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Paquito D'Rivera: Jazz at the Heart


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I am very proud to be a Cuban American, to be able do the music that I love, and to be accepted in a city and a country that I came to, fearing for my life ... It's a pity that I had to do it the way I did.
There is almost nothing Paquito D'Rivera hasn't accomplished since his arrival on the U.S. jazz scene in the early 1980s, when the young Cuban arrived from Spain—the first spot he hid when he defected from his home nation and its Communist rule that denied personal freedoms and forced musicians playing jazz to call it something else in order to avoid punishment.

It was in Madrid that he bided his time until he could make it to New York City, a location where he longed—dreamed—to make music—far so many years. Worth the wait.

Since then, the 62-year-old reed man (alto saxophone and clarinet)/composer/arranger has won nine Grammy Awards in Latin, jazz and classical categories and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Carnegie Hall for his contributions to Latin music. In 2005, he received the esteemed status as National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, the same year he went to the White House for the National Medal for the Arts, with people like Wynton Marsalis and actor Robert Duvall. In 2007, D'Rivera was honored with the Living Jazz Legend award in a ceremony at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, DC.

So there's much to appreciate about this proud Cuban-American, and so very much music to enjoy. It's all come after paying some heavy dues. D'Rivera doesn't stand pat, however. He's continually writing and performing music. He's always working on new projects and ideas. He's even written two books, including his memoirs, and is looking for a publisher for a third.

In 2010, he had two recordings released, Panamerican Suite, a project with a large band released on the MCG Jazz label, and Tango Jazz: Live at Lincoln Center, a smaller group encounter on his own Paquito Records, being distributed by Sunnyside. The latter came out November 2010.

It seems like a lot, but music has always been the life force for this child prodigy who was performing live at the age of seven and performed with the National Theater Orchestra of Havana at the age of 10. He has more than 30 albums under his own name to his credit.

Panamerican Suite was recorded in April 2008, but "I never found the right time to put it out," Rivera said.

"Finally, MCG put it out together with my own production (Tango Jazz), so I am competing with myself," he added. "It's nice because we were having so much fun when we recorded Panamerican. Putting all those friends together and all those different instruments. It was fun. Then, Tango Jazz is like an old dream. Recording a CD of tango music with jazz, with real tango musicians imported from Argentina, was a thrill for me."

The suite album is a thoroughly engaging marriage of Latin and jazz, the writing coming from inspirations with origins from Canada to South America. All have the unmistakable Latin rhythms that are so ingrained in D'Rivera's joyous soul.

"I like combining the different rhythms and melodies from America. Those rhythms are very much influenced by Africa. It's in my blood. It's part of my title," he notes. The idea came in 2000 Marsalis asked him to write music for the Jazz at Lincoln Center organization.

"They have a series and they commissioned two jazz composers. The other composer was Nicholas Payton, the great trumpet player from New Orleans. He composed an entire first part, and then they thought about the contribution of musicians from the Latin American regions to the jazz language. So I talked to my friend, the poet Annie Colina, who lived in exile for many years. I asked her to write for me a poem that paid tribute to the entire continent. Not only to North America but Central and South America and the Caribbean. Then I put music to this poem ("Song for Peace"), using not only elements, but different instruments from different parts of Latin America. The bandoneon from Argentina. The bata drums from Cuba, the Venezuelan cuatro, the marimba from Central America. The steel pan drums from the Caribbean Sea. The result was the 'Panamerican Suite.'"

It premiered before Jazz at Lincoln Center had its own building. Later, it was recorded live at Manchester Craftsmen Guild in Pittsburgh. "Most of my music is recorded live. I usually like that," he adds.

At the center of the orchestral large band is a core of musicians D'Rivera has worked with often in recent years. He calls it his "elastic quintet" because the members can fluctuate a bit and the numbers can grow beyond a quintet at times. The music can also flow into different areas. He notes with glee, "Someone wrote the Paquito D'Rivera Quintet?' With a question mark. Because I have an elastic quintet. It depends on who's coming to sit in, or how big is the budget. It's an elastic quintet. I love working with that band because I get the opportunity to work with people I don't see very often. Like Dave Samuels (on vibes). Or the fantastic Dana Leong (cello and trombone). Or Edmar Casteneda on harp, who is a unique musician. It's a pleasure working with that band." Also his wife, Brenda Feliciano, a soprano singer from Puerto Rico who is heard on the suite's "Song for Peace."

The album dedicated to Argentina's national treasure—the tango—is also a live recording. D'Rivera said his youth in Cuba was filled with Argentine movies, due to the influence of Che Guevera, the Argentine Marxist revolutionary who was pivotal in the overthrow of the Battista regime in Cuba and the rise to power of Fidel Castro. Within those films was tango music. Astor Piazzolla, a legend in the genre, had a love for jazz. Jazz in many corners has also taken on a love for Piazzolla over the years.

D'Rivera says in the 1970s, that "a friend mine had an LP of Astor Piazzolla. It made a great impact on me. That music is so strong. A lot of emotion. Always I wanted to do an entire tango CD." The result is this record with the Pablo Aslan ensemble that includes the Argentine bassist with Michael Zisman on bandoneon and Daniel "Pipi" Piazzolla, grandson of Astor, on drums. Of Aslan, D'Rivera says "He knows so much about this music, the styles and the different rhythms, the orchestras, the composers." The disk displays the grandeur and, emotion and joy of tango, inflected by jazz.

On both disks, as on all his recordings, D'Rivera is a virtuoso soloist, soaring and winding through all the intricate melodies and moods, soft or frantic. He blows with ease and grace, but that's not to say it doesn't get hot and gritty when called for, like on "Close Encounter of the Fourth Kind." D'Rivera plays himself—upbeat, buoyant, blissful, adventurous.

It's a playing style with its origins in Havana, where young D'Rivera was born to a father, Tito, who was a classical saxophonist and arranger who wrote some jazz pieces and had some jazz records. He was also a representative for the Selmer instrument company, so he was able to import from the U.S. a small soprano sax that his son started playing at age 5. He soon switched to alto. "Ever since, I have tried to get my act together and lived to play that thing," quips D'Rivera.

At the age of six or seven, Tito played the famous Benny Goodman LP, Live at Carnegie Hall (Columbia, 1938), for his son. It ignited a love for jazz and also clarinet, which D'Rivera would play later. (He received training at age 12, when he enrolled in the Havana Conservatory of Music to study clarinet and music composition). While D'Rivera has played classical, pop, and all manner of Latin genres, "Jazz has been wonderful for me" since that indoctrination by the Goodman record, he says. "Jazz is very special to me. Pretty close to my heart. And I can make a living out of it. So I go for it. I have no complaints."

"Paul Desmond. The Dave Brubeck quartet. Before that Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman," were among the sounds the young D'Rivera was hearing at home. "My father loved Stan Getz and also Lester Young. And later on, of course, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. John Coltrane."

An American iconic radio voice also helped D'Rivera's education about the sounds of America to the north. Willis Conover's "Voice of America" program was something valued overseas and often cited as a key conduit for bringing jazz to Eastern Europe. That also applied to Cuba.

"That was the person who saved our life when Castro took power," says D'Rivera. After Castro took over, "People stopped coming and stopped going out of the country. (There were) no records. So Willis Conover was a savior for us jazz musicians in Cuba."

His compositional skills were also honed early. "I am mainly a player," he says, "but I used to write some little pieces. I remember the first commission that I had. It was not big at all, but friends of mine said, 'You should write something for the afternoon concert for tomorrow.' I wrote something for three clarinets called 'Habanera.' I was inspired by Maurice Ravel's 'Habanera.' I was a fan or Ravel's writing. That was my first commission. For three clarinets. Many years later I put it in a suite called 'Aires Tropicales' for woodwind quintet [Commissioned by the Aspen Wind Quintet and premiered in New York City in 1994]. 'Habanera' is there almost intact. About 20 years later."

His life was immersed on music and it kept him out of trouble. How could there be time for trouble? D'Rivera became a founding member of Orquestra Cubana de Musica Moderna at about the age of 17 and he conducted the orchestra for two years, while also performing with the Cuban National Symphony. It was a group of musicians in Orquestra Cubana de Musica Moderna who got together in 1972 to form Irakere, a configuration that made big waves in the music world. Members included D'Rivera, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and pianist Chucho Valdes, and their blend of Latin, rock, and another form gave the band a big name, with worldwide touring and a list of recordings, of which 1979's Irakere (Columbia) won a U.S. Grammy.

That other form in the Irakere musical melting pot? Shhhhhh. It was jazz. But it wasn't stated loudly in Cuba—Irakere was a pop group if anyone asked.

"They didn't want to hear the word 'jazz' down there in those days," D'Rivera recalls. "Jazz was a four-letter word" because it was associated with the United States and democracy. "That's what it is. They called it imperialist music. The same thing happened in China. And the Soviet Union. We jazz musicians have problems all over the world. They don't want to understand us." Musicians who wanted to play jazz had to sneak around "all the time. Even the name Irakere is an African name used to hide the jazz element in our playing." It involved "different rhythms and voice. Singing pop music, Afro-Cuban music in order to disguise all the jazz elements." To be found playing American music would mean punishment.

So as D'Rivera and Sandoval blared hot jazz improvisations, the government "didn't notice anything," he says, chuckling. "Some politicians are very stupid." he adds, "It was a fantastic experience. A very fine group of musicians. We mixed Afro-Cuban drums with jazz and all that. It was a great experience." It also led to a pivotal, monumental event that changed his life forever. And allowed the young musician to chase, and reach, his dreams.

On tour with Irakere in 1981, at age 32, the airplane touched down in Madrid, just a stopover before the band went on to Sweden. D'Rivera had his mind made up.

"They had this sad event at the Peruvian embassy." he says, referring to April 1980 when a hijacked bus crashed through the gates of the embassy. More than 11,000 Cubans claimed refugee status behind the gates. Not long after, more than 100,000 Cubans left the country via the Mariel Boatlift. "I decided I had to leave the country for good. I didn't even start the tour. It was the first place we landed, in Madrid."

In his memoir, My Sax Life (Northwestern University Press, 2005), he describes extreme nerves and fear as the reality of carrying out his plan came to a head. He watched Valdes walking to board the plane and took action, streaking down an "up" escalator, nervously got through customs on his work visa, grabbed a cab and made it to the home of another exiled Cuban, the daughter of a friend of his. He had made arrangements with his friend in advance, and the daughter accepted him and provided shelter.

"I decided I had to go to some other place, to the place of my dreams, which was New York," recalls D'Rivera. His parents had defected and lived in New York. But more than that, it represented American jazz and its major creators and practitioners. "That was the beginning of the end. I stayed in Madrid for almost six months and then I came here and the rest is history ... In that book I described the terrible things that happened to me. How I lost my marriage and the childhood of my son. You have to do a lot of concessions in order to pursue your dreams. It's not very easy. But if I had to do it again, I would do it again."

His animosity toward Cuban government remains and he holds to the stance that other countries should not be conciliatory with his native land. He points to the case of Guillermo Farinas, a Cuban psychologist, independent journalist, psychiatrist and member of the opposition, who was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament in 2010, but last December was denied permission to go accept the award in France. Fariñas has been imprisoned 11 different times for his advocacy for a peaceful transition to democracy.

"That happens all the time. All the time," says D'Rivera, who has been consistently outspoken on the cause of freedom for Cuba. "They control your life and everything you do. And [other countries] think they are going to change it by being congenial and positive with the government. They are not going to change shit. When these racists were in South Africa, [the U.S.] declared an embargo and boycott against them. And that was a victory for Nelson Mandela. By boycotting anything that is unjust."

"We have to change the dictatorship. Not the relationship." he says. "The entire planet should be more strict with these people. It has been 52 years. This is too much. They insist on sending orchestras and they send the ballet. The New York Philharmonic was going to be there. The same thing in North Korea. What happened? They sent the New York Philharmonic. Big deal. What happened? Nothing. They [North Korea] are making a bomb now. [chuckles] We send the New York Philharmonic, they make a bigger bomb. I don't think you have to be very intelligent to understand that. You are not going to improve their behavior until you speak the same language they speak." Harsh and unbending.

Once in New York, Dizzy Gillespie, among the first to champion Latin music and use it in jazz, helped the young musician, as he later did when Sandoval defected and made it to the U.S. "He was a great man. Kind of a mentor," says D'Rivera. "Not only a great musician who made a big career for himself, but he also helped others with their own careers. I am an example of that."

"It was colder than I thought, but it was great," he says gleefully recalling his arrival in the Big Apple. "This is the type of town I like. This is my kind of town. Everything happens. I had this friend, Esko Linavalli, a pianist and conductor in Finland. He was looking at (New York City alternative newspaper) the Village Voice and he said, 'What's happening here in New York in one day happens in any other part of the planet in two years. Maybe more.' Yeah. New York is very special. Like Frank Sinatra said, it's such a fantastic town you have to say the name two times. New York, New York."

Things moved slow at first, but the same year he arrived, Toots Thielemans was scheduled to be the guest artist with Gillespie's group on a two-month European tour. Unfortunately, the harmonica great had a stroke and Gillespie asked D'Rivera to be his guest artist in Europe for a tour of two months. "I said, 'Dizzy, I am not the same as Toots Thielemans.' He said, 'You want to do the tour, or you don't?' I said, 'OK. I will go with you.' And that was the thing that opened the door for me. I had my first European tour (as a leader) the following year, 1982."

Others extending themselves to D'Rivera were Bruce Lundvall, then at CBS. Records. His first two solo recordings, Paquito Blowin' (1981) and Mariel (1982) were on that label. "Also, David Amran gave me a lot of work. And Mario Bauza commissioned me to write some charts for his big band. He was helpful."

Over the last three decades, D'Rivera's career has been as steady as it has been remarkable. He plays jazz concerts and festivals all over and has performed with the greats in the business. But he's also performed with the London Royal Symphony, the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, the Costa Rica National Symphony, the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra and more. He writes for big ensembles and small. He recorded three of his chamber compositions with Yo-Yo Ma at Carnegie Hall.

Despite calling himself "mainly a player," he's been awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition, and was composer-in-residence at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts with the Orchestra of St. Luke's. There have been other works commissioned, and surely more to come.

Through all this, the New York area is still home and still the backdrop for so many influences and ideas. "I feel very good about the music scene in New York and the world in general. There is always something interesting to see," he says. "There are always talented people that come out. People like Esperanza Spalding, for example. The saxophonist from Puerto Rico, David Sanchez. There are so many players around of all ages. I was listening to the radio to a fantastic big band arrangement by a clarinetist that can be none other than the great Eddie Daniels. I forget to call Eddie to tell him how much I admire him. There are not too many clarinet players. Anat Cohen and Victor Goines. Clarinet is an elite section of the jazz division."

And despite his musical activities in a broad range of styles, jazz is still one of the apples of his eye.

"I am a musician in general. But jazz is my main type. I like all different new scenes around, but jazz, in my mind, is like my black beans and rice," says D'Rivera. "The entire concept I like. It's a music of immigrants, because this is a country of immigrants. The contribution of everybody here and every ability, special to jazz. I am existing in a very creative environment. There are creative people and very ingenious people around in the jazz community."

And for D'Rivera, he will always inject those infectious Latin rhythms into his expressions. That means some different types of projects D'Rivera has his eyes on somewhere on the horizon.

"Tito Puente told me that anything you play, if you add some Latin rhythm it's going to sound better. Always he'd say that. And he's right. The inclusion of Latin American rhythms to any melody enhances the music. I have a dream to put together one day a couple movements of Mozart and Beethoven and put the rhythm section in the middle. To accompany what is written I have practiced with the radio and it really works. And it will work. The problem with the classical people is they are not used to following the rhythm section. To us, it's like the engine of the train. To them, the engine of the train is the conductor. When you tell them, 'Don't follow the conductor. Follow the bongo player or the drummer,' they look at you like you are a Martian or something," he says in his characteristic playful way. "But I have managed to do it once in a while in certain orchestras. With relative success. One day I'll put that together."

Even opera is fair game for this curious musician and he has written music in that vein. "I'm still looking for promoters and producers to put it together in the States. Opera is a big word, so it's a lot of work and It's not easy. I am still working on that."

Then there's his journalistic pursuits, the third of which will be anecdotes from his years of traveling around the world. (His first book was a novel, Oh, La Habana, published in Spain by Mteditores). "I'm looking for an agent. It's called Portraits and Landscapes. I put it out in Spanish and it was presented at the Miami book fair. It's a traveling book. I am looking for a publisher in English though. A lot of anecdotes of musicians and animals and old cars, etc." Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Celia Cruz, Piazzolla and other acquaintances will be found in the pages.

That's a load of activities in a colorful career. The passionate D'Rivera has miles to go before he sleeps and is humbled and thankful for the road that is behind him. "It's always great to receive distinctions and awards because that means people are keeping an eye on your work and supporting your work. I always say the best awards I have had are the chances I have had to work with so many wonderful musicians. I am very proud to be a Cuban American and to be able do the music that I love and to be accepted in a city and a country that I came to, fearing for my life ... It's a pity that I had to do it the way I did," he says.

"I had to escape from my own home. But everything in life has a price and especially liberty. Freedom has a very high price. But it comes back," he affirms with a merriment and optimism that seems to be always around him. "It's like a tax return."

Selected Discography

Paquito D'Rivera, Panamerican Suite (MCG Jazz, 2010)

Paquito D'Rivera, Tango Jazz: Live at Lincoln Center (Paquito Records/Sunnyside, 2010)

Paquito D'Rivera, iaZZ-claZZ (Timba, 2009)

Paquito D'Rivera, Funk Tango (Sunnyside, 2007)

Caribbean Jazz Project, < a href=/php/article.php?id=23030 target=_blank>Mosaic (Concord, 2006)

Paquito D'Rivera, Big Band Time (Pimienta, 2003)

Paquito D'Rivera, Brazilian Dreams (MCG Jazz, 2002)

Turtle Island String Quartet, Danzon (Koch International, 2001)

Paquito D'Rivera, Live at the Blue Note (Half Note, 2000)

Paquito D'Rivera, Tropicana Nights (Chesky, 1999)

Paquito D'Rivera, 100 Years of Latin Love Songs (Heads Up, 1998)

Paquito D'Rivera, Portraits of Cuba (Chesky, 1996)

Paquito D'Rivera & the United Nations Orchestra, A Night in Engelwood (Messidor, 1994)

Claudio Roditi, Milestones (Candid, 1990)

Paquito D'Rivera, Manhattan Burn (CBS, 1985)

Paquito D'Rivera, Paquito—Blowin (CBS, 1981)

Irakere, Irakere (Columbia, 1978)

Photo Credits

Pages 1, 4: Courtesy of U.S. Air Force Band

Page 2: Jorge Chemas

Pages 3, 5: Courtesy of Paquito

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