Congress inducted one of his albums — Azúcar Pa' Ti (Sugar for You) — into its National Recording Registry, a historical archive for culturally significant recordings.
Among the highlights of his career, Palmieri counts performing at prestigious jazz events like the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and recording with musicians like Tito Puente. But there is one audience that holds a special place in his heart.
"I always have a great time when we perform in Puerto Rico," he says. "Puerto Ricans are my best audience. There is a degree of familiarity and enthusiasm that you don't see anywhere else. They call my name and ask for their favorite songs: 'Hey, Palmieri! "Vamonos Pa'l Monte"! Hey, Palmieri! "Muñeca"!' That is priceless."
Along with the release of his first-ever DVD, celebrating nearly half a century as a bandstand leader, Palmieri is preparing for another important milestone: A concert this December in New York City with an all-star lineup of Latin jazz musicians to celebrate his 75th birthday.
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