Jazz Is a Blessing: An Interview with Paquito D’Rivera

In an archival interview from 2013, Anat Cohen talks about Cuba, Brazilian music and the clarinet with her fellow virtuoso clarinetist and saxophonist

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During the Association for Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference in New York City in January 2013, the multi-talented Anat Cohen interviewed one of her musical heroes, clarinetist and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera in a session organized by JazzTimes’ Lee Mergner on behalf of the NEA Jazz Masters program.

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Paquito D’Rivera: So, you flew all the way from Israel for this, right?

Anat Cohen: Yes I did. I just landed four hours ago. I had a very nice encounter with a customs officer.

PR: Ah. Really good. So you have a lot of falafel?

AC: They took all my falafel away! But I am very very excited to be here because, first of all, being part of the APAP Conference and the NEA Jazz Masters and being part of this occasion and also sitting with one of my heroes and one of many people’s inspiration Paquito D’Rivera who you can think about as an ambassador of humanity and ambassador of music as a whole because Paquito represents music as an instrumentalist, as a virtuoso, as a composer and arranger and conductor and all genres of music, from classical music to well …the nice thing that I like to think about is just music. Because when I got to New York, I was trying to understand what kind of music I wanted to play and I was a little bit of this, or a little bit of that, and then I heard Paquito and I said, “OK, that’s a person that does all music, and he finds himself in all music and represents himself just brilliantly in every kind of music.” So, first of all, thank you for coming here to talk to us, and to me.

PR: My pleasure to be here with you.

AC: And the first question I wanted to ask you is…I’m going back to your childhood in Cuba, and I found it really interesting that your father was a very important figure in your musical life as someone that brought music home to play for you and brought repertoire for you and transcribed music for your soprano saxophone. I would like you to talk a little bit about your father.

PR: Well, my father is still today a main figure to look up to in my career. He was a classical saxophone player. He never had the ability to improvise. But he loved the music of Ellington, and especially the Goodman Orchestra. He used to play for me many Goodman swing band songs; he never called it “jazz.” For some reason he didn’t like the word “jazz.” He preferred to call it “swing.” He’d play the Goodman Swing Orchestra back to back with Goodman’s wonderful rendition of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. So, I was like 8 or 9 years old and also I was pretty confused. But it was a very happy confusion, because he had the concept of that music. He was very Ellingtonian, not only because he loved the Ellington orchestra, but because he said there are only two kinds of music: good and the other is not. When you play or at least try to understand different sides of music, you become a better musician, like when you can speak different languages. You understand life better, you know? So I think it is a big mistake when people concentrate only on one. Many jazz people are too sectarian sometimes. They don’t want to hear nothing else but Bird, Dizzy, Ellington and so on. What about listening to other types of music that Bird, Dizzy, and Ellington tell you to listen to? I think those great jazz musicians are so great because they understand other cultures. Jazz is a music coming out of a multi-national and multi-ethnic society and country. Everybody here has put their own thing into this wonderful style called “jazz.” So, my father saw that from the beginning, and I was very fortunate to be his student.

AC: Indeed, I agree. The idea of the separation between music, when I’m thinking about music education, that’s something that has been bothering me for a long time. How you go to colleges and people…they study jazz or they study classical, and the teachers have the concept to separate it. I remember when I went to teach in Atlanta and a classical clarinetist came to me and he said, “Sorry our teacher didn’t let us come to your clinic because you’re a jazz player.”

PR: Jesus Christ. What can you do when you have a person with that type of mentality, you know? The other face is, when some people ask these teachers “How can I do this?” You don’t need that.

AC: Right.

PR: Coming back to my father, as I said before, he was not an improviser. For him, improvisation was a mystery. But, he saw that I had inclinations to try to improvise. I said, “What is that type of music?” That’s improvisation. And I asked him to teach me how to do that, and I remember I said something like, in Spanish, but I said, “Oh, shit.” Because he didn’t know how to do that. But he was smart enough to take me to some of his friends that knew the style of music, and said, “I don’t know how to teach this. I don’t know how to tell him.” And then they oriented me. I started copying the Benny Goodman solos, tried to copy Charlie Parker, and then of course Trane and Paul Desmond, Lee Konitz…people like that. But, it is a mistake to tell a student that you don’t need to know that. You want to know everything. So you use it, or you don’t. But that’s typical. I hear that so many times, especially from classical teachers, saying that: “Don’t go into that direction. You don’t need that.” But I have an example of that: the great Andres Segovia. He forbid his students to play the music of Agustin Barrios, the greatest of the Latin American guitarists. He was the person who single-handedly invented what we call today the classical Latin American guitar. Eduardo Villa-Lobos called him “the unreachable.” But just because he was an Indian or something, I think it is the fact of the racism or because he saw a heavy competitor. Who knows why? But he forbid his students to play the music…. among them, Robin Williams. No, come si chiama? [laughs] No, John Williams! Robin Williams, he’s a comedian. I’m sorry.

AC: Him too.

PR: Yeah, he was talking about how Segovia forbid the students to play the music of Barrios. Coming from such a musician is kind of shock, you know? But that happens. And that happened to you too.

AC: Yeah, I look at it almost as someone that is very religious, and they’re afraid that…to pass on modern lifestyle, that someone will get corrupted. So, they almost wanna preserve the traditions so strongly that they don’t see any more the development of life.

PR: It’s another example of the other extreme is that people that say, “I don’t read music because I don’t want to corrupt my spontaneity.” You cannot be considered better for knowing less. “I am better because I know less than you!” How come? I think if you are a doctor and you are also an engineer, you are better than me. Because you have two careers and the telephone rings more. But, well, it’s a misconception.

AC: I agree with you on that. I’m going back to you learning jazz as a kid. To learn from friends of your father, you were pretty young, and jazz happens, at that time, in clubs. How did it work as a young boy hanging out with older musicians?

PR: I grew up…a great part of my childhood happened in the Tropicana club because my father on the side also was a representative of the Selmer company. So he used to sell instruments to the musicians of cabarets and military bands. For example, I saw Nat King Cole trio when I was like 11 or 12 years old from the pit of the Armando Romeu Orchestra at the Tropicana. Of course I was not able to go to the club at night in the main hall. But I was able to be in the orchestra pit and all that. And I went to many rehearsals. So I developed very good ears for what other musicians had to say, the friends of my father. So, little by little, and by listening, by transcribing the solos and all that, I learned how to play. And still today I am trying. I copy some of your solos too.

AC: No way! Another aspect that hanging out with all the musicians is, I’m just curious as…beside the music, it’s a whole different culture too. When I was a student at Berklee I was always practicing and I lived in Boston and one of the teachers said, “Anat, you gotta learn how to hang.” At the time, I wasn’t sure what he meant, but it was a very good point because if you are a musician, you gotta learn how to hang. So, as a young boy, and for the rest of your life hanging out with musicians, the hanging is part of the music.

PR: It’s part of the music and many people of my generation, they have the opinion that I never had a childhood. They had that opinion, but I had it. Only that was in a different way. For me, hanging with my father’s friends was like being in Heaven. So I had also the kids in the neighborhood. In the morning I can hang with them Saturdays and Sundays. But at night, not too late, but early at night I used to go with my father to different clubs and hanging with them, in the morning, also in the symphony or in the concert band. I had a beautiful childhood, only the childhood was different. It was the process of learning music, because music is not only the notes. It’s the hanging too. Musicians have a very special way to develop what you call “the social skills.” That is very important in life in general. Not only for musicians. Hanging is part of the learning.

AC: I personally was part of a few hangings. You like to have get-togethers in your house, and all your get-togethers they have music involved, and food, that amazing cooking by Brenda [Feliciano, Paquito’s wife], and other people.

PR: We gotta party next week. I’ll call you for that. We had a party last night with Armando Manzanero. We had so much fun, Manzanero playing those beautiful compositions. I love having people at home, and I think food is also part of the culture of the music. It’s part of all the good relations with people. I would never trust a woman that doesn’t cook good. [laughs] Or at least knows how to order good food. You don’t have to do it yourself, but at least you can call… “Please, bring me a plain pizza.” Say, uh-uh-uh, no, don’t trust this woman. But if she call and say, “Bring me some black beans, and rice, and picadillo.” I know that diet. Then I trust her.

AC: And another little aspect that has to do with hanging out-I heard a few different stories about you being a serious practical joker.

PR: Who told you that?

AC: You told me that. I was reading your book and I was laughing so hard when I was reading the part with the black snake. When you put it in the saxophone.

PR: The what?

AC: The little snake, when you put it in the baritone saxophone.

PR: Oh, yeah. That snake, yeah. And also a crab.

AC: A crab?

PR: We put a crab in the baritone saxophone and it was in the middle of a military parade. Yeah, then Raoul Castro was there. It was very dangerous. Castro was there and [sings a few bars]. Then the crab [jumped out], WHAM, just like that, AHHHHH! And then the guy threw the saxophone in the middle of it. I don’t know how I am alive here right now. It was just an innocent joke, you know. Good sense of humor is important. Some of my favorite musicians have been people with great senses of humor. One of them is Chick Corea, for example. Another one is Mozart. The music of Mozart and the history of Mozart is full of pranks and practical jokes. And of course, Dizzy Gillespie.

AC: Let’s talk about Dizzy a little bit.

PR: What can I tell you about Dizzy? Dizzy was probably the dearest jazz musician ever. He was so generous not only creating a great career for himself, but he enabled others to make their own career, me included. I remember when he called me in 1991. He was supposed to do a two-month tour with his quintet and Toots Thielemans was supposed to be his guest artist. And I had recently arrived in this country and then he called me. I was working in Washington at Blues Alley. They said, “Dizzy Gillespie is on the phone for you.” I thought, “What happened?” And I answered the phone, I said, “Hello, Dizzy. Can I do something for you?” He said, “Yeah, Toots Thielemans had a stroke.” I say, “Oh my God.” “Well, he’s doing fine, but he’s not going to be able to do this tour. He was going to be my guest artist. You want to sub for him?” It’s like someone calling me to do a movie instead of Marlon Brando or something. I said, “Dizzy, I am not as well-known as Toots Thielemans.” And Dizzy, typical, he said, [in a rough voice] “You want to do it, do it, or you don’t!” “Yes sir!” Then after that tour I remember that the following year I had my first wonderful tour with my own group in Europe. So that is how generous Dizzy was, and what a wonderful person, fantastic musician, you have to talk about that. And he was a blessing in my life and the life of many many many many of us. He will be remembered forever.

AC: Yeah, for sure.

PR: For his practical jokes too!

AC: Yeah, I haven’t heard much about his practical jokes. I guess I’m not gonna hear about it now. (laughs) You play a lot of different kinds of music. Is there any specific style or sound that you that you feel that is more you than others?

PR: Maybe the use of Latin American rhythms mixed with the bebop language and also with the classical language. I remember that my father said, “One day you will base your style in your classical training.” In that moment I didn’t believe him. I wanted to sound so much like Charlie Parker. Or like Jackie McLean. There was a time when I wanted to sound like Paul Desmond. I was very much into the jazz styles, but I didn’t notice that I was using all I learned from the French school of the saxophone. I was using all that stuff without noticing, thanks to my father and thanks to my teacher. Many years later I discovered myself and said, “My God, I am applying this that I learned in the French books, the Marcel Mule books, into this style of music.” So I was right once more. So my life is a combination of all that-it’s like my composing. When I compose classical compositions, I mix all that I learned in my life-from the Cuban music to the Brazilian music that is my love, like it’s yours too. And if you ask me about my style, it’s that. It’s a mix of all that I have been learning all my life and still learning today. When you think you are a finished musician, you are finished.

AC: I like that. So Brazilian music has been a big part of your life. You got Brazilified.

PR: I got Brazilified. Like many other musicians. Like you and the Ashby brothers.

AC: What’s in this music that everybody loves so much?

PR: Not everybody.

AC: I never met a person that doesn’t love Brazilian music.

PR: No, there are some people. In general, I will tell you something: In general, the so-called Latin people, they don’t like Brazilian music.

AC: Really?

PR: They don’t like, at all, that type of music. What you call the Caribbean people, you know, the Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans-the people in that area. That’s the reason why they say “Latin America” and “Brazil.” Sounds like something that doesn’t make any sense. But it’s true. I do a lot of mixing of those styles of music. But in order to do that mixing, you have to know both styles very well because it can sound very, very corny. When the Brazilian drummer is time to play the [sings Latin rhythm], it sounds like some chopped onion into the chocolate ice cream. You have to be very careful what you do with that. It seems like they are brothers. Yeah, they are brothers, but they don’t like each other. And I love both, you know. I was born in Cuba and I love Latin music as much as I love Brazilian music. You have to know what you are doing when you mix that. Why are we talking about this now? [laughs]

AC: I was asking you about Brazilian music.

PR: You can imagine how much I love Brazilian music. I will tell you a story. And Anat was a present, she was a present for me once. It was my birthday, which is June 4th, and a friend of mine, he couldn’t attend. He was on his way to Israel or something. He was a great pianist. And I had a big party, for a change, at home. So, somebody ringed the bell, and when I opened the door it was Anat with a fantastic Chorinho group-Chorinho is a type of music. It’s a Brazilian traditional music. It was Anat with four Brazilians, playing that beautiful music for me and I start to cry. It was fantastic.

AC: It was great. I loved it.

PR: That was one of my best birthdays because Brazil had been like a gift to me. I love that music so much that I, always I said that the half of my heart is Brazilian. I don’t know if it’s the top part or the down…whatever, but the same thing happened to you I know.

AC: Yeah, when people ask me if I am Brazilian, I say, “Next life.”

PR: Many people think you are Brazilian?

AC: They do think I’m Brazilian.

PR: You are from the Atlantic part of Israel.

AC: Exactly, the exotic…the Amazons of Israel.

PR: I am from the Caribbean side of Brazil. [laughs]

AC: Right. And you work with many Brazilian artists and you recorded with many of them and on your own albums. It’s really inspirational. Then, of course,[you’ve played] with Cuban artists, and a piano player and composer that I learned through you and through others-Ernesto Lecuona, who is one of Cuba’s treasures.

PR: I have a new recording of him. Lecuona was one of those people that had a great influence in jazz music and many types of music without even having intention to do it. He is what we can call the dean of the Cuban composers. He was a victim of his own success. Ernesto Lecuona was a piano virtuoso. He was what they call a “concert pianist” and that is all that he wanted to do in his life was be a concert pianist like…I don’t know…Chopin and Liszt and all that, that is what he wanted to do. And he played pretty good. But every time that he tried to play that Rachmininoff, they said, “No, man, play ‘La Comparsa.'” They want to hear their music. So he was a victim of his own success.

AC: Interesting.

PR: Well he laughed all the way to the bank. [laughing]. Ernesto Lecona is a…was a very dear person too. I met him as a kid. But I remember he was always smiling. He was the type of person everybody loved, like Dizzy.

AC: I have so many questions for you. People ask me this question about the clarinet and the saxophone. It’s like, who do you like more, Mom or Dad? How does it work for you?

PR: You know, I tried to stop playing the saxophone and play only the clarinet. It was impossible. I cannot do it. I tried. I said, let’s dedicate myself to the clarinet. The clarinet is a very demanding instrument. It’s a pain in the neck. Now, always I say that it’s a female instrument, the clarinet, because you never know what she’s thinking [laughs]. And Frank Wess said something very funny, only because he hates the clarinet, and he said that the clarinet was invented by five men that never met. [laughs]. It’s totally unpredictable. You blow in and sound perfect, you leave it there and it’s totally [expletive], when you pick it up it’s aaagggh! You know the feeling, right? The saxophone, you leave it in the case for years, and then you pick it up and it sounds pretty horrible, but at least you can get some sound out of it and five minutes it’s sounding like, you know… maybe you’re not sounding like, Coltrane, but, at least with a sound. Not with the clarinet. And sometimes it starts sounding beautiful, three minutes later, aagggh. It’s very easy to make it sound horrible, that instrument. But when it sounds good it’s amazing, eh?

AC: It’s amazing. It’s the most beautiful instrument.

PR: And it’s very, very few of us…we are the clarinet group, but the clarinet mafia. It’s elite. So, we are very picky with the sound of people. And we immediately know when somebody’s going to play good the clarinet just to pick it up. People that don’t, we say, “Uh-uh, that guy don’t play the clarinet.” Sometimes they try to get hip, you know, try to blow it like a saxophone. That is not the saxophone.

AC: That’s when you get the surprise coming out. SQEEEEK!

PR: Yeah, the surprise coming out. You know what Phil Woods told me? He said, “The clarinet squeaks in the case, man.” [laughs]

AC: I can relate.

PR: I said, “Where is your clarinet?” He said, “My clarinet is a lamp.”

AC: Is a lamp?

PR: Is a lamp. [laughs]

AC: That’s fantastic…So Benny Goodman was one of the first jazz clarinetists that you heard.

PR: Yeah.

AC: And you listened to Benny Goodman play at Carnegie Hall, the famous 1938 concert. Or, I heard that you call it, “Carne Freole”

PR: Carnegie Hall sounds like Carne Freole… meat and beans.

AC: So how was it after all these years to have your “50 Years of Music” concert in Carnegie Hall?

PR: In Carnegie Hall! It was amazing. My mother was in one of the balconies. My father had passed away already, but it was like a dream come true. And I have to thank my friends, Pat Philips and Ettore Stratta. I remember that Brenda [Feliciano, Paquito’s wife and manager] called Pat and said, “Paquito wants to arrange a 50th anniversary in Carnegie Hall.” And then she said, “Well, let’s get Town Hall.” And Pat said, “No, no, no, no, no. Not Town Hall. Not Lincoln Center, no. It’s Carnegie Hall. Whatever it takes.” I said, “Well, this is going to be hard.” But for some reason, she got it. I had so many different people there from Yo Yo Ma to Candido. I think it was the first time presented in one show [were] Candido and Yo Yo Ma, billed with Cachao and the New York Voices.

AC: An incredible combination of styles and people.

PR: Incredible, huh?

AC: Yes, congratulations for that.

PR: We had tango there and samba and music-we had music there. Every type of music. We were like in Heaven.

AC: Right, music. Only good music and the rest, right? I want to ask you about jazz and about how do you think it represents freedom, as someone that seems to me like a fearless person and that is outspoken musically and in the press and in your book. How do you think jazz represents freedom?

PR: Well, I am not a fearless person at all. I am terrified with taxes. [laughs] I think that it was around 1970 that Herbie Hancock said in an interview in Downbeat, when somebody asked him, “What is jazz?” He said, “Jazz is something impossible to define and very easy to recognize.” Sometimes you listen to some music and immediately you feel in jazz that maybe they aren’t even improvising. It’s a way to approach…I don’t know how to explain that, after 42 years. But it’s the feeling of playing. This music is unique. The feeling when you play this music called “jazz.” And jazz is as much what Ornette Coleman does as what Tito Puente does when he plays the Latin jazz thing. As I said before, it’s the result of a multi-national culture, of a multi-cultural country, and it’s a blessing for the entire world. It’s the music of the world. And it’s the best way to promote freedom and peace is through jazz music. You don’t have even to speak the language. You go to, I don’t know, to Japan or to Taiwan or whatever, and three or four musicians start to improvise, and they start playing what they call the standards, and there is peace and understanding immediately. Even you can play some wrong chords. They will try to help you. Jazz is a blessing and it’s the contribution of America to the world. That is what I think. It’s the greatest contribution of America to the world. So God bless America for that. [Singing] God bless America… [laughs]

Audience Member: Do you feel like playing the clarinet is trying to keep alive something that is potentially dying in jazz?

PR: Well, that is growing. There are more people. There are very few of us. But, thanks to people like Anat, the clarinet is picking up again. For many since the rediscovery of the soprano saxophone, it’s easier…it’s a lot easier. Even the soprano is a little harder to play in tune, like the tenor or the alto. It’s a lot more simple for the saxophone player not to learn other instruments like the clarinet… and that’s why for many years, they stop playing. And, I don’t know, for 50 years or something, or maybe 60, the only clarinet player around was Buddy DeFranco and, I don’t know, Jimmy Giuffre-three or four people. But, in order to play the clarinet you need the passion for that instrument. You need the passion to look for a good reed, for a nice sound, and you don’t have to think as a doubler. What happened is that the clarinet had been neglected for so many years that when the saxophone players pick it up it sounds so horrible, and they think that doesn’t matter. It matters. It matters because the sound… that is why many people say the clarinet sounds horrible, that’s why we don’t play. No, the clarinet don’t sound horrible. Those people are making the clarinet sound horrible and that’s why people think the clarinet sounds horrible. But when you hear to Ken Peplowski playing the clarinet, you don’t think it sounds horrible. And when Eddie Daniels plays the clarinet you feel like killing yourself. You know. Because it sounds so beautiful. I think that the clarinet is coming back thanks for people like that. Well it’s not an easy task. Another problem with the clarinet is the volume. The excess volume that we have been accustomed to has neglected the clarinet great a great deal because you can put a big mouthpiece in the saxophone and it takes off-wehhhhhhhh! And then you sound like Van Halen with the saxophone, but you cannot do that with the clarinet because it sounds absolutely pathetic.

AC: Yeah, and if you try to overblow the clarinet you immediately get the squeak. The squeak is waiting… it’s waiting for you to make the mistake.

PR: In the case.

AC: In the case.

PR: [To an audience member nodding] Are you a clarinet player too? You play the clarinet?

Audience member: No.

PR: Good for you. [laughs]

Lee Mergner: Anat, do you remember the first time you met and heard Paquito?

AC: I remember the first time I heard him. It was on an album that he was playing with Cachao, the Cuban bassist and composer.

PR: Wow.

AC: And the album starts with a piece that is just bass and clarinet. It’s just Cachao and Paquito playing “Al Fin Te Vi.”

PR: “Al Fin Te Vi” by Lecuona.

AC: And you later on told me that it wasn’t even planned to be on the album, you were just jamming in the studio.

PR: I asked Cachao while there was a break, and Cachao was a friend of my father, “I would like to have you play ‘Al Fin Te Vi.’ You want to play that? I want to have that as a souvenir.” I asked Andy Garcia, one of the producers, “Can I have this?” He said, “Yeah, OK, record it.” We recorded “Al Fin Te Vi” and they give the tape to me. The next thing that I know that song went to the opening [first cut] of the CD. And Cachao won a Grammy with that.

AC: Well, that song is one of the reasons why I came back to play the clarinet.

PR: Oh, I am very happy to hear that.

AC: Because I was playing clarinet and then I concentrated on jazz and I was playing mainly my tenor saxophone. Paquito has been definitely a major reason why I came back to play the clarinet as someone that plays classical music to jazz to Cuban music to Afro Cuban to Latin to all music. And then I heard that song, I remember, and I played it for my father. You know it’s hard to find a repertoire for the clarinet.

PR: Really?

AC: It’s not as common. You wouldn’t hear it on records. So, here someone plays it with this most beautiful sound, and it’s a different rhythm. It wasn’t classical and it wasn’t old swing. It was just…it was so new to my ears. I thought…that’s it. That’s how I learned about Paquito, and I think the next time… I think the first time we met was at your house when I came for the Choro thing, right? I don’t know if we met before.

PR: I think that was the first time.

AC: Yeah, I just walked into his house playing the clarinet. That was the next time.

PR: Music is an abstract art mainly. You don’t have to call your music anything. I remember once I asked Jaco Pastorius when I met him many years ago. He was playing something-one of those things that he plays. And do you know what he was playing? How you call that thing? How you call that? And he said, “Oh, I call it music.” He was playing something out-of-this-world and he called it music. That thing that Jaco Pastorius played, I don’t know…Maybe you can call it jazz, but it sound like something else. He had a lot of rock n’ roll, had a lot of classical he is playing too. He called it music.