Bobby Sanabria Infuses Latin Jazz Into Perennial Favorite “West Side Story”

Multi-Grammy nominee Bobby Sanabria talks the business of music and  “West Side Story Reimagined”.


Editor’s note: We wish to thank Tomas Algarin a respected latin music historian, educator, writer, radio producer, stage performer/concert Emcee and also a steadfast Latin Business Today collaborator who helped facilitate this spotlight on Bobby Sanabria with author Tina Trevino. Enjoy! 

We chatted as Bobby Sanabria was anxiously awaiting the Saturday, March 17 premier of “West Side Story Reimagined” at Hostos Community College in the Bronx.

Bobby is a seven-time Grammy nominee as a bandleader, drummer, percussionist, composer, arranger, documentary film producer, activist, and a teacher of Latin jazz in New York City at the Manhattan School of Music (23 years) and New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music (25 years).

A native Nuyorican, he grew up in the South Bronx in the Melrose Projects. He is a 1975-1979 graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston receiving his B.M. and is respected not only for his musicianship but also for for his encyclopedic historical knowledge.

His numerous awards include being an inductee into the Bronx Walk of Fame and having his name written into the U.S. Congressional Record for his accomplishments as a musician. He’s also the Co-Artistic Director of the Bronx Music Heritage Center.

This Saturday on March 17, he and his 21 piece Multiverse Big Band, in celebration of the centennial of legendary composer, conductor Leonard Bernstein, will be performing Sanabria’s reimagined version of the music to “West Side Story.”

This American classic, originally performed on Broadway in 1957 and then released as a movie in 1961 is still culturally relevant. It is a modern day take on a tragic love story based on Romeo and Juliet that also addresses the problems of prejudice, conflict, hatred, bigotry, power, and class struggles.

This special event will happen at the Hostos Center for the Arts & Culture at 450 Grand Concourse in the Bronx at 7:30PM.

I recently had the pleasure to interview Bobby to discuss why he decided to take on this incredible project of re-envisioning the music of this masterpiece as well as chat about the events in his past that have gotten him to where he is today and what knowledge he would like to share with other entrepreneurs and business owners.

Bobby Sanabria sitting comfortably where he is happy-- at his drum kit
Bobby Sanabria sitting comfortably where he is happy– at his drum kit

When asked about his reasons for creating a new take on Bernstein’s music to West Side Story, Sanabria jokingly replied that he took it up for purely selfish reasons.

The story has always had a special place in his heart in that it premiered on Broadway in 1957, the year he was born and last year was his and the works 60th birthday. He felt it “…was a perfect project to celebrate both.”

It was one of the first stories that Sanabria recalls spoke to his Puerto Rican background and also dealt with clashes between the white working class on New York’s West Side and the Puerto Ricans who were migrating to this area.

He makes no bones about the fact that it was a difficult project to re-imagine as Bernstein’s music is so complex.

“You’re talking about the most complex music that has ever been written for a Broadway show combining jazz, Latin music, opera, chamber music, vaudeville, everything in the kitchen sink.”

In thinking about how he could give it a bit of a different twist, he decided to inject it with styles of rhythm that Maestro Bernstein would not have been aware of at the time—native Puerto Rican rhythms like bomba and plena, different Latino influences like samba and bossa nova from Brazil, joropo from Venezuela, Dominican merengue and some touches of funk and R&B as well.


He took his unique perspective as a NY born Puerto Rican, jazz musician, salsa musician, and Latin jazz musician and married all of these components adding a new level of complexity to the show.

He knew that Bernstein loved Latino music and was married to a Latina, Felicia Montealegre, a Chilean pianist, stage and television actress. Bernstein was also fluent in Spanish as well as German, French, Italian, Hebrew, and Yiddish. Sanabria expresses his believe that Bernstein is the greatest musician this country has ever produced as well as being a very hip person in his day.

Although associated by the general public as a masterful conductor in the world of orchestral music, he would frequent the jazz clubs of the day as well as the legendary Palladium Ballroom – The Home of The Mambo frequently rubbing elbows with jazz and Latin musicians.

Next page- Sanabria relates to the shows theme revolving around the fears, anxieties and insecurities of people

Tina Trevino
Tina Trevino
Tina Trevino, Partner & Director of Community Relations for Latin Biz Today is President & CEO of Tocaya Design under which she does design consulting for major apparel companies as well as designs, manufactures and markets her women’s lifestyle brand, Tocaya. With 25 years of industry experience most recently as Design Director of KBL Group Intl. Ltd., she has managed large creative design teams. Trevino provides insight on upcoming fashion trends for each season collaborating with designers, merchants and product development teams to help develop brand appropriate apparel. She specializes in sweaters, knits and wovens. Having previously worked with private label brands for stores like Kohl’s, NY & Co, White House|Black Market, and Ann Taylor to name a few as well as brands like Lee jeans, Wendy Williams, Brooke Shields Timeless, Torn by Ronny Kobo, and Whitney Port, she has the ability to build brands from the design and merchandising process all the way through fitting, production, and marketing.

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