Viva Paquito!

Volume 116, No. 4April, 2016

Photo: Lane Pederson

Photo: Lane Pederson

Paquito D’Rivera defies categorization. The winner of 14 Grammy awards and a member of Local 802 for 35 years, he is celebrated both for his artistry in Latin jazz and his achievements as a classical composer. Born in Havana, Cuba, he performed at age 10 with the National Theatre Orchestra, studied at the Havana Conservatory of Music and, at 17, became a featured soloist with the Cuban National Symphony. As a founding member of the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, he directed that group for two years, while at the same time playing both the clarinet and saxophone with the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra. Additionally, he was a founding member and co-director of the innovative musical ensemble Irakere. In 1988, he helped found the United Nations Orchestra, a 15-piece ensemble organized by Dizzy Gillespie to showcase the fusion of Latin and Caribbean influences with jazz.

While Paquito D’Rivera’s discography reflects a dedication and enthusiasm for jazz, bebop and Latin music, his contributions to classical music are impressive. They include solo performances with the London Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony, the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra and the Brooklyn Philharmonic. He has also performed with the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, the Costa Rica National Symphony, the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, the Bronx Arts Ensemble and the St. Luke’s Chamber Orchestra, among others. In his passion to bring Latin repertoire to greater prominence, D’Rivera has successfully created, championed and promoted all types of classical compositions, including his three chamber compositions recorded live in concert with Yo-Yo Ma, one of which won a Grammy.

In addition to his extraordinary performing career as an instrumentalist, D’Rivera has rapidly gained a reputation as an accomplished composer. His works often reveal his widespread and eclectic musical interests, which range from Afro-Cuban rhythms and melodies to influences encountered in his many travels and back to his classical origins.

In 1991, D’Rivera won a lifetime achievement award from Carnegie Hall for his contributions to Latin music. In 2005, he received both the NEA Jazz Masters Award and the National Medal of the Arts. Two years later, he was given the Living Jazz Legend Award from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 2010, he was named a Nelson A. Rockefeller Honoree and given the African-American Classical Music Award from Spelman College.

The National Endowment for the Arts web site affirms that D’Rivera “has become the consummate multinational ambassador, creating and promoting a cross-culture of music that moves effortlessly among jazz, Latin, and Mozart.” Much more of his background can be found at

Paquito D’Rivera, along with Bob Cranshaw and vocalist Jazzmeia Horn, recently spoke at Local 802 as part of our first “Jazz Mentors” series. Local 802’s Bob Pawlo and Miguel Santana had the honor of sitting down with D’Rivera and learning about his career and his growth as a musician.

Photo: Ricardo Rios

Photo: Ricardo Rios

MUSICAL MEMORIES by Paquito Rivera
as told to Bob Pawlo and Miguel Santana

My father was a classical saxophone player who also played in the Cuban army band, so I always say he practiced 26 hours a day! I don’t remember a day without music. There were always people practicing around me. My father was also a representative of the Selmer company in Havana back in the 50s. He bought me a special Selmer curved soprano when I was five. There aren’t many of those in the world.

My father was my first influence, but Benny Goodman was my second. I remember the first time my dad played for me a recording of Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall from 1938. A few years later, my dad gave me a Selmer clarinet. I starting going to a music conservatory in the outskirts of Havana to study clarinet but also harmony, orchestration and history. My teacher was Enrique Pardo, who was the first clarinetist of the Havana Philharmonic in the 40s and 50s. By then, I was already listening to records of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz.

After studying in the music school and then playing in some musical theatre in Havana, I had to do my obligatory service in the Cuban army for almost three years. That was a nightmare.

After that, I began doing a lot of soloing with various orchestras in Cuba. I also helped found the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna and from there I joined Irakere with Chucho Valdes. But Fidel Castro had already come to power – and that was it. The rest is history. I decided that there was no life for me anymore in a communist country. It was too much. I asked for political asylum in Spain in 1980. You know, I met Che Guevara once, when I was 15 or 16. Everybody wanted to meet him. He asked me what my job was. And I told him that I was a musician. And he said, “No, I mean what is your work? Not music…what is your real work?” Ever since that moment, I decided that communist Cuba was the wrong place for me to be. Che never considered music to be real work.

When I first arrived in New York and started playing, I didn’t know that our music was going to have such an impact in the world. But that happened. That’s the way it worked. We found a way to understand that there was life after Castro. It was very hard for me because I had to leave behind my marriage in Cuba and my son, who I didn’t see for ten years. It was very hard. But well, everything in life has a price.

A friend of mine once said that when you think you are finished with learning about music, then you really are finished. Arrogance has no place around music. When you think you know everything, you are finished. But I don’t practice every day anymore, and that is not good. I used to practice at my father’s pace – 26 hours a day. But now I have other activities. I like old cars. I like writing. But at the end of this year, I have to play the Weber quintet for clarinet and strings. It’s not tremendously demanding, but it needs endurance, so I have to force myself to practice. You know why the great Eddie Daniels plays the way he plays? Because he has a combination of natural talent – and he has the discipline to practice. So that combination is lethal!

I recently published my fourth book, which is called “Letters to Yeyito.” It’s about a fictional music student who asks me if it’s worth it to make a career out of music. The book is an explanation of what I did with my life in music. All my advice to musicians is in that book.

And that advice is to have humility and to practice. Practicing is the only way. The genius of music education, Dr. Suzuki, said to never lose your humility, because arrogance deprives you of understanding and enjoying the greatness that is around you. That is very important. Always be ready to learn. Keep your head down, and your nose – especially your nose. That way you can see what is around you. All arrogant people have a great complex of inferiority. You never see arrogance coming out of great musicians, you know. I’m thinking of Dizzy Gillespie, who became my mentor. And Mario Bauza. And Yo-Yo Ma. And the Uruguayan pianist Pablo Zinger.

It’s an honor to be part of such a great institution like Local 802. We’re surrounded by the fantastic musicians of our times. I’m an endorser of the union’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign. Our profession of music is a real beauty. The other day I was performing on a cruise ship. Joe Lovano was there, and Freddy Cole, and so many other great musicians. Musicians get paid to go on a cruise and be surrounded by the most beautiful jazz musicians in the world. Nothing in the world beats that. Our career is a jewel; that’s what it is. It’s a blessing. And I thank my father for giving me this beautiful career.