By Dee Dee McNeil
The Spanish Harlem Orchestra blends Latin fire, sparkling, percussive energy and traditional jazz in a multi-colored spotlight. The leader of this Grammy Award winning congregation is Oscar Hernandez. He’s a man that comes from humble roots that were proudly planted in the Bronx of New York. One of eleven brothers and sisters, born to Emilio and Providencia Hernandez, he is the only one that chose music as a career path.
“I grew up in a beautiful time; a time of great cultural development in the Latino and Hispanic communities. I grew up in the South Bronx and that was predominantly inner-city. Andy and Jerry Gonzalez were very important to me. They were a couple of years older than me and they had their own apartment downstairs from where their parents lived. It was a place where musicians used to congregate and do nothing but listen to music and jam. They had a huge record collection. For being young guys, they had a lot of knowledge about the music. I learned a lot about Latin music from them. We learned about the history of our music. We used to listen to a lot of jazz as well. We listened to the roots of Bebop; Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and I listened to Bud Powell, who influenced me as a pianist. Other guys who were making the music so important were people like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Wynton Kelly, Redd Garland and so many people who became part of the fabric of what jazz was in the fifties and sixties. We were Latinos, but we had our ears to the ground as to what was happening in jazz,” Oscar recalled that youthful, impressionable time in his life.
The Hernandez family originally relocated from Puerto Rico to the United States in the 1950s. They settled into an apartment in the heavily Latino populated South Bronx. Oscar is the youngest of their eleven children. When someone gave one of his big brothers a piano, they managed to drag the musical gift into the basement of their inner-city apartment building. Oscar Hernandez found himself magically drawn to the instrument. He started playing the piano by ear.
“I think music saved my life, because I don’t know what I would have done without music. I’m sure I would have done something positive, but it was just awesome to discover my natural talent,” he told me.
As a small boy, Oscar Hernandez heard the music of Tito Puente, Willie Colon and Tito Rodriguez dancing from the windows of his neighborhood and spinning on the record players of his family and friends. At a popular local Boys & Girls Club, he took trumpet lessons for a while. But once his small fingers touched the black and white keys of that first, battered, upright piano, he put the brass down.
“I often tell people that the education I got as a young musician in New York City from age sixteen to twenty-five, all the way to age thirty, by playing with all the people that I got to play with, you couldn’t get that kind of training at the best university in the world. It was an incredible time for me. There was so much music happening. We went to not only the Latin clubs, but to the jazz clubs as well, like the Village Vanguard. We went to Birdland and a lot of places that were really happening back then. We used to be part of Jazz mobile, an organization that put on a lot of concerts around the city.”
As a teenager, Oscar was already playing with Joey Pastrana and later with the Ismael Miranda band. Under age and eager to learn, he was sneaking into nightclubs to hear the music of popular folks like Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri and Richie Ray. During an interview with George Rivera, Oscar Hernandez talked about being eighteen and playing with Ismael Miranda. At that time, they were a very
popular band and working all the time. Performing often times seven days a week will strengthen your playing and like Oscar said, it’s a learning experience. It helped him hone his craft. But the crowning gig was when he joined a celebrated American conga drummer and bandleader who introduced the country to a music popularly known as Boogaloo. Boogaloo would later be labeled, ‘salsa.’ This band was also solidly rooted in traditional Puerto Rican music. They explored New York’s modern Latin sounds, and threw in some charanga (a popular Cuban dance music) and conjunto styles. Conjunto is a mixture of accordion and Mexican-American music.
“When I played with Ray Barretto, I was in my mid-twenties and it was like going to the best university. He was one of the most knowledgeable people about all walks of music that you could ever be associated with. He was also making history with regards to his own music,” Oscar praised his friend and bandleader.
“Rican/Struction, (on Fania Records and released in 1979) was an important record that happened in the late seventies and for me to be part of that recording, oh man! What a feather in my cap. I feel so grateful. I recorded six records with Ray and (pardon my French) They’re all kick ass! You can go back and listen to that stuff now and go like, Wow – that sounds amazing. It’s funny, because my success with my own band, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, I have to say Ray’s band was a precursor to what I’m doing with my band today,” Oscar told me.
“My early mentors on piano were (on the Latin side) Eddie Palmieri and his brother, Charlie Palmieri. Obviously, they were kind of at the forefront of that music when I grew up. The music that was coming from Cuba inspired me and people like Perucihn, a Cuban pianist, as well as Arsenio Rodriguez and many other that we were listening to. On the jazz scene, of all the people I learned from were the early guys. Bud Powell was important. Red Garland, Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans; then the people who were in the forefront of contemporary jazz like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner,” Oscar recalled the piano players who he considered mentors.
Oscar Hernandez’s new release on ArtistShare Records is the Spanish Harlem Orchestra (SHO) presenting us with “The Latin jazz Project.” He has already racked up three Grammy Awards for his SHO salsa albums. Established in 2001, their first recording was released in 2002. “Un Gran Dia En El Barrio,” was nominated by the Grammy’s for “Best Salsa Album.” In 2003, They garnered the Billboard Grammy Award for “Salsa Album of the year” and in 2005 they actually won the Grammy Award with their second CD release, “Across 110th Street” for “Best Salsa Album.” They won a second Grammy for their fourth CD, “Viva La Tradicion.” In 2019, they won their 3rd Grammy with their “Anniversary” release. On every recording, Oscar Hernandez is the pianist, the orchestra leader, music producer and arranger. The Spanish Harlem Orchestra is praised as one of the best Salsa and Latin jazz music ensemble in the world. Currently, “The Latin jazz project” is their 7th album release. I asked Oscar what was the difference between salsa music and Latin Jazz. he talked to me about this recent release and the difference between this project and their former SHO recordings.
“It’s funny, because the band has performed all over the world. I’m really proud that the Spanish Harlem Orchestra has played almost every jazz festival that exists and the reaction we get is amazing. I’ll give you a perfect example. We played the John Coltrane Jazz Festival in High Point, North Carolina last year. I remember the presenter, the booking agent, was going back and forth about booking us or
not. He was saying, I don’t know how Latin music will go over here. It’s mostly a black audience, you know. So, he finally agreed and we performed. I actually wrote an arrangement for ‘Mr. P.C.’ which is a John Coltrane composition. After our show, the audience was on their feet giving us a standing ovation. The guy came back and said, man – was I ever wrong. Wow – you practically stole the show! And that’s the reaction that we get across the board. So, for me, that feedback is priceless. I make a living off this and I make money. But it’s not about that at all. For me, it’s the reaction I get when we perform. It’s just spiritually uplifting and it basically validates my whole life’s work and what I do.
“I mean, I am blown away to have special guests like Kurt Elling, Tom Harrell, Miguel Zenon and Bob Mintzer on this current project. Those guys are kind of my heroes. In the past we had Chick Corea as a guest on our 5th record and we had Joe Lovano as a guest. On the “Anniversary” record, we featured Randy Brecker. We always include a little Latin jazz in all our recordings. So, this “Latin Jazz Project” was bound to finally happen. It’s pretty cool.
“In terms of the difference between salsa and Latin Jazz, the biggest difference is that Latin Jazz is mostly instrumental, as opposed to Salsa, where they’re singing some Spanish songs and we feature a vocalist. Once you integrate those elements of jazz, be it harmony or melody or improvisation with Latin rhythm, then you have Latin jazz,” Oscar Hernandez explained.
For the past fourteen years, Oscar Hernandez has firmly planted his feet in Southern California and settled down in Los Angeles.
“I’m in New York a lot. I’m a die-hard New Yorker. But I got divorced in New York and then I got married to a woman who’s from out here in L.A. I always liked Los Angeles, so, I moved out here. We have a thirteen-year-old daughter. I have two sons in New York and I have an older daughter that was born and raised in Los Angeles. She’s such an amazing woman. It’s a blessing to be here with her; with both my daughters in L.A. and to have my two sons in New York,” he speaks in a loving way about his children.
“I just want my legacy to be about good music. My music comes from a real place. It comes from a place where I am a part of that history. It’s been close to fifty years now and I’ve had the opportunity to keep putting my music out there; music that I feel in my heart. I’ve played with Ray Barreto. I’ve played with Celia Cruz, Earl Klugh, and Paul Simon on Broadway. I played with Julio Iglesias, Willie Colón, Oscar D’Leon and Ruben Blades, who I won a Grammy with in 1986 on the “Escenas” album. I’ve played with so many people that are a part of the history of this music, that I want my legacy to be about keeping our music on a pedestal. I want people to learn about the beauty of Latin jazz music. I want my legacy to be somebody that contributed their drop in the bucket with regard to good music. I mean, I think what drives me first and foremost is my passion for the music. I love the music. I feel like now I’m really clear that It was divine intervention. GOD put it in my path for a reason. I didn’t choose it, it chose me.”