My first gig when I settled in New York City in October 1980 was with the quintet of the multifaceted David Amram, whom I had met in 1977, when he suddenly appeared in the Havana bay aboard the ship Daphne, as part of a Caribbean jazz cruise with Stan Getz, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and Dizzy Gillespie. At the time Amram had in his New York band Victor Venegas on bass, Steve Berrios on drums, and a quaint Peruvian/Puerto Rican percussionist (Peruviorican he calls himself) named Ray Mantilla, who was the first person I heard speaking in perfect “Spanglish,” half-Spanish-half-English with tremendous rhythm.
A lot has rained down since those performances with Dave in Jazzmania, as well as at the Prospect Park bandshell, among other places in the city. But I still remember the occasion when Argentine pianist Jorge Dalto took me to a pretty hip place called Soundscape on the fifth floor of a building on 52nd Street and 10th Avenue in Manhattan, frequented by the Latin jazz artists of the time, including brothers Andy and Jerry González, Carlos Franzetti, Daniel Ponce, Michael Camilo, Mario Rivera, and Hilton Ruiz. It was that same night that Verna Gillis, the place’s owner, proposed for me what would be my debut as a bandleader in the city of my childhood dreams, and the first of many magical nights in that venue.
During the intermission of one of those sessions, I was approached by a Brazilian composer and guitarist who occupied the loft on the sixth floor of that same building. He introduced himself as Gaudencio Thiago de Mello, and asked me a question that in many ways changed my life forever: “Do you know Claudio Roditi?”
I was passionate about Brazilian music from a young age, and during my five months of waiting for my American visa in Madrid [after defecting from Cuba], I’d had the opportunity to get acquainted with samba, bossa nova, and baião, working almost daily with a group of South American musicians who knew those musical forms very well. So my subsequent relationship with Claudio in the concrete jungle was like a kind of postgraduate course, and over time that music became an indissoluble part of my stage formula.
Time went on and through the Carioca trumpeter I had the pleasure of listening to, working with, and learning from musicians such as bassists Sérgio Brandão, Lincoln Goines, and Nilson Matta; the dynamic drummer Portinho; guitarist Romero Lubambo; and Leny Andrade, first lady of Brazilian Jazz. Roditi could communicate in several languages, was fluent in Portuguese and English, and by playing next to him and hearing his fine and spontaneous way of articulating and combining the bebop language with the rhythms of his native homeland, I learned so much.
Arguably Claudio was, along with Chet and Miles, one of those chosen who remind us that the trumpet can be an extremely tender, subtle, and delicate instrument. When I met him, he also played the valve trombone, one of my favorite instruments. On one later occasion when I wanted to record a composition of mine with Howard Levy on the harmonica and me on the clarinet, I asked him not to forget to bring the trombone to the studio, since said horn was part of the three-voice recipe I had in mind—to which he replied that he had sold it, for it harmed his trumpet embouchure (¿!). According to his colleague Diego Urcola, however, that particular trombone was always sleeping under Claudio’s bed in New Jersey; he was just too lazy to carry it around. The Carioca, with his sense of humor and that luminous smile, laughed loud every time that trombone-under-the-bed conversation came up.
But in any case, it didn’t matter if he played valve trombone, flugelhorn, his characteristic rotary-valve trumpet, or even a kazoo or bagpipe. Whatever instrument he used, Claudio Roditi would inevitably sound like himself, that unique and unforgettable artist who forever filled our souls with his cheerful, exquisite art.