Jesse Bermudez, a love story for music
In honor of this legend of salsa and Latin Jazz in Philadelphia, here we review his career during his 79 years of life.
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Music always accompanied Jesse Bermudez in all stages of his life, standing out through 40 years as a musician, DJ, producer, performer, presenter and educator in the city of Philadelphia. According to his closest friends and family, his greatest love was music. But beyond his passion for Latin jazz and salsa, Jesse cherished each of his ancestors, his friends, his children, his grandchildren and his wife during his 79 years of life.
Born of Puerto Rican father and Cuban mother, music was never absent at home. During his childhood, the first thing that caught his attention were the traditional Puerto Rican parrandas held by his family, where he became interested in music and typical instruments, such as the cuatro, the maracas and the güiro.
For his wife, Daisy Bermudez, the parrandas sparked Jesse’s interest in spreading the word about Latin music around the United States, especially in Philadelphia. “He was forward thinking. He always wanted his community to rise up and always told them ‘You have to find that voice and give it to your community’. He was all about music and educating everyone in the community”, Daisy confessed in a phone interview with AL DÍA.
At the age of 17, Jesse enlisted in the U.S. Navy to get away from the violence that plagued his neighborhood at the time. While serving in South Carolina, he experienced prejudice and racism for being Latino, something he did not expect to encounter in a place like the Navy.
Back in Philadelphia, the city where he was born and raised, Jesse began playing Doo-Wop and R&B in the neighborhood with his friends. It was there where his career took off and he refined his talent playing the piano and guitar, an instrument he learned to play thanks to his father.
In the mid seventies, Jesse turned his attention to the Latin music market in Philadelphia as a performer and promoter, managing to produce the most important salsa concert in the area: “Salsa con Salsa”. This event brought together legendary artists such as Celia Cruz, Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe and Carlos Santana, among others.
Twelve years later, Jesse founded the American Latin Musicians Association (AMLA, in Spanish Asociación de Musicos Latino Americanos), now called American Latin Artists and Musicians, with the intention of promoting the development, dissemination and understanding of Latin music and culture through education to children, youth and adults. Under Bermudez’s tutelage, AMLA produced a group of professional musicians and international artists including Edgar Joel, Anthony Colon, Ray Viera, Carlos Sánchez, Luis Figueroa, Elio Villafranca, Elvis Bonilla, Foto Rodriguez and Pablo Batista.
“Things started to get better for musicians in the city because of Jesse. My career would never have been what it is now if it hadn’t been for him. I couldn’t have done it without my friend Jesse”, said percussion master Pablo Batista, who has recorded for 30 years with the biggest stars in rhythm, blues, jazz, Latin and pop music, such as Alicia Keys, Dianne Reeves and Eddie Palmieri.
Today, AMLA is a non-profit organization and subsidiary of Esperanza Inc. in charge of providing educational programs on audio production and songwriting for social justice and anti-violence, as well as workshops and artist residencies on the roots of Latin culture.
Jesse also co-founded ‘Siempre Salsa Philly’ with his close friends Rob Bernberg and Carlos Sánchez. It was created with the purpose of increasing the audience of salsa lovers in the Philadelphia region through concerts and free dance classes.
In 2009, Jesse was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Jazz Album category along with trombonist Papo Vazquez for the album Marooned/Aislado. Bermudez was the executive producer of the album. “There is not and never will be someone like Jesse Bermudez. Jesse and I have a very long trajectory. He always supported me in my career”, confessed Vázquez in an interview with AL DÍA.
The love of his family
Jesse was a mentor to many, including his family. To his oldest daughter, Sarah Bermúdez, Jesse was her friend, advisor and loyal confidant. He was her safe space, her inspiration and the one who always had the answers to her questions. “My dad was an amazing father. He was a perpetual learner and always did what was right. He was an anthropologist of sorts and the first person I would call, other than my husband, to talk to and get his outside point of view”, Sarah confessed.
Jesse influenced his family so much that Sarah’s son, known artistically as Mark Anthony, decided to follow in his grandfather’s musical footsteps. From the age of 6, Mark Anthony became interested in music by learning to play the recorder, saxophone and drums. As soon as Jesse learned of his grandson’s interest, he supported him in everything he needed to record his songs and shape his career. Currently, Mark Anthony is a Rap, Hip Hop and R&B singer.
“From him I learned the work ethic and dedication. That if you persevere, you will eventually find your passion and love in life. I think one of the things I inherited from him was to never stop believing in myself. He had a very interesting humor. He would try to teach you things and instead of yelling if you were wrong or getting mad at you, he would just make jokes that made the learning process easier. That’s how I remember him”, Jesse’s grandson added to AL DÍA.
According to family members, Jesse stood out for his calm manner and his comedic side to coping with life. “He was serious about music and his business. But around the family and with me, he was very talkative. I would tell him something and he would come out with a song. He would make a song out of everything and if it were up to him, there would have been a party every day”, said Daisy.
Jesse and Daisy made their relationship official in 2008, although they knew each other long before that. The first time they met was 40 years ago and, since then, they have been inseparable and best friends.
His last days
After suffering for five years from lung cancer and cardiac arrhythmia, Jesse’s health worsened over time. He went through two heart attacks and a deep operation where 60 % of his lungs were removed. “When his children would ask him how he felt, he would always answer ‘I feel like a million in one dollar’”, said Daisy.
Jesse Bermudez passed away in his wife’s arms on September 13th, 2022. Immediately, the community of musicians and artists in Philadelphia mourned the departure of the salsa and Latin jazz legend.
“Perhaps the most imprinting influence Mr. Bermudez has left is that scores of underprivileged Latino youth have found a lifelong path of positivity through the discipline and sense of community derived from an effective music education”. —Rob Bernberg
On September 23th, Jesse was the AL DÍA Performing Arts Archetype for the 2022 Hispanic Heritage Awards. Daisy Bermudez and Rob Bernberg accepted the award in honor of his musical career. “I lost my best friend. We were inseparable. He never turned his back on me and I never turned my back on him”, his widow concluded.
Recognitions and awards
Throughout his career, Bermúdez received numerous awards and mentions, including: Campeón de los Niños (2007), WPVI TV-6 Community Award, Latin Beat Magazine’s Siempre Salsa Award, Puerto Rican Alliance Award and Barrio Salsa Award (2006).
Having participated in dozens of collaborations with local, regional and national arts and cultural organizations, including the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts and the Philadelphia Jazz Project, Bermúdez received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures in 2022.
In appreciation of his many cultural contributions, City Council voted unanimously to designate July 8th as “Jesse Bermudez Day” throughout Philadelphia. Jesse was also recognized as one of “PA’s 2018 100 Most Influential Leaders” by Latino Connection and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf's Latino Advisory Commission.
Memorable quotes from Jesse Bermudez
“Follow your heart, but take your mind on the journey”
“Latin music, when done well, has the ability to evoke the full range of human emotions, from unbounded joy to the deepest sadness. It allows us to transcend our personal emotional boundaries in a non-verbal way and experience the world around us in deeper, more meaningful tones”
“My creative process is based on truth, empathy and professionalism. As a musicologist, I have spent decades studying the history of Latin music and its associated artistic and cultural values, so ‘getting it right’ is my first priority. In addition, empathy allows me to put myself in the shoes of the audience I’m addressing”