Monday, July 24, 2006

Paquito D’Rivera’s My Sax Life

My Sax Life: a Memoir
By Paquito D’rivera
Northwestern University Press

Not to go into too much detail, but working in publishing can make one quickly cynical about celebrity books. However, having heard the charismatic D’Rivera play live several times, and offering up spontaneous opinions at a live Downbeat blindfold test at IAJE’s annual conference, it is refreshing to hear the same D’Rivera come through loud and clear in the pages of his memoir, My Sax Life.

Inspired by Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall LP, D’Rivera was a musical prodigy. The son of a musician and specialized instrument dealer, Paquito D’Rivera played widely on Cuban television before the revolution which swept Castro into his exalted dictatorship. As D’Rivera remembers, despite being anti-Batista, his mother quickly grasped the nature of the new regime telling the family: “This guy is worse than that other son of a bitch they got rid of, so we’re going to have to get the hell out of here really fast.” (p. 55)

Unfortunately, D’Rivera’s family did not immediately heed his mother’s advice, as life became difficult under the new regime for saxophonists. At one point the youthful reedman was warned off a radio broadcast when a bureaucrat unaware of his identity told him: “Armandito Zequeira and Tito Rivera’s son are walking around with an arsenal of imperialistic instruments, and we can’t allow that here.” Dark days were ahead for jazz, the imperialistic saxophone, and those who played them in Cuba.

What followed were years of artistic frustration, including compulsory military service, where D’Rivera did have the good fortune to be assigned to an army band, despite his already considerable record of counter-revolutionary behavior and jazz affinity. His talent and service in the army band led to stints in other state-sponsored ensembles. His independent thinking led to long periods of unemployment and isolation.

Irakere represents the peak of D’Rivera’s career in Castro’s Cuba, a critically acclaimed jazz combo that dared not call itself such. Its value to the regime as propaganda tool allowed D’Rivera to hear the magic word: “fasten—which was the code word used by Amadito Valdes Jr. and all of the musicians to refer to international travel.” (p. 221) It was on one such trip to Spain that D’Rivera defected, leaving behind his wife and son. Although the desperate D’Rivera originally intended to leave for America as part of the Mariel Boatlift, he changed his plans after witnessing vicious street gangs organized by the regime “spontaneously” terrorize fellow Cubans for declaring their intentions to participate in the planned exodus.

It would take a massive public relations effort to shame the tyrant-for-life in Havana to release his hostages. D’Rivera repeatedly faxed newspapers around the globe and wrote open letters embarrassing Castro’s celebrity amen-corner, like bassist and left-wing extremist Charlie Haden. D’Rivera wrote in his Jazz Times letter: “So I wonder if it would be interesting for you to know that while you were playing your odes to Che Guevara and to Fidel (who naturally didn’t attend your concert, or any other concert), my son and his mother were visited by the political police.” (p. 193) Haden naturally responded by demanding Jazz Times suppress D’Rivera’s letter—fortunately JT enjoys the freedom of press denied in Haden’s preferred police state, so the letter ran.

That is indeed vintage D’Rivera. He has lost too many friends to Castro’s prisons and concentration camps. He gives a voice to many of Cuba’s powerless artists, like his close friend, flutist Felix Duran, one of the last people D’Rivera sought out before defecting. The emotion comes through when D’Rivera writes: “this irreproachable man, who had never spoken a word in public about politics, lost many opportunities to travel abroad in artistic groups only because he refused to publicly repudiate our good friendship, which is evidently more valuable to him than all of the material goods in the world.” (p. 308)

As a result, he does not hold back in his appraisal of the revolutionary junta. On Guevara, he writes: “he had the balls to impose a revolution upon the natives of a country he didn’t know. He also even ordered the execution of many Cubans during his tenure as military chief at La Cabana fortress in Havana. But thank God (and the CIA, I guess), all that is left of that twisted character are several thousand T-shirts with his face on them, available mainly at Cuban tourist stores for purchase with American dollars only!” (p. 136)

Whether blowing a virtuoso solo, or calling out apologists for tyranny like Haden or Danny Glover, Paquito D’Rivera is always passionately honest. He writes with equal fervor about music and politics, in a book that can teach readers much about both. D’Rivera also has the confidence to print contributions by close associates, which sometimes make him the butt of an amusing reminiscence. He writes in general chronological order, but often jumps forward and backward to give context for his stories in a conversational style. His book truly reads like the D’Rivera one hears on the bandstand, at times joyful, witty, intellectual, sometimes ribald, but never dull. My Sax Life is a fast but informative read that is genuinely funny at times, loaded with jazz anecdotes and insights. It deserves to be in-print for years to come.

D’Rivera’s playing is always tasteful and lively, having graced the stage with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Chick Corea, Celia Cruz, Machito and Tito Puente. A multi-reed virtuoso in jazz and classical music, D’Rivera has already been recognized as a NEA Jazz Master. As mentioned here before, there is still time to vote for Paquito D’Rivera in the Downbeat jazz poll, for best clarinet and best jazz musician. Exercise your right to vote—one of the many rights Cubans are still denied.