Camilo was born into a musical family and as a young child showed aptitude for the accordion that his parents gave him. Although he enjoyed the accordion, it was his grandparents' piano that sparked his interest the most, so at aged 9 he asked his parents to buy him one. Their response was to first send him to the Elementary Music School, part of the National Conservatory, and then a year later to grant his wish.
The formal system of the music school taught Camilo to play in the classical style, and by age 16 he was playing with the National Symphony Orchestra of the Dominican Republic.[2] Camilo comments on his first encounter with the sounds of jazz, in an interview[3]with the All About Jazz website:
"The first time I heard jazz was when I was 14 and a half. I heard the great Art Tatum on the radio playing his solo piano rendition of 'Tea for Two.' That immediately caught my ear. I just wanted to soak it in, to learn to play that style. Then I found out it was jazz."
Camilo studied for 13 years at the National Conservatory, and whilst developing his strong classical abilities was also heavily influenced by the bop tradition, and by the contemporary jazz of Herbie HancockKeith JarrettChick Corea and Amilton Godoy (Zimbo Trio's pianist). His influences at this time also included Horace SilverErroll Garner, and the ragtime music of Scott Joplin.
When the Harvard University Jazz Band visited the Dominican Republic and heard Camilo at a jam session, the bandleader encouraged him, 'You should be in the States', and so the idea was planted. In 1979, Camilo moved to New York to study at Mannes College and at The Juilliard School, and broke onto the international stage in 1983 when Tito Puente's pianist was unable to make a concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival. On a recommendation, without hearing him, Puente asked Camilo to play. Cuban reedman Paquito D'Rivera was in the audience and offered him a place in his band. For four years, Camilo toured internationally with D'Rivera and recorded two albums with him.
Camilo's emergence as a star in his own right began around 1985, the year he debuted with his trio at Carnegie Hall.[2] In that same year he toured Europe with Paquito D’Rivera's quintet, and recorded his first album, Why Not?, for Japan's King label. Suntan / In Trio had a trio with Anthony Jackson on the bass and Dave Weckl on the drums. In 1988, Camilo debuted on a major record label, Sony, with the release of Michel Camilo, which became a bestseller and held the top jazz album spot for ten consecutive weeks. Special guests joined in with Camilo, such as percussionist Sammy Figueroa and tap dancer Raul. Other bestselling albums followed and so did the accolades, including a Grammy and anEmmy. Camilo's collaborative 2000 album with flamenco guitarist Tomatito Spain won Best Latin Jazz Album in the first Latin Grammy Awards.
As well as being an outstanding performer, Camilo is a talented composer and has written scores for several Spanish language films including Los Peores Años de Nuestra Vidaand the award-winning Amo Tu Cama Rica.
Camilo tours extensively, and lectures in Europe, the US, and in the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico. He holds several honorary degrees, a Visiting Professorship and a Doctorate at Berklee College of Music, and has been honored in his home country by being named a Knight of the Heraldic Order of Christopher Columbus, and being awarded the Silver Cross of the Order of Duarte, Sanchez & Mella.
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