UChicago Presents: Encouraged by your father, you made your musical debut at an early age. What’s your earliest musical memory?
Paquito D’Rivera: When I was four years old, there was a big graduation party in my elementary school, and that was the first time I played in public. Fifty years later, I celebrated the anniversary [of that performance] at Carnegie Hall. That was about ten years ago now, so now I’m celebrating sixty years of being a musician!
UCP: You and Wynton Marsalis are the only artists I know of who have received Grammies in both the Jazz and Classical categories. How did your early years at the Havana Conservatory and beyond help make you musically bilingual?
PDR: Well, my father was a classical saxophonist who loved jazz music, so I grew up listening to music without distinction. For me, it was just music. As long as it was music of quality, I listened to everything. My father loved listening to Mario Lanza, the wonderful tenor from Hollywood. Still, today, I listen to every kind of music, from Brazilian music to symphonies to jazz players.
UCP: In previous interviews, you’ve talked about how jazz was (literally) a “four-letter word” to the Communist regime in Cuba—which is interesting, because now people consider Afro-Cuban jazz one of Cuba’s biggest exports. Can you talk about what it was like being a musician in that environment?
PDR: It was very problematic, you know. During the Communist Revolution there, it was very hard to be a jazz aficionado. First of all, it was impossible to find LPs—you had to go to the shortwave radio. Anyway, they didn’t like it, because thought that jazz was American music, basically.
UCP: What sorts of music was the government encouraging, then?
PDR: Anything that had nothing to do with the United States! Even the Beatles, rock n’ roll—none of that was a favorite of the people who give the orders there. Now it’s a little more open, I understand. I have not been there in 36 years, but it seems like people are doing more music from different parts of the world.
UCP: The great Chucho Valdés invited you to join Irakere, which would go on to become one of the most successful Latin jazz groups in the world. Where were you at in your career when he invited you to join the group?
PDR: That happened in a very sad period of my life. The government wasn’t allowing me to play [in public], because they knew I never liked them very much. My parents left Cuba in 1968, but I had to stay because I had my obligatory military service for three years. I didn’t see my parents for ten years, and when I defected here, I had to wait for almost another ten years to reunite with my own son. It’s a horrible system.
So, it was very kind of Chucho to invite me to the group. We have been friends for many years, because our fathers were friends. Chucho was one of my first role models and main influences in my career—he’s about seven or eight years older than I am.
UCP: When you did defect, you were with Chucho, in an airport in Madrid. Can you talk about that experience?
PDR: It was in the beginning of a tour with Irakere, and the first stop was Madrid. I missed the plane, and I filed for political asylum right there. That was in May of 1980; 36 years ago.
UCP: Your bandmates didn’t know what you were planning to do?
PDR: No, no. When you know something, you’re already guilty. I didn’t want to make anyone else responsible for my actions, so nobody knew.
You know, Woody Allen says that comedy is tragedy plus time. And now, it sounds very funny, but in that moment, it was terrible. But now, everything is in the past, and I’m in the place I’ve wanted to be since I was a kid: New York City.
UCP: And what was it like arriving there for the first time?
PDR: Oh, it was wonderful. This is the most fantastic city in the world. I have a Finnish friend, he’s a pianist, and he says, “What happens in New York City in one night happens in many other cities in the world in two years!” It’s a very dynamic city.
UCP: In an interview with the New York Times last year, Chucho said that a reunion of the original members of Irakere would be “his dream.” he said. Last month, this dream was partially realized when you reunited with Chucho at the White House. Do you think your musical paths could converge again for future projects?
PDR: There is a phrase that two friends of mine say that I agree with. One is [Cuban-American actor] Andy Garcia, and the other is [Cuban-American musician and producer] Emilio Estefan. They say it’s very clear that nothing is going to be solved while the Castros are in power—that family is in the middle of everything. Including Irakere: it’s impossible, because they complicate the life of everybody [in Cuba]. So, we will wait and see what happens.