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Horacio 'El Negro' Hernandez : One Size Fits All

By Published: February 23, 2004
"When they denied me political asylum in Rome, I called Paquito D'Rivera and he called Dizzy Gillespie. And I had played with Dizzy two times in Cuba. Each time he went to Cuba, he couldn't bring his drummer, because he was a Cuban escapee. So I always played with Dizzy in Cuba. So I called Paquito, and Paquito called Dizzy and all of the sudden I get a phone call from the American Embassy in Rome, giving me a date to come," he explains. "So I go to the meeting with the counsel and this man tells me that I have very influential friends in the United States, which I didn't even know. I still don't know," he adds, chuckling.

"He said 'Mr. Dizzy Gillespie has requested your visa from the United States so everything is going to be all right. You're going to come to the United States. All you have to do is call this number every week until your visa comes, and then you can stay.' So I was the happiest man in the world. So I called the first week and they told me my visa was not ready. I called the next week, the same thing. And then the third week, Dizzy Gillespie passed away. So after he passed away, they told me instead of calling every week, call every two weeks. The thing was that the visa never got there. So I was in Rome for two and a half years."

All was not lost. He put his drive and energy into studying the drums even harder, teaching, and gigging around Italy.

"It was sort of a period in my life — I had never before studied like that. They gave me all the possibilities and the time. I was stationed in a school and I had a very nice place to practice my stuff. It was years of playing with every single Roman jazz musician and at the same time practicing like a dog. And teaching too. Practicing, really, was those two years and a half."

And then he met a man who would help him get away again.

"A friend of mine asked me if I had a place in my house for a friend of his from Miami who was just staying for a few days. I said yes. And the guy came," says El Negro. He described the man as being in the business of making such things happen — on the sly, of course. "I told him the whole story that I wanted to go to the United States. And he offered to bring me with a false passport. So that's how it happened. Cubans have the right of asylum once they get into American territory, but the problem is just to get here. So this guy brought me here with a false passport."

El Negro made it to Miami, then took a plane to New York. If he thought things were going well, he was about to fall into more serendipity.

"I had an Italian friend that got me a small apartment here [New York], a sublet. I get into New York and I walk into this apartment — with a drum set!" he says, still incredulous. "And a million jazz records, in the center of the East Village!"

It turned out the apartment that had been sublet to his friend, then El Negro himself, was that of drummer Jeff Ballard, now working with Chick Corea. So it was equipped to his liking by sheer good fortune. "And all of the sudden I was in the heart of New York in an apartment with a drum set. And every single jazz record you can imagine. I called Paquito D'Rivera the first day I came. And he said 'Wow, how are you here?' I said 'Don't worry, I'm here.' He said, 'OK, tomorrow we go into the studio.' And I did my first record here the first day after I came. That was Forty Years of Cuban Jam Sessions, Paquito's record."

But once in New York, El Negro didn't have the necessary documents to travel, so he lost all gigs that involved touring — for two years. It didn't stop him. No surprise, since nothing else had.

"I went to play in every club in New York, every small club in New York for two years. I was playing everything. Jazz, blues, folk, everything. With everyone, until I got the papers, and then life switched. At that time, I was going to see everyone, every night. Especially, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, before he went to L.A. I am still a big fan of his drumming. Him and Tony Campbell and Billy Hart, all the drummers that live in the city. We all became very good friends."

Once mobile, he got more work, began touring, and has been busy ever since. It even included a stint with Latin rock legend Santana.

"That came about out of a concert I did in San Francisco with Irakere. And the drummer Enrique Plï, was not able to make the trip. So they called me, they knew I was living in New York at the time. They found me and called me to play this concert with them. And then Santana showed up at the concert. I told him, 'Man, I would love to play with you one day.' A year and a half after that I got a call from him, asking me to join the band. So I went and did it for almost two years, but then they wanted me to move to California, and I didn't want to. I really loved New York and the New York music scene. So that was the ending of it."

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