Q&A with Cuban Musician Paquito D’Rivera

Cuban-born musician Paquito D’Rivera is an artist of diverse talent. A master of both the clarinet and the saxophone, D’Rivera was also a founding member of the United Nation Orchestra (playing alongside the great Dizzy Gillespie) and Irakere, a 12-piece band famous for its blend of jazz, rock, classical, and traditional Cuban music.

He’s released more than 30 solo albums—earning 14 Grammy Awards along the way—and was a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, the highest public artistic honor in the United States. On November 17 and 18, he takes the Arts Garage stage with his quartet to perform selections from his albums Jazz Meets the Classics and Paquito and Manzanero.

PBI spoke with D’Rivera about music, his vintage cars, and imaginary musicians.

PBI.com: Tell us about your upcoming performance at the Arts Garage. What can audiences expect to see and hear?

D’Rivera: I’ll be coming with my working quintet: bass guitarist Oscar Stagnaro, Diego Urcola on trumpet and valve trombone, Vince Cherico on drums, and pianist Alex Brown. We’ll be playing some music from my Latin Grammy winner CD “Jazz Meets the Classics,” the new one “Paquito and Manzanero,” as well as a little tribute to the late Toots Thielemans, who was a dear friend and great inspiration.

Your father taught you to read and play music when you were 4 years old. When did you realize you wanted to be a musician?

My father was retired from the Army and used to practice his tenor sax 26 hours a day. He operated a small music-imports business and all his friends and clients were musicians, so I had no choice. I loved it from the very beginning. Ever since, I’ve liked playing many different music styles, and jazz is just one of them.

How did growing Cuba, and while Castro was in power, help shape you as an artist?

Castro and his good-for-nothing “Castronettes” have been a disgrace for almost six decades now in power, and music there exists not thanks, but in spite of them.

Paquito is such a sweet sounding name. Does it have a meaning?

It’s a nickname for Francisco.

How does winning 14 Grammys feel?

It’s great, but not always. I have received awards for some of my favorite works but on the other hand, there are so many great artists that never receive awards.

Any favorite moments from your music career?

A very touching one was in 1981. It was the first time Dizzy Gillespie introduced me on the stage at a huge jazz festival in Switzerland as “one of the great masters of our music.” I didn’t expect that one.

What are your favorite songs to perform (yours or others)?

I don’t think I have a favorite song, but I can say that I love playing Toots Thielemans’ “Bluesette.”

Most artists perform the great works of other but many great artists like Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra have performed your music. How does that feel?

Elvis, Sinatra? Where are my royalty checks?

You once said a jazz musician shouldn’t “try and impress people with too much volume and too many notes. … Dizzy [said] it [took] him thirty years to figure out which notes not to play.” How’s that important in being a good musician?

Too many Cuban (and not only Cubans) musicians –some ones really talented– are addicted to pyrotechnics and cheap gimmicks to provoke the easy applause, and that –in my opinion– damages the quality of their work.  I try to stay away of that practice.

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What other projects are you currently working on?

I have to write the “Rice and Beans Fantasy” for clarinet, cello and orchestra, to be premiered in 2018 by Yo Yo Ma, the National Symphony Orchestra, and myself at Washington Kennedy Center.

What’s your best non-musical talent?

Writing. I’ve published my fourth book, Letters to Yeyito. It’s an epistolary conversation with an imaginary aspiring musician.

Advice for budding musicians who want to achieve your level of excellence.

Read “Letters to Yeyito” and you’ll find many useful answers.

When you’re not performing, where can we find you?

Playing with my lovely cat, Miguelito, or driving around in my 1957 Bel Air, 1952 MG-TD, or 1998 Porsche. I love old cars.

Favorite song to play when you’re feeling happy or in a blue mood.

Luis Bonfa’s “Manha do Carnaval” for both situations.

Your greatest indulgence.

Malbec red wine and watching movies in my basement.

Three words that sum you up.

I am passionate!

Share something about yourself we probably don’t know, but should.

I am pretty open and have little to hide. I love good music, literature, movies, paintings, classic cars, animals, and tasty food. I dislike machismo, abusive people, religious extremisms, and communists and their cousins. 

Describe your greatest professional achievement.

It is still to come.

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