Latin Jazz Conversations: Paquito D'Rivera (Part 3)


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An artist's drive to bring their musical vision to fruition can be a powerful force, often moving them to make drastic changes in their life. Early ventures into musical expression build an artistic foundation and focus their attention upon a single stylistic direction. Most environments allow an individual to make these strides towards a musical career, but at some point, an artist will reach a breaking point. Then they need to seriously look around them and find another route to push their musical life forward.

Alto saxophonist and clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera focused his sights squarely upon jazz performance during his younger years, inspiring a major move away from home to follow his dream. Taught by his father Tito at a young age, D'Rivera mastered the technical challenges of the clarinet, the soprano saxophone, and the alto saxophone through a rigorous regimen of classical repertoire. Still a pre-teen, D'Rivera became a featured soloist with the Havana Symphony and a regular fixture in performance venues around Havana. During his teen years, D'Rivera became focused upon jazz, but just as he began to dig deeper into the music, Fidel Castro's newly formed government officially frowned upon the style. Years later, the government changed their tune and formed the Orquesta Cubana De Musica Moderna, bringing D'Rivera together with top musicians such as pianist Chucho Valdés, guitarist Carlos Emilio Morales, bassist Carlos Del Puerto, and more. After a couple of years together, the musicians saw greater prospects in an original unit, and led by Valdés, they formed Irakere. This groundbreaking ensemble melded jazz, Afro-Cuban music, rock, and funk into a blazing mixture that turned heads around the world. D'Rivera's star began to rise through international performances with the group, and he began to look towards other possibilities. In 1981, he claimed political asylum during a tour with Irakere in Spain, leaving Cuba to become an independent jazz musician. After a short tenure in Spain, D'Rivera found his way to New York City, where he burst onto the scene dramatically. He quickly found work with a number of high-profile musicians including David Amram, Dizzy Gillespie, and McCoy Tyner, while making connections on the city's Latin Jazz scene. He soon led his own ensemble including a broad collection of Caribbean and South American influences, releasing a number of albums on Columbia. D'Rivera became a major figure in Gillespie's United Nation big band, and soon he was an instantly recognizable figure on the American jazz scene.

D'Rivera's passion for jazz guided much of his life, leading him to the States, where he has become an irreplaceable piece of jazz culture. His powerful musical statements along the way changed the history of Latin Jazz and exposed unconsidered possibilities in the music. In Part One of our interview with D'Rivera, we looked at his early training, the influence of his father, and his first forays into jazz. Part Two of our interview delved into D'Rivera's years with the Orquesta Cubana De Musica Moderna, the evolution of Irakere, and his first meeting with Gillespie. Today, we explore D'Rivera's move to the States, his broad view of Latin Jazz, his time with Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra, and more.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: What was your inspiration to leave Cuba in 1981? Were you looking to find some of that music that you heard earlier?

PAQUITO D'RIVERA: Yes, ever since my father played that Benny Goodman LP for me, I had the goal to come to New York to be a musician. That stopped in 1959 when this guy (Fidel Castro) came into power. But meeting Dizzy and listening to Voice Of America accelerated my desire to leave the country and be a musician in New York City. I am in love with this city. I'm finally I got to meet that dream in 1981.

LJC: You left Irakere and defected while in Spain, and then you played around there for a while—what were you doing while you were there?

PDR: I played there for five or six months. I met a group of South American musicians that used to play a lot of samba, Brazilian music, and all that. There was a drummer there that took me under his wing and gave me a space in his very tiny apartment. He saved my life in those days. I was desperate and I was there by myself. They gave me work and I stayed there for five or six months until I received my Visa to come to the United States.

LJC: When you got to the States, what was the reception like in New York? Who were some of the musicians that you played with early on?

PDR: The first jazz musician who gave me a job here was David Amram. My dear friend David Amram, he turned 80 a little while ago. Then Dizzy Gillespie also gave me work. I recorded my first CD with Columbia. I did a couple of gigs with McCoy Tyner also. Then I created my own quintet.

LJC: In the group that you've got on those early Columbia albums, you've got guys like Hilton Ruiz, Ignacio Berroa, and Claudio Roditi—the best of the New York Latin Jazz scene. How did the scene in New York meet your expectations—was it what you dreamed it would be?

PDR: It was so inspiring. New York is such a dynamic place. In those days, there was a lady named Verna Gillis who had a loft with a Steinway piano on 52nd and 10th Avenue in Manhattan. We used have people like Jerry and Andy Gonzalez playing around there; we had Hilton Ruiz, Carlos Franzetti, and Daniel Ponce playing around there; and also Claudio Roditi. I met all those people there.

Then I formed my group with them. We used to go to Soundscape every night to play music, to meet other people, and to listen to other people playing around there. It was very inspiring because Verna gave us the opportunity to use her space to rehearse and to create. That was very generous of her.

LJC: Right from the onset, you were stretching out beyond the Cuban influence in Latin Jazz, integrating Brazilian music and Venezuelan waltzes. How did you get that bigger picture of Latin Jazz?

PDR: I always loved Brazilian music, but I was never exposed to many different Brazilian players. Then when I came here, I discovered a great Brazilian community. I met Claudio (Roditi), the drummer Portinho, and the bassist Sergio Brandau. Then through them I met Leny Andrade and so many others. I started doing a lot of Brazilian music, and I still do today.

Venezuelan music came through Fareed Haque, the guitarist from Chicago. He was playing those Venezuelan waltzes by Antonio Lauro in my living room. I said, “I've heard that before years ago in Cuba played by Leo Brouwer." He told me, “This is Antonio Lauro." Then I went to Venezuela a couple of times. I transcribed all those waltzes -they were originally written for guitar, but I transcribed them for clarinet and guitar or clarinet and piano.

Then came Oscar Stagnaro, who is a very important part of my career. He's like a scholar and he's very knowledgeable about Latin American music in general. So, from the very beginning, I included elements from different Latin American styles inside jazz music. There was music from Astor Piazzolla and other composers like Fernando Otero and Emilio Solla. I played with Pablo Ziegler, Piazzolla's pianist, and then I developed my Argentinean tango skills and translated it into the jazz language. It was part of a process that is still evolving.

PDR: In the late eighties, you joined Dizzy's United Nation Orchestra, which was right in line with that broad idea of Latin Jazz. How did that group come together?

LJC: The person who created that idea was Charlie Fishman—he was an impresario, a promoter from Washington, D.C. In those days, he was working with Dizzy, programming him and booking him. He got the idea to put together an orchestra, knowing that Dizzy loved working with Latin American music. So Charlie put together a band with musicians from different parts of Latin America—Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and Panama. So that's what the United Nation Orchestra was all about.

The name comes from a religion that Dizzy had—he was of the Baha'i faith. They had a concept that the world is just one nation, so the real name of the orchestra is The United Nation. We were playing outdoors in Washington once, and there was a guy with a big anti-U.N. Flag. He was saying “Down with the United Nations!" Dizzy said, “O.K., but we're not with the United Nations!" So the guy said, “What about the name?" Dizzy said, “No—we're The United Nation, like the Baha'i—it's different!"

LJC: What was Dizzy like to you as a mentor, a human being, and a musician?

PDR: Dizzy was very special for everyone who had the opportunity to meet him. He was not only a great musician, but also a great man. He not only created a great career for himself, but he also gave all of us the opportunity to develop our own voices and our own careers. He was very special; he's unforgettable.

LJC: After Dizzy passed away, you kept The United Nation Orchestra going with a couple more albums. Is that something that still lives on?

PDR: Yea, every time that I want to have some fun and loose some money, I organize a big band! Sometime in the future, I have the idea to one day pay a tribute to Dizzy and put together his United Nation again, you never know. But right now, I am too busy writing—I'm trying to put together my opera, I'm orchestrating my double concerto for clarinet and piano. I am doing a bunch of things; I have a lot on my plate now.

LJC: You also provided some great opportunities for some young musicians such as Michel Camilo and Danilo Peréz to get exposure and grow their own careers—how did you get together with those guys?

PDR: I am lucky to have good pianists. All of my life, I've been very lucky to work with good pianists. I've worked with McCoy Tyner, Jorge Dalto, Hilton Ruiz, Chucho Valdés, & Bebo Valdés, Danilo Peréz, Michel Camilo, and Alon Yavnai. Now I've just produced the first CD from my young twenty-two year old pianist, Alex Brown. He's not an exception—he's one of those great pianists. The only thing that I regret is that I didn't study piano from the very beginning, because that is the king of instruments. I've been blessed with the opportunity to have so many great pianists.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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