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Spanish Harlem Orchestra's Latin jazz will have fans dancing in their seats at the Sheldon

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra
Spanish Harlem Orchestra
The Spanish Harlem Orchestra brings its blend of Latin jazz and salsa music to the Sheldon Concert Hall tonight.

Oscar Hernandez has been playing Latin jazz and salsa music for more than four decades, and in that time he’s performed with some of that music’s greatest performers, but also seen people turn away from their musical heritage.

So when Hernandez gets a chance to share the Latin music tradition that emerged from New York with a multigenerational crowd, he counts his blessings.

“I always say thank God for the intelligent, discerning fans that go beyond the commercial [music] that they’re fed continually in this country,” Hernandez said recently. “They go out and seek something better than that. And that’s who our audience is. That’s who our fans are.”

Tonight, Hernandez brings the Spanish Harlem Orchestra to the Sheldon Concert Hall. Although many of the ensemble’s numbers celebrate the relationship between the music and dancers, Hernandez said the show is well suited for a concert hall as it will showcase expert musicianship.

“I love playing for sit-down performing arts centers’ audiences,” the pianist said. “As much as it is dance music — ‘cause it is dance music — I want the people to understand and listen to the beauty of the music from a listening perspective. And often times dances trivializes that.”

But however much they listen, concert-goers likely will be dancing in their seats to the beat of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. The band can transport listeners back to the golden era of Latin music in the 1940s and 50s, when bandleaders like Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodriguez lured dancers to New York City clubs like the Palladium.

Hernandez, 63, grew up listening to the music in the South Bronx.

“Latin music was the music that I heard from every other door and every other window where I grew up,” he recalled. “And it was at a time during the cultural development of Latinos in the city of New York.”

Pianist Oscar Hernandez
Credit Spanish Harlem Orchestra
Pianist Oscar Hernandez founded the Spanish Harlem Orchestra 15 years ago.

He was an emerging musician as a teen, just as the famed Fania Music label remade the music with its fusion of Latin-American rhythms and the urban vibe of New York City Streets. Hernandez, who admired Celia Cruz, Willie Colon, Ruben Blades, Ray Barretto and other stars, would eventually perform with them. But he got his start performing with singer Ismael Miranda, whom Hernandez described as the Marc Anthony of his day.

Since then, Hernandez has become a sought-after pianist, composer and music director – in the studio, on stage and on Broadway. He produced the music for “The Capeman,” Paul Simon’s Broadway musical, and he handled the orchestration and arrangement for singer Gloria Estefan’s Broadway musical “On Your Feet.”

But his biggest claim to fame has been the Grammy-winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra, which he founded 15 years ago.

The 13-member band thrives on strong musicianship and a time-tested blend of horns, vocals and percussion.

“With Spanish Harlem Orchestra you get the best of both worlds," Hernandez said. “You get a great dance band. But you get also a Latin band that is sophisticated harmonically, sophisticated in terms of arrangements, sophisticated in terms of musicians who create and improvise on the spot — which is not happening in commercial music any more.”

The band’s repertoire owes a lot to the collaborations between Afro-Cuban musicians and their north American counterparts in the 1940s and 50s. Cuba’s 1959 revolution severed those ties for a long while. But Hernandez as well as other Puerto Rican performers and Latin Americans like Blades, of Panama, kept those ties alive while also adding to the style.

But Hernandez said the Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s music also springs from the path the music took in New York, where Latin jazz musicians developed their art as intensely as other jazz artists did.

He sees his mission as attracting people of all generations to the band’s shows, where they can see and hear stellar improvisations.

“I’m clear on the music, I’m clear on the path, I’m clear on the history, I’m clear on the evolution. And I’m clear on how beautiful a music it is,” said Hernandez. “And I don’t feel it merits to take a back seat to any other style of music, you know.”

Follow David on Twitter: @dpcazares

If You Go

What: Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Co-presented by the Hispanic Arts Council of St. Louis

When: 8 p.m., tonight

Where: Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Blvd., St. Louis

Tickets: $35-$40

David is the health, science and arts & culture editor for St. Louis Public Radio.