When Dave passed on March 8, 2017, the first thing that came to my mind was a trip we took to Cuba in 2002. We had both been asked by pianist Chucho Valdés to be part of an elite group of musicians selected by him to judge entries for a Best Latin Jazz Composition contest sponsored by the Spanish music publishing firm SGAE. The other judges were the Spanish saxophonist and flutist Jorge Pardo, Chucho’s fellow Cuban and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and, of course, Chucho. Both Dave and I were Nuyoricans, people of Puerto Rican parentage born and raised in NYC—in our case the South Bronx. We reflected on the fact that despite our humble backgrounds, we had been asked to join such a prestigious and important panel.
For a whole week we met in a conference room at our hotel in Havana, the renowned Meliá Cohíba, listening to submissions, reviewing scores and discussing the works. After Gonzalo offered a lofty analysis of one piece, Dave turned to him with cigarettes in his nostrils and asked him what he really thought. We all exploded in laughter. Dave had deflated the academic, overt pretention that was present with a joke straight out of vaudeville and the streets of Da Bronx. We were now just a group of good friends listening to the music, enjoying it and being honest. That good vibe led us to select for third place a piece submitted by a journeyman, working-class, middle-aged Cuban tenor player who had written a cha-cha-cha. It was simple, funky and the furthest thing from some of the rhythmically and harmonically complex pieces that had been submitted. In that one humorous act, Dave had brought us down to earth. We all agreed that the piece deserved to be recognized because, simply, it moved us.