The life of musician Paquito D’Rivera, a multiple Grammy winner who has been named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts and received a National Arts Award from the President of the United States, has been a charmed one in many ways, although it wasn’t always that way.
But D’Rivera says he is living his dream — “I am doing what I love, and this is my profession of choice” — and he looks at life with a sense of eternal optimism. This philosophy comes from, among other sources, two of the musicians D’Rivera admires most of all. They are Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whom he has arranged and played to wild acclaim from his time in his native Cuba until the present day, and Dizzy Gillespie. Both Mozart and Gillespie, he says, played with a great sense of humor, an attribute D’Rivera shares in abundance.
“It is important to have a sense of humor,” he says in a phone interview from his North Bergen home, where he lives with his wife, Brenda Feliciano. “You cannot take yourself too seriously. If you do, you start looking ridiculous.”
D’Rivera is one of the stars of the New Jersey Jazz Festival, which runs Friday through Sunday, September 28 to 30 at the State Theater’s new backstage Jazz Club. He appears with his quintet on Saturday, September 29, at 9 p.m.
D’Rivera was born in 1948 in Havana. His father was Tito D’Rivera, a classical clarinetist and saxophonist. He first began playing both instruments when he was old enough to stand, and by the time he was six, the young D’Rivera was playing gigs with his dad. His father, a member of Cuba’s National Symphony Orchestra, put his young son on stage with him, and Paquito wowed Cuban audiences with his precocity.
The child prodigy D’Rivera also had a bonafide instrumental endorsement contract, exclusively playing horns made by one of the world’s top instrument manufacturers. “My father was the Selmer rep in Havana,” he says. “He ordered me a little curved soprano.”
Paquito, unlike many musicians in Cuba at that time, had the advantage of being able to listen to an eclectic assortment of musical styles. “We listened to an array of music, from Ellington to Mario Lanza to Frank Sinatra. It was a good thing to be surrounded by different types of music without any discrimination.”
As political fortunes swirled and changed in Havana and the Cuban hinterlands alike during the 1960s, Paquito continued to learn how to play music (even serving in the Cuban Army Band), receiving what he called “a well-rounded education.” At this time, though, his musical direction changed somewhat from his father’s. He started playing jazz and improvising, and this opened up new avenues for him musically.
“My dad never had the ability to improvise,” says D’Rivera. “But he loved Lester Young and Benny Goodman and the big bands.” As a teenager during the 1960s, D’Rivera began hanging with musicians such as pianist Chucho Valdes, guitarist Carlos Emilio Morales, and others who formed the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna. All had studied at the Havana Conservatory of Music. The band played Cuban music combined with classical and rock strains.
But Paquito and his buddies wanted more. By the 1970s they had decided to form what turned out to be the superband of Latin jazz music — Irakere. The name — a Yoruba word meaning “forest” — was in itself a political statement. It signified both a willingness to put ancestral Afro-Cuban music in the forefront and an acknowledgement that after several years of isolation, Cuba needed to place itself back into the mainstream of jazz.
It worked. Irakere, which featured high-energy, avant-garde arrangements of tunes ranging from classical to hard bop to African religious chants to Carnaval music — usually all in the same song — in 1978 became the first Cuban group to be signed to an American record deal.
“It was a happy coincidence,” says D’Rivera. “Dizzy (Gillespie) and Stan Getz went to Havana, and nobody (in America) knew anything about what was going on there at the time. They wanted to put together a jam session between American and Cuban musicians during a time and place where jazz was a four-letter word. So (the government) had to go around and find all of these musicians whom they’d been harassing for several years, because they wanted us to play with Diz and Stan Getz.”
A year later, the first Irakere record came out on Columbia, and there would be two more to follow. The first gave D’Rivera his first of nine Grammys — he now has five Grammys and four Latin Grammys — in the Jazz, Latin Jazz, Composer and Classical Album fields.
In 1980 he jumped a train after a show in Spain and ended up in New York. D’Rivera later says that the decision to defect — and leave his son Franco behind — was one of his most agonizing decisions. (He was reunited with Franco five years later.)
Since coming to America he has been one of the luminaries of Latin jazz. During his first couple of years in the United States he collaborated with Gillespie and a group of fellow Cuban defectors and other Latin musicians, who played in a space created by New York impresario Verna Gillis.
“That was the rebirth, the revival, of what we call Latin jazz,” says D’Rivera. And that was what prompted D’Rivera to, as a composer and with his groups, combine jazz and Cuban music with Brazilian, Dominican, Caribbean, Colombian, and Argentine music.
Throughout his time as a U.S.-based leader-performer he has continued to preach the Latin jazz gospel. His latest record, Funk Tango, contains elements of both styles but is more of a blend of all of D’Rivera’s influences. His aptly titled autobiography, “My Sax Life,” was published in 2005.
Meanwhile he continues to compose classical music. He unveiled a new composition, “Conversations with Cachao,” a concerto for double bass and clarinet that pays tribute to Israel “Cachao” Lopez, the Cuban bassist who is one of the culture’s greatest jazz, traditional Cuban, and classical musicians.
As well, this year he received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in Composition, and he is working on an opera, Cecilio Valdes, based on a Cuban folk tale.
D’Rivera still stays in contact with some of his old Irakere comrades, many of whom have also had prominent careers in jazz or Latin music since age, politics, and defections have led the majority of the band’s original members to go their separate ways.
He says he sometimes speaks to Valdes on the phone, by E-mail, or in person, when he sees his old friend on gigs in places such as Spain or other parts of Europe. He also talks with fellow Irakere saxophonist Carlos Averhoff, who was as well-known for his playing as he was for his droll introductions of Irakere’s band members during concerts.
D’Rivera was portrayed in the HBO movie “For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story,” the 2000 flick that featured Andy Garcia as Sandoval, the Cuban trumpeter who, with Valdes and D’Rivera, were the most prominent members of Irakere. Curiously, D’Rivera says he had no desire to be involved in the movie, although he did record an album with Sandoval three years ago.
“I was approached for my input, but I told them I had absolutely no interest in that project,” he said.
D’Rivera will turn 60 next year, and he continues to be prolific. He enjoys spending time with his wife, son, and two-year-old granddaughter, Bianca. “Sometimes I feel really tired,” he says. “But when I’m home doing nothing, I feel really tired of doing nothing.”
New Jersey Jazz Festival, Friday through Sunday, September 28 to 30, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Saturday and Sunday performances take place in the Backstage Jazz Club, a 238-seat club style seating on stage. $25 to $50, depending on performance. Tables of four available at special pricing. Two-day festival pass, $85 to $155. 732-246-7469.
Friday, September 28, 8 p.m.: John Pizzarelli Quartet with Jessica Molaskey in the 1,800 seat theater.
Saturday, September 29, 5 p.m.: “Keyboards Extraordinaire” with the Cedar Walton Trio featuring David Williams, Joe Farnsworth, Holly Hofmann, and Mike Woffard.
Saturday, September 29, 9 p.m. “Hot Latin Nights” featuring the Pacquito D’Rivera Quarter with Mark Walker, Alan Yavnia, Oscar Stagnaro, Diego Urcola, and Claudio Roditi.
Sunday, September 30, 3 p.m.: “Tribute to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie” featuring the John Faddis Quartet with Jimmy Heath.