In his colorful autobiography, My Sax Life, legendary musician Paquito D’Rivera comments, “Every time I want to have some fun and lose some money, I organize a big band.” This month, in his first collaboration with Juilliard, D’Rivera will have the chance to have some fun and inspire an eager group of talented young musicians without losing a penny when he leads the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra in its first concert of the season on October 17 at 8 p.m. in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.
D’Rivera has enjoyed a dynamic career as a jazz and classical musician for more than five decades. Born in 1948 in Havana, Cuba, he was a child prodigy on clarinet and saxophone. He began studying saxophone at age 5 with his father, started playing professionally the following year, and at age 7 became the youngest artist to endorse a musical instrument (Selmer saxophones).
Establishing a successful career early on as a performer in both jazz and classical genres, D’Rivera was a founding member of the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, directing the group for two years while playing clarinet and saxophone with the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra. He rose to international prominence as an original member of the ground-breaking musical ensemble Irakere, whose music represented an innovative fusion of bebop, Latin jazz, traditional Cuban, rock, and classical elements. Founded by pianist Chucho Valdés as an offshoot of the Orquesta Cubana, the group made history as the first post-Castro Cuban ensemble to record for an American label (CBS Records), and proceeded to win a Grammy in 1980 for best Latin recording.
While the Cuba of his youth enjoyed a vibrant jazz and classical music scene, D’Rivera became increasingly unhappy with the government’s monitoring of artistic activities. In 1981, while on tour with Irakere in Spain, D’Rivera defected in Madrid and was granted political asylum. (His aforementioned autobiography—first published as Ma Vida Saxuel in Spain by the prestigious literary house Seix Barral and released in the English version by Northwestern University Press in 2005—offers a gripping account of the experience, as well as a marvelously engaging narrative of his life and career.)
D’Rivera eventually became an American citizen, and in 2005 received a National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the United States government. He remains an outspoken critic of the Castro regime and has never returned to Cuba, explaining (in an interview with Raphael Sugerman in the Passaic County Herald News, November 17, 2006), “Asking for a visa to get into my own country is a humiliation and I won’t do it. And I refuse to legitimize this government by showing it support.”
Since his first recording as a leader in 1981, the same year he left his homeland, D’Rivera has recorded more than 30 albums. In 2003, he became the first artist to win Latin Grammys in both classical and jazz categories, for his recordings of the first Spanish version of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale and Brazilian Dreams with the New York Voices. He received his eighth Grammy in 2005, for best classical recording for Riberas with the Buenos Aires String Quartet and his 2007 release Funk Tango (on Sunnyside Records) was recently nominated for a Grammy as best Latin jazz album.
Captivating audiences around the world in performances with his ensembles—the Chamber Jazz Ensemble, the PaquitoD’Rivera Big Band, and the Paquito D’Rivera Quintet—as well as touring with guitarists Sergio and Odair Assad since 2005, D’Rivera maintains a vital presence in the classical realm both as a performer and composer. In addition to solo and chamber music appearances, he has composed numerous highly regarded works for a wide range of ensembles. Highlights of his recent activities as a composer include his appointment as the 2007-08 composer-in-residence at theCaramoor Center for Music and the Arts and his recent selection as the recipient of a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, which he is using to write an opera titled Cecilio Valdez.
For his program with the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra, D’Rivera plans to feature several of his most familiar jazz compositions. Three were inspired by important individuals in his life: Song to My Son was composed during the eight-year period when D’Rivera’s son Franco was still in Cuba; Samba for Carmen (arranged by Chico O’Farrill) is a tribute to vocalist Carmen McRae; and I Remember Diz was written in honor of Dizzy Gillespie. (D’Rivera was a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro-Cuban United Nations Orchestra, founded in 1988, and took over direction of the group after Gillespie’s death in 1991.) His exuberant Wapango, featured on two recordings by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, is a divertimento based on the Mexican rhythm known as the “huapango.”
Other selections on the program include Ernesto Duarte’s bolero Come Fué (arranged by Chico O’Farrill); Alma Llanera, a well-known folk song from Venezuela; Donna Lee (J. Ashby’s arrangement), a bebop jazz standard credited to Charlie Parker but possibly composed by Miles Davis; and Bonitinha by Argentinian composer Carlos Franzetti, a Juilliard alumnus who, like D’Rivera, has been successful both as a classical and jazz composer.
Naturally, the prospect of playing with Paquito D’Rivera has generated tremendous excitement among the orchestra members. As trumpeter Etienne Charles, a second-year student in Juilliard’s Master of Music program, comments, “I had known about Paquito D’Rivera before I started playing jazz. I had been listening to Irakere for as long as I could remember and had known that he was a member of that group, and then later I heard him with Caribbean Jazz Project. So now, some 10 or so years after first hearing him, it’s an honor being able to share the stage with him playing his music.”
According to Carl Allen, interim artistic director of Juilliard’s Jazz Studies program, the main challenge for the orchestra lies in the two different rhythmic approaches of the various selections—Latin rhythms on the one hand and traditional swing on the other.
For the orchestra’s gifted players, the issue isn’t technical proficiency, but a matter of grasping the right feeling or character of each approach. Anyone familiar with the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra’s stellar performances in previous seasons will have no doubt of their ability to do so.