April 25, 2005


The Paq-Man’s Half-Century: Saxophone virtuoso Paquito D’Rivera receives the coveted “Jazz Masters” Award 50 years after his debut as a child prodigy. (Mark Holston, March 2005, Hispanic Magazine)

Even on the most important night of his professional life, Havana-born saxophone and clarinet virtuoso Paquito D’Rivera can’t avoid the kind of lighthearted quip that has become his calling card. “We could only get Carnegie Hall on January 10, not December 31, so we decided to call the concert ‘50 Years and 10 Nights,’ ” he wisecracks of the lavish, all-star studded extravaganza that was created to observe his half-century in music. He first took to the stage, a tiny curved soprano saxophone in hand, in 1954 at the age of 6 after several months of intensive tutoring by his father Tito, a classical saxophonist. Today, he’s widely regarded as one of the top woodwind artists in the world.

The choice of the planet’s most revered concert venue for the event was more than symbolic. “My fascination with Carnegie Hall came when my father played for me the historic recording of clarinetist Benny Goodman and his orchestra, recorded there in 1938,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Wow, what is that?’ At the time, I understood ‘Carnegie Hall’ as carne frijol! I was a stupid kid! But ever since then, I dreamed about being a musician in New York.”

D’Rivera’s special night featured a once-in-a-lifetime assembly of stellar talent, ranging from classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Dominican pianist Michel Camilo to Cuban conga legend Cándido and Brazilian vocalist Rosa Passos, his wife Brenda Feliciano, an opera singer, and members of The Youth Orchestra of the Americas. Also on hand was a trio of octogenarian Cuban artists—Bebo Valdés, a storied pianist, and Las Hermanas Márquez, master practitioners of the Cuban guaracha. “I’ve never seen a concert event that put together so many different kinds of music,” D’Rivera proudly says. “From classical to Brazilian, Cuban and jazz, we had everything.”

As documented by the unending series of accolades and awards he has accumulated since arriving in the U.S., D’Rivera enjoys a stature virtually unparalleled in the history of Hispanic musicians in the U.S. [...]

Although he has lived in the U.S. for almost a quarter of a century, D’Rivera still finds some characteristics of his adopted homeland perplexing. “One of the amusing aspects of living in a democracy,” he observes from his home in Weehawken, New Jersey, “is that Americans like to complain about everything. But, perhaps the point of it is that they can. They have freedom. But every time I think about complaining about something, I’m reminded of the political prisoners in Cuba, especially the poets and writers. These people are in jail just for speaking their hearts. ”

Indeed, on most days, you won’t hear Paquito D’Rivera complaining. Universally admired, at the peak of his career, and scoring one success after another, his world is filled with triumphs, artistic collaborations and friendships with today’s most renowned musicians. “Almost every day,” he happily admits, “I ask myself, ‘Am I dreaming?’ ”

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 25, 2005 8:53 AM
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