I recently allowed the 68th birthday of Paquito D’Rivera, the singularly talented woodwindist (alto saxophone and clarinet) and composer, to pass without posting the texts of these two articles that I wrote about him for DownBeat in 2005 and 2009, respectively. The first one covers a spectacular 50th anniversary as a musician concert in 2005 at which Bebo Valdes, Cachao, Candido, Yo Yo Ma, Rosa Passos, Portinho, Dave Samuels, the New York Voices, and Bill Cosby, among others, performed; the second, generated by DownBeat award for “Best Clarinetist of 2009,” contains a long interview and a prefatory essay.
* * *
Paquito D’Rivera Article from 2005:
At the mid-point of a Sunday afternoon rehearsal in January, Paquito D’Rivera held his clarinet to the side, exhaled, and exclaimed, “I have never played so much shit in one day!” Ensconced in a small room at Carroll Studios on Manhattan’s Far West Side, D’Rivera, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Alon Yavnai had spent the previous half-hour working out the nuances of the fourth movement of Brahms’ Concerto for Clarinet, Cello and Piano before a crowd of photographers, videographers, a Spanish film crew, various publicists, and select lookers-on. This followed a runthrough of D’Rivera’s elegant chamber piece, “Afro” and “No More Blues,” on which guitarist-singer Rosa Passos whispered Antonio Carlos Jobim’s undulating melody.
“I have heard that so many times, that I think I know your solo better than you do,” D’Rivera, dead-pan, declared to Yo-Yo Ma. “I think I can play it on the cello, too.”
“I think you should,” Ma shot back. His shirt-back was dark with perspiration, and he seemed ill at ease with the motley crowd.
D’Rivera persisted. “How do you write that passage for the string instrument?” he asked, referring to the cellist’s soulful, kaleidoscopic intro to “Afro.” “You play the same passage, but it sounds totally different.” “I play one on the first string and the other on the second string,” Ma responded. “Rock-and-Roll cellists do that,” D’Rivera said. He laughed lightly, and took his first break of the afternoon.
D’Rivera, who first worked professionally as a 6-year-old soprano saxophonist, was preparing for a next-evening “this is your life” Carnegie Hall concert billed as “Fifty Years and Ten Nights of Show Business” to acknowledge his golden anniversary on stage. More than 20 friends and colleagues from 15 countries convened in New York to celebrate the milestone.
He was fresh, alert, and in fine humor, despite a low-sleep week that included morning-to-night promotional appearances around New York and a 48-hour cross-country jaunt to International Jazz Educators’ Convention in Long Beach, California, where he accepted the NEA’s 2004 Jazz Masters Award. In another 48 hours, D’Rivera would fly to Uruguay to perform at a festival he booked, followed by a duo concert in Chile. A week later, he’d alight in New York, lay off a day, and embark on a three-week U.S. tour with the Assad Brothers.
“When I finish all these things, then I am going to be tired,” D’Rivera said. He recalled a Carnegie Hall concert by Celia Cruz a few years before. “She was sick already,” he continued. “But when she went out to the stage, it was like a 25-year-old Baryshnikov. She did that show with so much energy, and when she finished and went to the dressing room, she became the old lady that she was. Maybe this profession does that to you.”
When emphasizing a point in conversation, D’Rivera likes to interpolate references to food and its byproducts, just as he frequently signifies on his alto saxophone solos by quoting choice licks from the lexicon of Charlie Parker.
“It’s like having sushi and black beans and rice and Indian food at the same time,” he responded, as if on cue, to a question about the challenge of performing tangos, chorinhos, sambas, various Cuban idioms, hardcore jazz, and classical music over a single event. “But you have to be very sure of what you’re doing in all the styles. It’s like a cook trying to mix Chinese food with Cuban food. If you know both styles, that can taste really good. But if not, it’s like Ray Brown said once—‘chopped onions with chocolate ice cream.”
Relaxed in a brand-new black Jazz Masters t-shirt, jeans and tan loafers, D’Rivera had launched his Sunday marathon with ‘90s Caribbean Jazz Project partners Andy Narrell and Dave Samuels, tackling an intricate Samuels arrangement of “Night In Tunisia” and fine-tuning the details of “Andalucia,” a D’Rivera homage to iconic Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. The Americans exited and a trio of Brazilians—drummer Portinho, who had worked with D’Rivera throughout the ‘80s, guitarist Romero Lubambo, and Ms. Passos, who sang “So Dança Samba.”
“Caribbean music is pure happiness,” said D’Rivera. “But Brazilians are the only people in the world who get the feeling of being happy and sad at the same time. Saudade. I tried to translate that word once, and I said, ‘Well, that’s nostalgia.’ There was a Brazilian musician who told me, ‘no, it’s not nostalgia. Nostalgia is something else. This is saudade.’
“The Brahms Trio is hard to play, but that doesn’t matter. I have worked like a slave on some hard pieces, and nothing happened at the end. But this piece is so well written, so profound, so logical and original. It’s very jazzy, too. The polyrhythms of Brahms have a lot to do with jazz music.”
Across the room, D’Rivera spotted trumpeter Claudio Roditi, his frequent partner in the ‘80s. “When I came to New York, I surrounded myself with Brazilian musicians like Portinho and Claudio,” he stated. “I mentioned several famous names I’d been listening to, and they told me, ‘I think you have to do your homework again; that is not the real thing,’ and they illustrated. Then I became a new-born Brazilian!”
In strolled the members of the New York Voices, who collaborated last year with D’Rivera and Roditi on Brazilian Dreams [Manchester Guild].
D’Rivera rose for greetings and salutations. “Two of three people who made me forget to play are here,” he said. “Toots Thielemans was the first one. Then the New York Voices and Yo-Yo Ma. When they play, I forget to play sometimes.”
“Paquito reminds me of the musicians I played with in Cuba,” said conguero Candido Camero, who left the island in 1955, and met D’Rivera for the first time in 1987. “Especially the ones who play saxophone, clarinet and flute. His style, his phrasing, his sound, the feeling, the touch. The new generation always have different ideas. But the root stays.”
D’Rivera concurred. “I grew up listening to this music,” he remarked as Candido, bassist Cachao and pianist Bebo Valdes, 255 years between them, settled in for their leg of the rehearsal. “It’s like playing marbles with my father, or baseball.”
The camera-folk jockeyed for position, and Joseluis Ruperez, the producer of the Spanish TV crew, firmly pushed them back. The elders and D’Rivera spoke in Spanish as someone fetched tape for Candido’s hands and timbalero Ralph Irizarry found the right position. Then D’Rivera and Cachao—holding his bow as he plucked the refrain—began to play a danzon. They applied themselves to “Priquitin Pin Pon,” which appears on the 2001 recording El Arte De Sabor [Blue Note]. Over three takes, Bebo Valdes soloed effervescently, uncorking fluid, ascendant chromatic lines that reversed direction like dancers spinning and twirling. On his solo, Cachao transitioned seamlessly from pizzicato to bow; positioned behind the piano, Yo-Yo Ma observed intently. After working out the appropriate clave structure, they stretched out over several similarly dynamic explorations of “Lagrimas Negras,” which D’Rivera recently had recorded with Valdes and flamenco singer El Cigala on a CD of that name.
Applause erupted when they were done. The photographers broke down equipment, the musicians dispersed, and D’Rivera packed up, ready for a short dinner break and a Carnegie Hall evening rehearsal for the orchestral portion of “Fifty Years and Ten Nights In Show Business.”
Earlier, at 10-sharp, D’Rivera, wearing a crisply pressed cranberry guayabera and blue flowered bowtie, briskly entered the Patrons’ Room at the Buckingham Hotel, a block down 57th Street from Carnegie Hall, for a photo session. Soon, Bebo Valdes strolled in, fortified against the chill in a down jacket from and plaid flannel shirt from Sweden, where he eventually settled after leaving Cuba in 1960. At 86, he sustained an endless smile, carrying his six-and-a-half foot frame with only a slight stoop. As Bebo and co-producer Ettore Strata mock-conducted to a photographed score of Paderewski’s “Minuet,” Cachao, on a cane, slipped in like a shadow, a wry smile on his face.
After a succession of hugs and poses, the room emptied. With saxophonist Enrique Fernandez translating, the legends, born a month apart in 1918, sat on a couch and reminisced about D’Rivera’s father, Tito, a skilled saxophonist who sold instruments, musical accessories and records at his Havana music store. When Paquito was 5, Tito bought him a Selmer soprano saxophone, taught him to play it, and played him records by Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie with Lester Young, Tito’s favorite saxophonist. He even introduced him to bebop.
“One day he came home with a 10-inch LP, and said, ‘I want you to hear something,’” D’Rivera recalls. “It was Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker!” He sings the refrain of “Thriving On a Riff” from 1945. “We heard the whole thing in total silence, and after the last note he asked me, ‘Did you like it?’ I said, ‘No. What about you?’ He said, ‘Me either. But they are good musicians, huh?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what is so confusing. I can’t understand anything, but I can feel that this is something special.’ So we kept listening. My father had played in a military band, and although he hated the military, he kept that discipline. But in some ways, he was very open-minded.”
Cachao worked with Tito D’Rivera as early as 1934 in a singing group called the Martinez Brothers, and later purchased bass strings from his store. “My first experience with Paquito was performing a clarinet and orchestra piece by Weber with the Havana Philharmonic when he was 12,” he said. “Even then he was more dedicated to jazz than anything else, but Tito imposed a lot of discipline. Paquito was complete.”
Bebo Valdes interjected an anecdote. “Way before Paquito was born, Tito was a boyfriend of a beautiful mulata named Silvia,” he said with a laugh. “I was a boyfriend of her sister, so the four of us always went out together. I played with him a lot at the Rivoli, which was a place for blacks and whites. He was a very good musician and a great person. When I started working at the Tropicana, the famous Havana nightclub, he sold instruments to the musicians who worked there. If somebody couldn’t pay the weekly fee for the instruments, he’d say, ‘Another week will come; don’t worry about it.’”
Then he became serious. “Paquito plays the saxophone divinely, with a really high range,” he said firmly. “But the clarinet is a thousand times more difficult than the saxophone, and I consider Paquito’s execution as good as any I’ve seen in my life. He’s a great soloist on both instruments in any genre or style, and he knows the very old traditional music from Cuba. His range is formidable. Now he’s focusing a lot on the music of South America, particularly things that are happening in Brazil and Argentina.”
Cachao emphasized that D’Rivera, in his insistence on addressing all styles of music with idiomatic thoroughness, follows the aesthetic imperatives that molded music in pre-revolutionary Cuba.
“In our day,” Cachao said, “the CMQ radio station and clubs like the Tropicana brought in artists from all over the world. You had to be ready to play with them all. Paquito follows that tradition. It’s his opinion as well as ours that the musician has no borders. Nationalities are not important.”
Surprisingly, D’Rivera states that he had no interest in a pan-American aesthetic when he lived in Cuba, perhaps because, during his teens, the regime propounded a cultural nationalist line that frowned on jazz as a counter-revolutionary Yanqui diversion. Official opprobrium seemed to strengthen the youngster’s resolve to use jazz and improvisation as a vehicle for free expression. Informed by a samizdat of bootleg cassettes and Willis Conover’s Voice of America broadcasts, D’Rivera soaked up vocabulary from Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Thad Jones, Joe Henderson, Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. The learning curve accelerated after 1967, when the authorities, switching gears, authorized the creation of an orchestra devoted to jazz. Within several years, Irakere, the Cuban super-group, took shape.
In 1980, when D’Rivera was 32, he landed in Madrid for a tour with Irakere, ran up a down escalator to escape his handlers, and famously defected. “I was stranded in Madrid, and a group of musicians from Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay got me a gig in a place called Dallas Jazz Club,” he recalls. “It was the first time I mixed jazz standards and some originals with Brazilian and Cuban music, and tango.
“The environment in New York enabled me to explore further. I always prefer to have around me people who want to analyze all types of music and try to play them correctly. It’s like being in a school, but a mutual investigation. I am just the director.”
During a pizza break at Carroll Studios, some of D’Rivera’s colleagues commented on the qualities that distinguish his tonal personality. All spoke of his instrumental virtuosity and aesthetic scope. But they also referred to his voracious curiosity and energy, his insistence on mastering the details—in short, the attitude that enables an exile to create a room of one’s own in a foreign land.
“Paquito plays Brazilian music with the feeling of Brazilian people—the same heart, almost the same culture,” Romero Lubambo stated. “He doesn’t just play popular music, like the samba,” Portinho added. “He is able to play chorinhos, the classical Brazilian music which is very difficult to play right.”
“It’s been a real trial by fire education,” said Chicago-born Mark Walker, D’Rivera’s drummer of choice since 1989. “We go to all these South American and Caribbean countries, get the CDs, hang out with the cats. Sometimes, Paquito wants to play a rhythm from that place the night we arrive.”
“He understands the rhythmic cell of each musical style, which is why when he mixes them, one doesn’t sound like the other,” said Alon Yavnai, an Israeli of Argentine descent. “He’s a lizard. Not cold-blooded, of course, but he can change the colors, and still you know it’s Paquito D’Rivera after a couple of notes. I also love how quickly he thinks on stage. He gives a lot of freedom, and he’s unpredictable. Tunes don’t sound the same; today he plays one solo he will never play again. But again, his personality is always there.”
“Now I have to forget everything,” D’Rivera said.
An hour before the concert, he betrayed no tension at the prospect of performing polyglot repertoire with constantly shifting personnel configurations—and also serving as his own emcee—before a sold-out house at the world’s most prestigious venue. Still in soundcheck gear of t-shirt and jeans, he stood in the common area that centers Carnegie Hall’s third floor dressing rooms, examining a table laden with depleted trays of fried pork, meatballs, fried peppers, rice in squid ink, humus, and an enormous cold salmon flown in that day from Alaska by a friend, the proprietress of a restaurant called Ludwig.
“I didn’t recognize her,” D’Rivera remarked. “I could not believe that somebody flew from Alaska with a salmon to come to this concert! Really it’s the whole world!”
D’Rivera greeted the indifferent 3-year-old daughter of New York Voices singer Lauren Kinhan, talked numbers with producer Pat Philips, and laughed uproariously at the antics of concert host Bill Cosby, who made a beeline for the room in which Cachao and Bebo sat. With twenty minutes to spare, he finally made his way upstairs to change.
On stage at 8:05 sharp, Cosby stated, “The gentleman who is honoring…himself has done a brilliant job.” He concluded the roast with the observation that D’Rivera’s “shoes, when you see them, will be out of season.” Wearing white boots to complement his black suit, D’Rivera riposted. “I have not enough words in my limited English language,” he said, as Cosby departed for the wings, “to thank Mr. Bing Crosby…”
For the next three hours, D’Rivera—sustaining a steady stream of jokes and patter, moving traffic, playing immaculate ensembles, soloing with inspiration, and eying an 11 o’clock witching hour at which union overtime began—might have been presiding over a party in his living room. There were many highlights. A polyrhythmic, overtone-rich solo on “Andalucia” by Columbian harp prodigy Edmar Castaneda with the Caribbean Jazz Project. An abstract D’Rivera clarinet variation on “Why Not?” counterstating pianist Michel Camilo’s florid declamation; a leaping solo on “Adagio,” framed by the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, conducted by Tania Leon, his conservatory classmate; a delicate duet with the harmonized a capella voices of Kinhan and Kim Nazarian on “Modinha.”
The chamber trios with Yo-Yo Ma and Alon Yavnai matched the intensity of the rehearsals. Cosby emerged to introduce the Cuban elders, remarking, “I think we should do this at the Museum of Natural History.” Striking the drum with his shaved head to punctuate the beats, Candido uncorked a showmanship solo, but Bebo and Cachao, perhaps fatigued after a three-hour wait in the dressing room, played with far less vigor than the previous day.
Fifteen minutes remained for the four orchestral pieces—a set of Gershwin variations showcasing D’Rivera’s wife, soprano Brenda Feliciano—and things got sloppy. At the closing vamp of the finale, “To Brenda With Love,” performed by D’Rivera’s sextet and the orchestra, Spanish flamenco dancer Raphael Tamargo, in a white-on-white suit-shirt ensemble, twirled, gesticulated, and stomped, resolving into a pirouette and a hand-clasp with the leader.
At the after-party, D’Rivera, momentarily anonymous at the bar, briefly bemoaned the union’s inflexible overtime policy. “Even in Germany, they’re more reasonable,” he said with some asperity. He sipped from a glass of red wine.
“My father was very strict about making sure that I kept a level head and didn’t let my ego get too inflated,” he said, shaking his head at the audacity of having made himself the centerpiece of such an expansive evening. “Confidence is a completely different thing, but there is a very thin line between them.”
* * *
Paquito D’Rivera Piece From 2009:
“There was a great Cuban folklorist-writer called Lydia Cabrera, who went to study in Paris in the 1920s, and started missing her land,” said Paquito D’Rivera, relaxing in his dressing room at Manhattan’s Blue Note, a few hours before hitting the bandstand with his quintet. “She said, ‘I discovered Cuba from the bank of the Seine River.’ I discovered Latin America on the banks of the Hudson River.”
This process began in 1980, when D’Rivera, then 32, while on tour with the Cuban super-group Irakere, ran up a down escalator in the Madrid airport to escape his Cuban handlers, and famously defected. “Spain was my first Latin Jazz gig,” he stated. “Irakere was just a dance band that played some concerts—Cuban music mixed with classical and rock. But in Spain, I met up with a group of Argentineans, Brazilians, and Uruguayan musicians—they played Samba, tango some candomble from Uruguay. I started learning all those styles. Then here in New York, I had the opportunity to work with the Brazilians, who are people not from another country but another planet. I have dedicated a big part of my career, to Brazilian music. But I also like Venezuela, and Argentinean tango and Mexican guapango, too.”
D’Rivera wore a red guayabana shirt, crisply pressed black pants and well-shined black shoes. His face revealed deeply chiseled embouchure lines from a lifetime spent blowing on his array of wind instruments—he made his public debut as a six-year-old curved soprano saxophonist, graduated to clarinet a few years later, and launched his alto saxophone investigations at 11.
Deploying excellent English, he continued his account of becoming a polylingual musician. “In fact, this started in Cuba,” he said. “I composed one of my most popular pieces, ‘Wapango,’ in 1970 for the Carlos Azerhoff Saxophone Quartet. Later, I arranged it for strings and jazz groups and all that. For Irakere, I wrote ‘Molto Adagio,’ which is the second movement of the Mozart Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, arranged in a bluesy way. I like doing all those hybrids. Now I prefer to have around me people who want to analyze all types of music and try to play them correctly. It’s like being in a school, but a mutual investigation. I am just the director.”
In his predisposition to present repertoire drawn from a pan-American stew of musical flavors, addressed with attention to a full complement of idiomatic detail, D’Rivera—who spent his first decade in the U.S. working extensively with ur-one-worlder Dizzy Gillespie, and employed such avatars of hybridity as Danilo Perez and Edward Simon in the piano chair in various ‘90s iterations of his quintet—has had an enormous impact on the development of jazz thinking over the past two decades. In truth, his musical production hews to the aesthetic imperatives that guided Cuba’s incomparable musicians before the revolution terminated the casino-fueled economy that had provided them gainful employment and offered them first-hand contact with musicians from around the world.
This reality came forth in a conversation several years ago with the late bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, who was playing bass when D’Rivera, then 12, performed Weber’s clarinet concerto with the Havana Symphony. “In our day,” Cachao said, “the CMQ radio station and clubs like the Tropicana brought in artists from all over the world. You had to be ready to play with them all. Paquito follows that tradition. It’s his opinion as well as ours that the musician has no borders. Nationalities are not important.”
Another continuity that links D’Rivera to his Cuban antecedents is his formidable command of all his instruments, not least the clarinet, as evidenced by his 2009 “Best” award in Downbeat’s Readers Poll. Sitting with Cachao in that same conversation, pianist Bebo Valdes, like Cachao a friend of D’Rivera’s saxophonist father Tito from the 1930s, stated: “Paquito is a great soloist on both instruments in any genre or style. He plays the saxophone divinely, with a really high range. But the clarinet is a thousand times more difficult than the saxophone, and I consider Paquito’s execution as good as any I’ve seen in my life.”
- – – – – -
You like to quote a Frank Wess quip that the clarinet, which is made of five pieces, was invented by five men who never met. However, by your account in your memoir, My Sax Life, you’ve had two extremely good instruments. In 1959, your father got you a Selmer, and then in 1997, you ordered a custom-made clarinet.
I used Selmers all my life, because my father was the representative of the company in Havana. He had a very small office, about as big as this room! He even had contrabasses and tubas in it. He ordered for me a covered-hole, center-tone Selmer. Covered hole because I was very skinny, my fingers were thin, and he was concerned that I would not be able to cover the holes. That instrument is now in the Smithsonian Institute. Together with that, he ordered the open hole model, which he gave me when I knew the fingering of the instrument. That’s the clarinet I played until 1997, when Luis Rossi, from Santiago, Chile, made for me this wonderful instrument that I play now, which is made not out of black wood, but rosewood.
The great Al Gallodoro, who passed away a couple of years ago, when he was 95 years old, called what I play the “smart man clarinet.” It’s an instrument with 7 rings and an articulated g-sharp on the left hand, like a saxophone. It’s very comfortable. Benny Goodman used it for a little while, and also Artie Shaw, but the instrument never had success. For some reason. I’ve gotten so used to it that for me it’s very hard to play a regular, 17-key clarinet. When I showed my old Selmer to Buddy DeFranco, he told me, “Wow! Too many keys in the way!”
You played your first public concert at six in Havana, on curved soprano saxophone. Which jazz clarinetists did you hear and assimilate when you were young?
Benny was the first American musician who impressed me—that concert he recorded in Carnegie Hall in 1938, with Lionel Hampton and Ziggy Elman, Harry James, and the wonderful Teddy Wilson. Then Artie Shaw, and of course, Jimmy Hamilton from the Ellington band. But Benny playing swing—my father never used the word jazz, only “swing,” even if it was Ornette Coleman—but also Benny’s rendition of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. It was very illuminating at that tender age, that Ellington concept that there are only two kinds of music—good and the other stuff.
I tried to assimilate the different styles by copying them. I copied Benny with the soprano. Later on, my father came home with a 78 recording of Buddy DeFranco playing “Out of Nowhere.” [SINGS SOLO] When Buddy started improvising, I said, “Wow! What is that? A clarinet playing bebop?”—I’d already heard Dizzy and Bird. But a clarinet was not supposed to do that. What I heard in my ears was Jimmy Hamilton and Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. So this guy is going [SINGS FAST BEBOP LINE] [DO-PE-DO-DE-DIDDLE-PLA...] with a clarinet! Wow, what a surprise! So I started trying to copy Buddy DeFranco. It’s normal to try to copy your idols when you are a kid. But my first idol was Benny, and he still is today. Sound is the main thing in music, and he had that characteristic clarinet sound. I used to transcribe not only Benny’s solo, but Toots Mondello and Harry James, and even Gene Krupa’s playing, and tried to copy some Lionel Hampton solos. [SINGS LIONEL HAMPTON LICK VERBATIM]
You wrote that your progression was from soprano to clarinet to alto saxophone, and that your father taught you alto saxophone with the Marcel Mulé method, the French school.
Yes. The French School was very strong in my formation. My dad had the Conjunto Sinfonico de Saxophones—Symphonic Group of Saxophones—in 1943, I believe. That was the year after Marcel Mulé was appointed professor of saxophone at the Paris Conservatory, and founded his saxophone quartet. He started bringing all those books, and the pieces that were written for Marcel Mule by Jacques Ibert, Eugene Bozza, and many others. I grew up listening to and playing that music with a pianist friend of my father. It’s hard to explain why French music is so influential on my style, but I feel it. Maybe in using the staccato a lot when blowing the saxophone. Most jazz players play legato lines. Very few use the staccato—Wynton Marsalis, Claudio Roditi, I can’t think of anyone else. It comes from classical training.
You’ve said that it was your father’s ambition for you to be a clarinetist in the symphony orchestra.
Yes, I did it for a while. But I like improvised music, and didn’t feel happy in the orchestra as a main gig. So I did it for a while, and I did some chamber music, which I enjoy even more than the symphony. I went with my father to play in stage bands, with the second or first clarinet. Even in cabarets. When I started playing the alto, at 11 or 12, I’d go to a cabaret that had a variety show, and my father would say, “please let the kid play the show.” And the guy was happy. “Ok!” He’d go to the bar and I’d play the show for nothing. I had my uniform and everything. I was very tall. It was important to my father that I learn how to play in a section, not only by myself. He’d bring home the third alto book for me to learn the notes. I did different types of things, as did many Cuban musicians, who had to do any type of music for surviving. I still maintain that tendency. Of course, improvised music, jazz, is my favorite, but I love playing other things. I love the complexity of Igor Stravinsky’s music. Bartok. Certain composers are more appealing to some jazz people because they are hippest. But how do you explain what is more hip? There is something hip about Stravinsky. Brahms is a hip composer. Milhaud. Ravel. Debussy. They have more affinity with the jazz language.
When you played jazz early on, was it on clarinet or saxophone?
Mostly on the saxophone. I was into Charlie Parker then, and later on Paul Desmond. Jackie McLean I liked also—it’s amazing how he could swing playing one note, even if he played it out of tune!
In a New York Times performance review, Ben Ratliff wrote: “No performer should be at full voltage all the time, and the clarinet subdues Mr. D’Rivera’s super-abundant energy.” Is that a remark you can relate to?
I think that’s right. When you maintain the same energy all the time, it can be boring. The alto and clarinet have totally different personalities. It’s two instruments that are cousins, like Palestinians and Israelis. They don’t get along! Clarinet players that try to play the saxophone with the same concept, it’s not going to work.
My father was a saxophone player, and didn’t know how to play clarinet. Later on, he bought one, and learned to play it. I’m not sure who taught him. But suddenly, he showed up at home playing the clarinet, then he showed me how to play. My father was a self-taught person. He went to school only to the sixth grade, because he had to work in a printing press. He told me it was so hard, and when he was 15-16 years old, he decided to buy a saxophone. He learned how to play with friends.
Was there a clarinet tradition in Cuban music? There’s a flute tradition in Cuban charanga music.
It’s a different type of flute, what you call the 5-key flute. But yes, there was a clarinet tradition that was lost. The clarinet was never a soloist. So it’s a tradition, but not a strong tradition of clarinet playing there.
So for you as a young person, the clarinet was more a window into classical music.
Classical and some swing also, because of Benny Goodman.
Can we say that the alto saxophone was more your improvising instrument?
Yes, especially because of Parker.
How did your sensibility on the clarinet evolve over the years? Now you use it…
More and more. Mario Bauza gave me a clarinet and a mouthpiece when I came here; after my ex-wife sent me my old center-tone Selmer from Cuba, I gave it back to him. Mario and Dizzy said, “You should play the clarinet more; there’s not too many clarinet players around.” The scene for the clarinet was not very encouraging. It still is not. It’s improving, but it’s there’s still very few of us. It’s too much sacrifice for something that people really don’t feel. It’s easier to feel the sound of the flute.
Do you mean feel physically?
Both physically and musically. To make the clarinet sound hip into the world of modern jazz, it takes double or triple or quadruple the effort than with the saxophone. For that, you have to love the instrument. You buy a flute and go [SINGS ‘FHWOOOO’]—it’s hip already. Only the sound of the wind. FHWOOOO. It swings already, like a trombone. The trombonist goes, BWOOH, and it swings, like a baritone saxophone. But to make a sopranino swing, it’s a pain in the ass!
An LP that inspired me to play the clarinet again was Breaking Through by Eddie Daniels, with arrangements by the great Argentinean composer-arranger Jorge Calandrelli, who arranged for Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett and so many others. Jorge told me about it. I hadn’t heard of Eddie Daniels in years, just from playing tenor with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. I didn’t know that he played the clarinet. I felt so inspired. Wow! Clarinet again! Mario and Dizzy were right. So I started playing it more and more. Eddie gave me the encouragement that I needed. He started getting big after that. He revolutionized the clarinet world.
I enjoyed your autobiography, My Sax Life. You write the way you talk, which is no small accomplishment.
I sent the manuscript to a friend who grew up with me in the neighborhood. When I called her, she started crying and said, “That book is like talking to you.” I said, “Is that good or bad?” “It’s great!”
A common theme from your musical partners is that, for all your extreme technique, you’re also a very spontaneous player who doesn’t repeat solos, plays fresh things, remains in the moment.
I agree. Many young players—and among them many Cuban young players—have a tendency to overuse technique. Weapons are to use when you need them. You use technique if you need it to play a certain thing. If not, it sounds like an imposition. It’s supposed to sound effortless. Some people use it and try to make it look harder than it really is.
In the book you convey a conversation with Maraca Valles, the Cuban flutist, where he offers an opinion that the quality of aggressiveness you just mentioned amongst younger Cuban musicians reflects the tension and generalized anxiety in their lives. of the musicians. At the end of last year, you debuted your first all-Cuban band since moving to the States.
That was a fantastic thing, to work with people like Charles Flores, the wonderful bass player, who has worked with Michel Camilo. I heard talk about him all the time, Manuel Valera played piano—his father is an old friend of mine. We have a very good guitar player and singer (a tenor) who came from Canada, Mario Luis Ochoa. Ernesto Simpson, a great drummer. Pedrito Martinez was singing and playing percussion. Pedrito is one of the most talented Cuban musicians around. He plays the percussion instruments beautifully, and he is one of the few Cuban percussionists who understand Brazilian music. That is another groove that they don’t mix. Like the Palestinians and the Israelis! They are cousins, but I remember a Cuban entertainer in Spain who told me, “Cubans don’t understand Samba and Brazilians will never understand clave.”
Nobody can explain that to me. I don’t see any reason. We are cousins. Even the same African religions and all that. But Pedrito can play the bandera very well. Pedrito understands any type of music very easily, and especially Brazilian music.
It’s hard to maintain that band, though. If you live in Miami or in Cuba, you have Cuban musicians all over the place, but here you don’t have ten Cuban trumpet players and four bassists. You only have one or two. So I only do it once in a while. My goal is to do a Cuban big band one day. Mostly we played modern Cuban music. It was an experiment. I wanted to feel it, and it was very nice. One day I will organize it again. I want to record. But I have to work with my regular quintet. I am in love with that band, too.
Did you play percussion instruments when you were younger?
I think most Cuban musicians know how to play a little bit. I know how to play a conga, for example. Or a bongo. For five minutes. After that, I look for someone else. Folkloric rhythms were part of the decor. It was on the radio, with my mother sewing and cooking and listening to Celia Cruz, and danzones and so on.
How is your relationship with the younger musicians, who grew up under Castro? For example, at the beginning of the ‘90s there was sniping between you and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I know that’s long in the past…
Yes, it’s in the past. Now I understand them. They are sick and tired of listening to talk about politics and all that. They want to keep that behind them. It’s a totally different way of thinking. They grew up with that thing there, and they have ties with it. In my opinion, they see Cuba like a total disaster, but it’s like home. Then they come here, and this is different. They don’t have—and this is an assumption—the intention to change that for a better life. They want to help their family, send some money, send some medicine. They have no intention to protest, to denounce the atrocities—and I understand it. These new kids ignore the government. I cannot do it!.
With the transitions have occurred in Cuba over the past few years, what would you like to see transpire?
A normal country. That’s all we want.
By what process? What’s a realistic scenario?
With these people, there are no realistic ways. They don’t want to recognize the reality. So the realistic thing, no. I think the ideal thing is what happened in South Africa, what happened in Czechoslovakia, and what happened in Spain. Forget what happened, let’s start something new, blah-blah-blah. Czechoslovakia had the Velvet Revolution, and the country is working perfectly. The same thing with Spain and in South Africa. At least they didn’t kill each other or anything. But in Cuba they don’t want to change anything. People love to put words in their mouth. “No, they are going to change.” “No-no, I’ve been telling you for fifty years, we are not going to change nothing. We are going to PERFECT this piece of shit.”
So predicting what is going to happen, nobody knows. It’s too complicated. So like Americans say, let’s hurry up and wait.
Romero Lubambo once remarked, “Paquito always brings you to your limit, and then past it.” I suppose the corollary is that you’re as demanding of yourself.
Musicians sometimes don’t know how good they are. I force myself also to do things, and they force me to do things because they are high quality. When you are over 50 years in a profession, and you look back and see that your work has been fruitful, and you have conquered the love and respect of your peers, it’s an accomplishment. Those are my friends, part of my family, my musical family, the people who work with me. I learned a lot from Claudio Roditi, for example, and also from Fareed Haque, the guitarist, and from Michel Camilo, who knows Venezuelan music so well. Also Oscar Stagnaro, my bass player, who is my scout.
You launched your imprint, Paquito Records, last year with Funk Tango, which won the Latin Grammy. Will there be a followup in the catalogue?
My second project will be Benny at One Hundred. Actually, “Benny At One Hundred” is the name of the first movement of a sonata that was commissioned by the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival. The first movement is dedicated to Benny Goodman, and it’s dedicated to his centenary, which is this year. I’m planning to go to the studio at the end of November and record that movement and other pieces.
When my father, who was a classical saxophone player, played me that LP, Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall, that changed my life until today. Jazz is still my favorite activity in my life. For me, it used to have a political connotation—I wanted to play only jazz in Cuba to contradict what the Establishment said. But I love improvising. It’s the result of a multinational country. The result is a multinational style of music, and you can add anything, and if you keep the spirit of this music, it still is called jazz. I love what Herbie Hancock said many years ago when he was asked what is jazz, and he said, “something impossible to define and very easy to recognize.”
[POSSIBLE FOR INSERT]
Gunther Schuller a few years ago wanted to do a music school for professional musicians, not to play like Jascha Heifetz, but to play the violin so you can do a jingle in the morning, and then the opera, and learn to improvise a little bit. But now, the art of improvisation is a mystery for classical musicians. I remember the face of terror on a very fine young trombonist I wanted him to play not in a jazz style, but on top of a montuno that I was playing with the rhythm section—WHAAP-WHAAP, PING-PING-PING, WHAAP from A-flat to B-flat. That’s it. He looked at me so terrorized, like he saw Adolf Hitler or something! WHAAP-WHAAP, That is something that is missing in the music schools, on both sides. Of course, nobody paid attention to Gunther Schuller. But that was a great idea, to open a music school where people learn how to play Brahms and how to play Monk.