Paquito D’Rivera never fails to amaze with his multi-faceted abilities in the arts. A child prodigy, Cuban expatriate and whiz on the clarinet and sax, D’Rivera has made a name for himself in the U.S. and internationally in jazz and classical music, as a composer and player. He’s also a published writer, a recognized award winner several million times over, and a friend to the arts, serving as New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s (NJPAC) Artist in Residence (he lives in N.J.) and a board of director on major, countless arts organizations throughout the country.
On January 31st, the world will watch the 52nd annual Grammys to see if D’Rivera will win for “Best Classical Crossover Album” [Jazz-Clazz-Paquito D’Rivera Quintet (Trio Clarone)] and “Best Instrumental Composition” [Borat In Syracuse from Jazz-Clazz], adding to his collection of nine previous awards. And on March 15th, 6:30 p.m., at Manhattan’s Millennium Broadway Hotel/Hudson Theatre, the NY Purchase College School of the Arts will honor D’Rivera and four other distinguished individuals with the prestigious Nelson A. Rockefeller Award for their work in the performing and visual arts.
When I had the chance to interview D’Rivera, it was my jazz musician husband Eddie who flipped out with shock and awe. “Do you know who this guy is?!” he asked me, like a bag full of diamonds just landed in my lap. “He’s, like, one of the greatest, most brilliant Latin jazz artists ever. He’s got impeccable feel. I mean, Paquito is a big deal.” Then, my husband began to cry like a baby before rushing off to listen to some of the Cuban artist’s music. Well, the very big deal, Mr. Paquito D’Rivera, did me the incredible honor of answering a few of my rookie and semi-informed questions. In a way, it really was like hitting the LOTTO. He showed right away his command of the language of music, how it can transcend languages and bring people together, and even cross the great divide between the jazz and the classical. And, he just may be one of a handful of individuals who’s never heard of Lady Gaga.
D’Rivera’s also wrote “My Sax Life.” He writes about music or Cuba’s politics.
NY’s Purchase College School of the Arts will fête you on March 15, along with an artist, a choreographer and a playwright. What does this mean to you?
Poifect! (sic) pretty much in tune with my philosophy. I’m really pleased and humbled to be able to share in such distinguished company. Arts are inter-related, and artists from different fields should learn and get inspiration from each other. From a very tender age, my father not only put me on the music path, but also uncovered for me the marvelous world of arts and literature. To be surrounded by dancers, writers, choreographers, painters and sculptors is my “natural habitat.”
It’s not everyday you run into a musician who can play both jazz and classical music—equally well. What gives? How did you come by your gifts in both disparate musical genres when most jazz musicians can’t?
My father was a classical saxophonist. He never had the ability to improvise, but he loved Stan Getz, Lester Young, Duke Ellington and especially the Benny Goodman Orchestra. So he used to play for me Goodman’s swing band, back to back, with his rendition of the Mozart clarinet concerto. He was very “Ellingtonian,” so to speak: “There are only two kinds of music, good, and the other stuff,” said the Duke.
Are you interested in somehow bridging the gap between the jazz and classical worlds in future musical works of yours and in musical collaborations?
There is a big gap in both jazz and classical music education. Jazz is a young genre. Even the name jazz was starting to be used around 1913, less than a century ago. So jazz people are missing hundreds of years of musical tradition, discipline, intonation, repertoire, et al. On the other side, the classical orthodox is missing the youthful spontaneity, freshness and free spirit of jazz and improvised music in general. Syncopation is a nightmare in the classical world and to play something that wasn’t previously written is a lost art. They even read the cadenzas from past soloists!
Little by little is changing with open-minded players from both sides of the road, like Yo Yo Ma, Jorge Luis Prats, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, the Assad brothers, Eddie Daniels and Marina Piccinini.
Your musical tastes tend toward the diverse and eclectic, … African, Cuban, classical, American jazz. What/who were your earliest influences growing up and do you have a favorite type of music to listen to and play?
While growing up, we used to listen to mainly classical and some jazz records by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Jascha Heifetz, Boots Mussuly, Al Gallodoro, Marcel Moyse, Marcel Mule, and Mario Lanza. That, plus the music my mother heard from the local radio: Orquesta Aragon, Beny Moré, Celia Cruz, etc, etc. All types of (good) music.
D’Rivera will participate in San Juan’s Heineken Jazz Festival in June.
It’s well-known that you, as well as fellow Cuban musician Arturo Sandoval, defected to the U.S. But how has Cuba affected your musical choices here and abroad?
I have little or no contact at all with Arturo Sandoval ever since I came to the USA, so I just can speak for myself.
As a Cuban exiled for 30 years, I’ll cite my compatriot writer-folklorist Lydia Cabrera, who, while studying in Paris and nostalgic about her homeland, wrote: “I discovered Cuba at the banks of the Seine River.” The same I can say about the Hudson River. Although constantly using rhythms, harmonies and melodies from different parts of the globe (‘specially from Brasil), Cuban music is a constant in my career.
What do you enjoy most about playing jazz?
I’m passionate about democracy, and jazz is the perfect example of this (almost) perfect system of government. The soloist plays while the rhythm section accompanies him/her, and tries to make the individual sound as good as possible, even if not liking what said individual is playing. Then, at the end of your solo, you set yourself aside, keep silent and let the others express themselves.
Also, jazz is like any other game. You have to know the rules and play by them to have some fun. Otherwise it’s anarchy.
What are some of your plans for 2010?
I’m premiering a choral piece I wrote for the Young People’s Chorus in New York City, as well as working on my opera Cecilio Valdes and planning a symphonic piece to celebrate the centenary of Cantinflas, the great Mexican comedian in 2011.
Also, I would like to finish—and find a publisher—for my new book (a work in progress) “Portraits and Landscapes.” It’s a traveling book, and I have already “portraits” of people like: Dizzy, Lionel Hampton, Celia Cruz, Astor Piazzolla and many other characters I’ve known throughout my already long traveling career.
What have the Grammys done for your career? Does it matter to the mainstream music industry (the Lady Gaga rock-pop-R&B fad) that you’re regularly recognized in the music awards circuit?
Some promoters and people in general only understand what I call the “Grammy award” language, so it is always helpful to have a couple of them handy. Besides that, when you receive a prize, it is because someone thought of you and your work, so you have to be thankful.
About the pop world, I have little contact with it. But like in any field of arts, there are always artists like Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles and Michael Jackson that deserve respect and attention. Remember what Ellington said? And by the way, I have no idea who Lady Gaga is!
What do you do for fun when you’re not conquering the jazz, classical, composing and writing worlds?
Ooh, many things! I blow (horribly) my old Ophicleide for a few minutes, then I play pool and watch movies with my dog and two cats in my basement, or drive around in my beautiful Chevy Bel-Air 1957. And since we have a large kitchen now, Brenda and I cook with friends while “Las Hermanas Marquez” play traditional Cuban music for our guests.
If this was your last day on earth, how would you spend it … and why?
Probably playing my clarinet with guitarist Romero Lubambo or with my young and talented pianist Alex Brown while Brenda prepares some black beans and Basmati rice.
For more info about the May 15thPurchase College School of the Arts Rockefeller Awards Gala, call (212) 677-3173, ext. 236. Patron tickets will cost $1,000 per person; $500 per for individual tickets.