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Latin music greats honor the life and legacy of Jesse Bermudez

David Cruz
AL DÍA Archives

When Jesse Bermudez died last September, at 79, Philadelphia’s Latin music scene lost more than an advocate and champion. “He did a lot for the community,” trombonist, composer and bandleader Papo Vázquez tells WRTI. “He was one of those special forces of nature that, once they’re gone, nobody replaces them.”

Vázquez is among the Latin music luminaries who will perform at Taller Puertorriqueño on April 4 for La Música Continua — a tribute to Bermudez’s life and legacy, and a launch party for The Jesse Bermudez Legacy Fund, which was established to perpetuate his dedication to music education in the Philadelphia area.

Bermudez was the son of a Puerto Rican father and a Cuban mother, and he advanced the cause of Latin-American culture in the Philadelphia area for more than 40 years. “Since the very first time I met Jesse back in 1980,” recalls WRTI’s David Ortiz, “he was a strong advocate of supporting the local Latin musicians and their rights to fair wages as well performing in safe environments.”

That advocacy led to Asociación de Músicos Latino Americanos, or AMLA, co-founded by Bermudez in North Philadelphia in 1982. “Jesse was at the forefront of taking local Latin bands and having them perform at various venues outside of El Barrio (the Spanish neighborhood) of Philadelphia,” says Ortiz. “More importantly, Jesse saw the future in that he wanted a music school where the youth could be taught the traditional music of El Barrio and carry the tradition of live local bands into the next generation.”

Elio Villafranca
Kasia Idzkowska
Elio Villafranca

To that end, Bermudez helped establish the Latin School for the Performing Arts (LSPA), as well as another iteration of AMLA — Artistas y Músicos Latinoamericanos, a community-based music education program whose alumni include percussionist Pablo Batista and pianist Elio Villafranca.

Batista’s career has brought him into the touring ensembles of Grover Washington, Jr. and Alicia Keys, among many others. Villafranca is likewise a well-traveled sideman as well as a bandleader; Standing By the Crossroads, his most recent album, is just out on ArtistShare. These two noted beneficiaries of Bermudez’s community work will join Vázquez at Taller Puertorriqueño, with the three artists performing together for the first time.

Vázquez, who now serves as Musical Director for the National Puerto Rican Day Parade Orchestra in New York, worked extensively with Bermudez over the years. “The majority of the times that I went back to Philadelphia, Jesse was always involved,” he attests. “He was the one that introduced me to the people at the Clef Club. We even got nominated for a Grammy, for an album I recorded live at the Painted Bride.”

La Música Continua, which will also include a performance by the all-women salsa band Ellas, stands to carry on Bermudez’s cultural legacy by encouraging fellowship. It’s a message that Ortiz, as host of the Saturday night show El Viaje, took to heart. “Jesse was a mentor to me to a large degree,” Ortiz says, “in that he recognized that I too was an advocate of promoting El Barrio-grown local talent on the recorded side by playing their music on El Viaje.”

Ortiz adds: “For a few months before his passing, Jesse and I stayed in contact by text or phone call. And I’ll always remember his words of encouragement, which he said repeatedly in regards to El Viaje: ‘David, Keep doing your thing, brother… keep doing your thing.’”

La Música Continua will take place on April 4, 7 p.m. at Taller Puertorriqueño; purchase tickets here or in person at Centro Musical (464 W. Lehigh Avenue).

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