by Paquito D'Rivera

In 1953 or ’54, when I was very young, my father brought home a Benny Goodman album recorded live in Carnegie Hall, in the city of New York. It was the first jazz orchestra to be heard in that venue, which up to that time had been dedicated exclusively to classical music. My old man—he really wasn’t so old—removed the LP from its colorful jacket and put it on the portable Sylvertone record player he had recently purchased on credit at the Sears store in Marianao. Very carefully he placed the needle on the black vinyl, and immediately we heard the happy, familiar notes of “Let’s Dance,” Benny’s musical theme, which my father, when he was in a good mood, used to play on his tenor saxophone while strolling through the house. At once the legendary Jewish clarinetist became my idol, and it was through his fascinating music that a child became a dreamer—imagining that one day, at that magic theatre in the mythic city of skyscrapers, he would perform and consecrate himself as a jazz musician.

But as an old refrain goes, the drunkard thinks one thing and the bartender another. So one fine (or not-so-fine) day, The Comandante arrived and put an end to to my dreams of New York. An enormous fermata sign hovered like a menacing gray cloud over an expectant compass. In a short time jazz became a four-letter word—“imperialist music”—according to the self-appointed leaders of Cuban culture; and as a consequence we all had to take our show on the road. For an island inhabited by people of the most diverse origins, it was never more true and palpable that “I come from all places, and to all places I go,” as José Martí might have said.

Many years later, on a cold winter night, I played in a grand tribute to the “King of Swing” at Lincoln Center with the Wynton Marsalis Orchestra. At the end of the concert, a limousine waited quietly to take me home to the other side of the Hudson. As we cruised down Broadway to Times Square, the horns of the cars, the dizzying pace of New Yorkers, the yellow taxis swarming on the bright asphalt and snowflakes falling on the illuminated city made for a scene out of a Hollywood movie. In the Lincoln Tunnel I turned on a light in the plush back seat of the car and entertained myself by reading an article about the Cuban folklorist Lydia Cabrera. “I discovered Cuba on the banks of the Seine,” Lydia commented with feeling; this was the sixties, and she had recently been exiled from Cuba to romantic Paris. Who knows if, in the middle of her sadness, the author of “El Monte” had imagined seeing Cuba’s palm trees reflected in the dark waters that travel through the City of Light. Or perhaps she might have heard the sound of the Batá drums in the ringing of Notre Dame’s bells.

At that moment very similar feeling invaded my soul. I looked out through the snowy car window across the frozen river, and from the night-lights of the tall and brilliant skyscrapers, my thoughts flew toward my warm and faraway homeland. In the distance I seemed to see again the image of my father blowing his tenor sax alongside the record player with the music of Benny Goodman—the same music I had just been playing in the theatre of my dreams. I felt a knot in my throat, my eyes became cloudy and a tear ran down my face. I had discovered Cuba on the banks of the Hudson.

—New York, January 2005

Other stories...
     "The Shiny Red Lunchbox" by Mariela Ferretti

Paquito DíRivera, exiled Cuban-American musician

Paquito’s autobiography, My Sax Life, will be out this spring.

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