Pianist and composer Michel Camilo was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in 1954. Fascinated with music since childhood, he composed his first song at the age of five, then studied for 13 years at the National Conservatory. At 16, he became a member of the National Symphony Orchestra.
Seeking to expand his musical horizons, he moved in 1979 to New York, where he continued his studies at Mannes and Juilliard School of Music. His composition Why Not? was recorded by Paquito D'Rivera as the title tune for one of his albums, and The Manhattan Transfer won a Grammy Award for their vocal version in 1983. His first two albums were titled Why Not? and Suntan/In Trio.
Camilo made his Carnegie Hall debut with his trio in 1985. Since then, he has become a prominent figure performing regularly in the United States, the Caribbean, Japan and Europe. December 1987 marked his debut as a classical conductor when the National Symphony Orchestra of the Dominican Republic invited him to conduct a recital featuring the works of Rimsky-Korsakoff, Beethoven, Dvorak and Camilo’s own composition, The Goodwill Games Theme, which won an Emmy Award. That year, he became the musical director of the Heineken Jazz Festival in his native Dominican Republic, a post he held through 1992.
November of 1988 marked his debut on a major record label with the release of his self- titled album, Michel Camilo (Sony). The album became an instant success and held the top jazz album spot for ten consecutive weeks. His next recording, On Fire, was voted one of the top three Jazz Albums of the Year by Billboard, and 1990s On the Other Hand was a top-ten jazz album. All three releases reached the number-one position in radio airplay.
Camilo’s list of compositions, recordings and other achievements throughout the '90s is vast. His composition Caribe was recorded by pianists Katia and Marielle Lebeque, and by the legendary Dizzy Gillespie, in 1991. His Rhapsody for Two Pianos and Orchestra, commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra, premiered a year later at the Royal Festival Hall. In 1993, Gavin and Billboard magazines picked his Rendezvous as one of the top jazz albums of the year.
Camilo performed a series of piano recitals in 1996 as part of Copenhagen’s Cultural Capital of Europe celebration, and also debuted at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, and Carnegie Hall in New York. That same year, he performed in Israel, Spain, Mexico, Dominican Republic and Switzerland, where he debuted at Zurich’s prestigious Tonhalle concert hall as part of the Jazz Piano Masters series.
He served as co-artistic director in 1998 for the first Latin-Caribbean Music Festival at the Kennedy Center, which featured performances by his trio and big band, as well as the world premiere of his Piano Concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. The following year, he toured with Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdes, and debuted with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.
In addition to compiling an extensive discography and maintaining a rigorous performance schedule, Camilo has composed and recorded a number of Spanish film scores over the years, and holds honorary degrees from his alma mater, Universidad Autonoma de Santo Domingo, and UTESA University of Santiago, Dominican Republic (he’s the youngest person to ever receive the distinction from the latter school). In 1992, he was named a Knight of the Heraldic Order of Christopher Columbus by the Dominican Government.
At the turn of the millennium, his 2000 Verve release, Spain, with guitarist Tomatito, won Best Latin Jazz Album in the first-ever Latin Grammy Awards. Camilo also performed in a trio concert in 2000 presented by the New Jersey Chamber Society with special guest Paquito D'Rivera.
In 2001, Camilo appeared on the soundtrack CD for the acclaimed Latin jazz film Calle 54, directed by the Oscar-winning Spaniard Fernando Trueba. In addition to his activities as a composer and pianist, Camilo lectured and performed at many universities and colleges throughout Europe and the United States—including New York University, Berklee School of Music, MIT, William Paterson College (in New Jersey) and Puerto Rico Conservatory.
In November 2001, he was awarded the Silver Cross of the Order of Duarte, Sanchez & Mella from the president of the Dominican Republic, the highest honor that the government can give.
2002 marked a special year for Camilo with two albums: Classical and Jazz. In February, Decca released his Concerto for Piano & Orchestra, Suite for Piano, Strings and Harp & Caribe, to celebrate his guest appearance with the NSO conducted by Leonard Slatkin at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
In March 2002, Telarc released Triangulo, Camilo’s Grammy Award nominee trio recording, which features bass guitarist Anthony Jackson and drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez.
August 2003 marked the Telarc release of his latest album Live at the Blue Note, featuring Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez on drums and Charles Flores on acoustic bass. This two-CD set captures the quintessential Camilo “sound” live for the first time and was awarded a GRAMMY for Best Latin Jazz Album.