“High Key” is a series of profiles conceived with the intent to tell the story of Philly’s diverse musical legacy by spotlighting individual artists in portrait photography, as well as with an interview focusing on the artist’s experience living, creating, and performing in this city. “High Key” will be featured in biweekly installments, as the series seeks to spotlight artists both individually and within the context of his or her respective group or artistic collective.
Pablo Batista is the sort of venerable veteran of Philadelphia arts and culture with whom you’d want to sit for hours, as he recounts his storied career as an internationally-renowned Latin music percussionist. Despite enjoying success and acclaim the world over alongside famous artists like Alicia Keys, Gladys Knight, Regina Belle and Phyllis Hyman, among other jazz and R&B greats, to hear him tell it, Batista’s narrative seemed most radiant with hints of pride and reverie when he reviewed his leaner days, playing smaller Philly clubs, and being mentored by the late great Grover Washington, Jr.
Now over 50 and having played since age 9, Batista has been afflicted with retinitis pigmentosa for some thirty years, a degenerative eye condition that’s rendered the drummer legally blind, having by now claimed some 95% of his vision. Not only hasn’t it slowed him down, it doesn’t even seem to have affected his outlook or enthusiasm, as he spoke at length about his college days, or his time playing the Bethlehem and Philly club circuits, the giant jazz festivals of the ‘80s and ‘90s, or his gigs with George Howard or Jeffrey Osborne. On the contrary, the only time Batista even brought up his ailment was when asked about how he managed to get around town.
Despite this significant personal obstacle, Batista’s primary frustrations, when reflecting on his rich career as a Philadelphia artist and instructor, have to do with the support and promotion of that community for which he clearly holds a profound love. In this interview he’s upfront and candid about why.
Batista’s colorful career as a percussionist is at its best a triumph of spirit and hard work, two main ingredients that seemed to have factored into his success much more so than the luck of being in the right place at the right time. Still, his story has elements of fairy tale too: read below as he reminisces about his first gig in Philly, playing with George Howard at the legendary Uptown Theater.
The Key: Are you a Philly transplant, or were you born here?
Pablo Batista: Transplant, I came to Philadelphia in 1981, when I went to Temple University. I was born and raised in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I went to Temple University, studied pre-law from ‘81 to ‘85, graduated in ‘85, and then I began touring with Grover Washington, Jr.
… It didn’t just happen like that, I just started touring with Grover Washington…
TK: … I was gonna say, what connected you to him or to the Philly music scene?
PB: Well, I was at Temple, you know, I was in the dorms and then I finally had my own apartment. I always played, I’ve been playing since I’m 9, I’ve been a professional since I’m 12, you know I been playing clubs up in Bethlehem, they had a whole circuit of clubs up there — The Roaring 20’s, Dukes, Phase 5 — it was a bunch of clubs, there was a musical circuit up there. So I got into some reggae bands, and some salsa bands, and I was in that circuit, you know, and every weekend we were in a different place — the Five Spot, The Hideaway — I mean there was like a good seven or eight clubs up there, in that Bethlehem area. So you know, at [age] 12 I got into a little group, and we started giggin’ around there, and then I joined another group, so all through pretty much the later part of high school, going into college, I was performing up there. Then I recorded a demo tape while I was at Temple, folkloric, afro-cuban rhythms, and that tape got to a guy who I was working with who was a friend of a manager for a singer named Jean Carne, an R&B singer, and Jean was doing a record at the time being produced by Grover Washington, Jr. the saxophone player, the famous Grover. So the demo tape got to the manager, and then he dug it so he gave it to Grover who was producing Jean. Grover heard it he really liked it, so he called me up. And I was at Temple at the time, living in the dorms.
TK: Did you know who Grover Washington was, at the time?
PB: I kinda sorta did, yeah. But I didn’t, you know, I didn’t think he would be approachable.
TK: What was it like to get that phone call?
PB: It was crazy. The phone call was scary, because he said ‘come down, bring your equipment and come to the studio, I wanna check you out, you know, make sure this is you,’ you know, this and that. So I said, yeah, cool. So I took a cab to this studio called Alpha, which is by Penrose Diner, out by, like, the airport area. Now it’s something else, I forgot the name of it now, but, anyway — I took my congas and timbales and percussion stuff in a cab, and took a cab out there, and then I met him and I set up my stuff, I started jammin’ in the studio, and he’s like, ‘alright cool, you sound great kid, come back tomorrow.’ So I had to call a cab again — I didn’t even have cab money, I don’t know how I did it. I went back to the dorms, and then the next day I did the same thing again. I went to bank, I got some money, and did the same thing again. I did the session, got paid. And the song that I performed on was a hit, it was called “Closer Than Close,” and that was a big R&B hit. After it became a hit I went back to the studio one day and I heard that this one guy was a producer, a guy by the name of Nick Martinelli. So I gave him a little package, you know, a little half-resume, and said, ‘you know I just did this session with Grover, it’s a big hit, you know, if you need percussion…” So he actually called me up and started givin’ me sessions. I did a session for Gladys Knight and the Pips, Regina Belle.. And then I went on tour. When Regina heard the tracks, she took me on tour, in support of her album. And then I locked in, from there I kind of jumped around and I got the gig with Phyllis Hyman, and then from there I started workin’ with George Howard a little bit.
At the same time I was subbing for Grover. After I did the session, Grover gave me a gig. We did a really good job on the session so he said, ‘listen, I need a percussionist, I’m gonna be at The Blue Note in New York City for like seven days, and then I’m gonna be at Blues Alley in DC for seven days.’ So it was like two weeks of work. So I was a young kid, I was like, ‘Great! GREAT! I got a big gig, I’m playing with Grover!”
I was just a sub. So when I came home, after the two weeks — we killed it, it was amazing, epic, life-shattering kinda moment for me. On the way to Blue Note I went to Latin Percussion, I invited the owner at the time, Martin Cohen, to come to the show at the Blue Note. And he came to the Blue Note, and he signed me that night. So I got my endorsement right away. Boom. That was back in ‘85.
TK: And so, so much for pre-law at that point?
PB: Aw yeah. I just did it for my parents. Somethin’ to fall back on.
TK: So then you were getting some national attention, at that point…
PB: …doin’ a lot of big festivals — Playboy, I mean all the big jazz festivals. It’s not like it is now. It was a whole different time. There was tons and tons of jazz festivals. There was smooth jazz radio stations all across the country, so all these festivals were all around, everywhere from Redbank, New Jersey, to Saratoga, to, I mean, the Playboy festivals, the JVC festivals, Mellon Jazz Festival, back in the day. I mean there were so many festivals, that like, you could go on tour doin’ festivals. That’s what we did! We would tour, you know four, five months out of the year. I mean, it just goes on and on, I can’t even remember the names of all the festivals we did back then. But you know, it was a great circuit.
So, and then from the smooth jazz, I started doin’ the R&B sessions as well, so I auditioned for a gig in LA, guy by the name of Jeffrey Osborne. And I nailed the audition, there was like twenty-five guys, and I nailed it. So I got the gig with Jeffrey Osborne, started workin’ with him in the late ‘80s, ‘89 to like ’91. And then I finally got the phone call at the end of 1990 to join Grover’s band full-time. So that’s when I started workin’ full-time.
So from ‘85-’90 was part time. You know a week here, two weeks here. Actually in the late ‘80s I got to the point where I had to tell the manager, I said ‘look man, I can’t afford to keep doin’ a week here, either I get the gig full-time…,’ he said, ‘no no, don’t worry, don’t worry…” And then I one day got that phone call ‘look dude, it’s your gig.’ So from ‘90 on down to his passing, I was with him — I think he died in ‘99, goin’ into 2000.
TK: Where did you play your first show in Philly, and what do you remember it feeling like to be on stage that night?
PB: It’s a great question. I remember doing a shot at the Uptown Theater, when I was young, with George Howard, who was another great contemporary jazz saxophone player. And I remember that being an early gig, that was what, in the mid-80s, like ‘85, ‘86. You know, and I remember that being a pretty historical thing, because everybody played there, it’s a legendary theater on Broad Street. It closed down, but they’re gonna reopen it again, I think. But it’s got a history, a really large history. So yeah, I think that was the first one, and what i felt, I was pretty amazed, because a couple hours before we had the soundcheck I was in the African-American parade, marching down Broad Street. And the parade started I guess 11:00 or so, and then we marched until like 2:30, and right down Broad Street, and it led me right to the theater. And then I just walked in the theater and did the soundcheck with George Howard and did the concert. So it was crazy. It was like a parade leading into the concert. So that’s what I remember. That was killer.
TK: Which Philly venue do you like to play the most?
PB: Man I spent seven years at this one club that doesn’t even exist anymore, a place called The Five Spot, 2nd and Bank.
TK: Sure, I remember, there was a first there. They used to have Black Lily there…
PB: …and salsa. Black Lily Wednesday night, the Latin night was Thursday night. So I was there every Thursday for seven years with the Latin night. Sometimes, you know, I’d come down on Black Lily. But I did seven years with a salsa band by the name of The Latin Playboys, and in between all the tours I’d come home, and I’d go right back to The Five Spot. In addition to doing a bunch of other, you know, working corporate dates, doing concerts for weddings. I used to play at a club called The Middle East Restaurant, on Chestnut [Street]. It was owned by the Tayoun family. It was there for many many years.
TK: What was it about playing there?
PB: It was a club, man! And they treated me really well, they always fed me, [laughs], it was an open bar. And it wasn’t a lot of money, but we played there every Thursday night, a little Latin jazz set, it was cool. Like, just a great hang. You know, it was a great time, you know, it was a great, great period of a lot of vibrancy.
It’s amazing to me how much Philadelphia’s changed, ‘cause I mean I’ve been around since, you know, ‘85, and I’ve seen all these different changes, different neighborhoods, different metamorphosis of changes. A lot of gentrification, you know Northern Liberties wasn’t what it is now.
TK: Who’s your favorite Philly artist, or which Philly artist has influenced you most?
PB: Grover Washington, Jr. Yes. Absolutely. Not only was he an amazing musician — he had his own sound, he created a smooth-jazz genre, he was like the godfather of that — and not only that, he was a mentor, he was like a father, big brother. And he was a sweet, kind, generous man. Just very warm. You know he took me under his wing, and provided me with a platform, like I was playing the biggest jazz festivals in the world. It was amazing, you know. I mean everybody was in these festivals — Chaka Khan, Earth Wind and Fire, all these artists. And that was fresh out of college.
TK: What do you like most about the Philly arts scene?
PB: I think what I like most about the Philly scene is the depth of the musicians that come out of Philadelphia. Philadelphia has some great great players, really amazing players. This has been a cradle from back in the ‘50s, and maybe even before then, for like, I can’t even remember all the names, and I would offend everybody in the jazz world if I start naming people, ‘cause I will forget ‘em. ‘Cause just so many amazing people come from Philly. And a lot of them leave, but ‘til this day there’s some amazing, amazing players that, you know, are still around Philadelphia.
Last night I did a gig, man, and the sax player plays with John Legend, the trumpet player has two, three albums, the guitar player played with Jay Z — I mean, just an amazing pool, it was like a group of veteran guys that just killed. You know, and this is just a wedding! You know? And like man, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. Philadelphia has that well.
TK: What, if anything do you find most frustrating about trying to be an artist in Philly?
PB: The lack of support, I just think the political system is not really geared… musicians and artists are neglected in the United States. It’s not like being in Europe, we’re not respected. I have a specific example — I just did a major gig, which I’m not gonna say, but you know, it was really tough. And the money situation was not there. And you know, just a lotta things that I think that especially local musicians aren’t looked at on the platform we should be. A lot of artists who have international experience — like myself, I been around the world like nine times, I’ve been through like four passports — and I still get treated as though I’m a kid who just picked up an instrument at times.
TK: How do you mean, treated by whom?
PB: At times the gigs. People that are booking. The mentality of the clubs, a lotta times, and people who are booking in town — if you’re from Philadelphia, you get treated like a local artists, and you know, it’s not always a very becoming position to be in, you know? It sounds like I’m frustrated — I’m not frustrated, I’m just gonna call it like it is. I can’t mention names, and I don’t wanna go into specifics, because I don’t wanna be sued or anything. But I have some direct experiences, where you know, a pool of local musicians have not been treated with the dignity and respect that they should have.
TK: I won’t argue with you about that, but another perspective on that is that you know, Mayor Nutter, for example would set up the Office Arts, Culture and Creative Economy in City Hall, talk about how Philly’s got a huge artistic culture and platform, how we’ve got more public art than any other city in the country, and how a city’s health can be measured by the health of the arts scene. I think from the City’s perspective, they want to feel as though they’ve given artists a tremendous amount of support and leverage in this city. What more support do you feel the City could give you, if you asked for it?
PB: Music in all the schools. Community organizations with more support. Every time I look at it, an organization that I taught at for seventeen years like the Latin American Musicians’ Association [Asociacion de Musicos Latino Americanos (AMLA)], basically had to join forces with a church. That’s changed kind of the mission, and now they’re going extinct. You know, their funding is being dropped. This is the only institution that exists for the community of Latin musicians in Philadelphia. It’s something that we formed like thirty years ago, and I was a Board member, and I was Chair of the Board, and I was a teacher for seventeen years at AMLA. That’s just one example, I mean Raíces Culturales, they’re right here on 2nd Street, they’re folding. It’s an agency that was formed trying to make everyone inclusive of Latin America and their music — whether it’s salsa, yoruba, whether it’s Haitian music — it was a really cool place, but that’s gone. So I mean those are only two little examples, but I’m just thinking, you know, there are a lot of things that go on in this city, and there are a lot of things that we need to be proud of, and there are a lot of things to bang our chests about in Philadelphia. But you know, like when The Pope came to the United States, he didn’t go to places where they were doing well, he went to places where he needed to be. And I think that’s the approach that Philadelphia should take: we don’t need to bang our chest about things that we’ve done, we need to figure out what things are not being done, and how we’re losing the things that we’re doing. And as a musician and a teacher, you know, I don’t see the same environment that I saw before.
TK: Which neighborhoods have you lived in here, and which made you want to stay there, and which made you want to bail?
PB: When I first came to Philadelphia I stayed on Broad Street, in Johnson Hall at Temple University, North Broad, right at Broad and Diamond. And then I moved across the street to The Owl’s Nest [laughs], and then I moved to 17th and Diamond ‘til 1990. And then I bought my first house on 4th St. between Jefferson and Master [Streets], and I still have a house there. I don’t live there, but I rent my house. Since then I moved to Bala Cynwyd, I’ve been in Bala Cynwyd for the last seventeen years. Why did I move? At the time, when I lived on 4th Street, it wasn’t quite as gentrified as it is now, the property value, there was a lot more neighborhood stuff goin’ on, which meant inner-city crime, drugs, as the inner-city brings. And you know I have two children, I’m married, and I needed more space, and I got tired of my children being, you know, in jeopardy at all times. The streets were very urban. So I wanted to get us out of here, and we did, you know? Thank God we did well, well enough to get out of here.
TK: What was your preferred means to get around the city?
PB: Right now, well I’m visually impaired, so I’m basically always in a car, but I like Uber! [laughs] I do like Uber.
TK: You touched on this earlier, but in what ways have you seen the city change in your time living here, and has it been for the better or worse in your opinion?
PB: In some aspects I think it’s gotten really great — actually it’s gotten better, because I really love the whole gentrification of North Philadelphia. Even just being at The Boom Room with Gary Dann, I mean you know, this is an amazing building, and it just took so much insight, and creativeness to make this what it is, with the structural changes that he did, in terms of the studio. But not only that, the whole Northern Liberties area, the whole Piazza area is a beautiful area, and it’s gentrified. Temple University is gentrified a little as well. University City is really gentrified and beautiful as well. East Falls is a beautiful neighborhood. So, Philly is a beautiful town. The only thing that I’m really finding in Philly is the traffic is gettin’ crazy! It’s very difficult to get around, I been noticing it more and more, like traffic is really gettin’ dense, in the city.
But I really love all the gentrification that has occurred, I think it’s gotten more sophisticated. I just wanna see Philadelphia love the arts more man, I really wanna see them reach out more in the community and bring artists along, and I want them to celebrate the people that are still hangin’, doin’ their thing here, you know? I think a lotta times, people are overlooked, and we’re not looked at as an essential birthplace for amazing musicians, man, and there’s a lotta cats that are amazing here. You know, and I’m not tooting my horn, I’m just acknowledging all the other cats around me. You know, ALL the other cats. And there’s so many, and it’s coming from the ‘50’s. So like if we have this amazing Coltrane festival, celebrating John Coltrane, that’s an amazing acknowledgement! But more of that stuff has to happen, and more of it has to continue, you know what I mean? We have to continue to acknowledge these great artists that come from Philadelphia, it’s not just about Philly as a cradle for the Liberty Bell, which it is, and yeah it’s got amazing things, but we also have a really deep musical tradition, and I’d like to see City Hall acknowledge that more.
TK: Are you a Philly sports fan?
PB: I love the Eagles, and I’m missin’ them now… [laughs]
TK: Cunningham or McNabb?
PB: Ahhhh, I’m a Wilbert Montgomery guy! [laughs]
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