Spanish Harlem Orchestra

Now in its tenth year, the Grammy-winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra is one of the most formidable and authentic Latin jazz combos of the present day. Yet for all of its appeal and success with contemporary audiences, SHO’s success is actually rooted in the past. The 13-piece collective owes its front-line status to an unwavering respect for the music’s rich history and a tenacious adherence to the music’s enduring traditions.

Pianist, bandleader, producer and SHO founder Oscar Hernandez, began his career as an arranger and musical director in the 1970s for artists like Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Celia Cruz and many others. “And Spanish Harlem Orchestra, since its earliest days ten years ago, has accompanied many great artists as well. Indeed, Hernandez is all about tradition. Although born into a large Puerto Rican family living in the Bronx, it was the nearby Spanish Harlem neighborhood that shaped his cultural musical sensibilities. The soundtrack to this bustling enclave in the ‘60s was a mix of Latin jazz and American pop radio emanating from any given window on any given day.

“When people tell me we should do it this way or that way in order to make it more commercially successful, I just don’t think that way,” he says. “I don’t function on that level. That’s not to say I don’t want to be commercially successful. Of course that’s very important, but it’s not the primary driving force behind what we do. These musicians are all people who care very much about what we’re doing as a group.”

What’s more, they understand what it means to play under the banner of Spanish Harlem Orchestra. “Spanish Harlem is kind of a microcosm of Latinos in New York,” says Hernandez. “It’s an important place culturally for our people and our music. Just like Harlem was extremely important culturally for African Americans, so was Spanish Harlem for Latinos. We’re not a bunch of flyweights who took the name as some kind of ethnic gimmick. We’re the real deal, and we earned the right to take that name.”