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Paquito D’Rivera: Letters to Yeyito

If there is anyone who communicates through music and life it could be said that few people do it better than Paquito D’Rivera. If you have ever been to one of his concerts, you will know that he loves to introduce his songs with anecdotes…

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Paquito D'Rivera Letters

Lessons from a Life in Music

If there is anyone who communicates through music and life it could be said that few people do it better than Paquito D’Rivera. If you have ever been to one of his concerts, you will know that he loves to introduce his songs with anecdotes and somehow you feel as if not only is exquisite music being made, but history (according to Paquito D’Rivera) is unfolding before you. The saxophonist and clarinetist has carried this unique ability with energy and ebullience through two books about his life: My Sax Life (Northwestern University Press, 2005) and now in his 2015 reprise to a life well lived, in Letters to Yeyito – Letters from a Life in Music (Restless Books). The book was written by D’Rivera in Spanish and later translated into English by Rosario Moreno. It is a spectacular work of non-fiction written in a breathless style that is almost Joycean – I want to say stream-of-consciousness – style, but perhaps more appropriately it is like a series of extended solos taken by the master musician in so many contexts, just like the music that he plays.

PrintThe premise of the book is simple and fascinating. “Long ago” Paquito D’Rivera received a letter from a fan named Yeyito, who was so taken by the musician and his music that he sought D’Rivera’s advice about spending the rest of his life in music. Remarkably, the letter left a first name but little else – no family name, no forwarding address for an intended reply. Ostensibly Paquito D’Rivera tried to find its writer as the letter was delivered to him after a concert he had just played, but that was not to be. Yeyito’s letter made such an extraordinary impression on the great musician that it knocked about in his head so much so that he found himself mulling over a reply. But now that he had no one to send the reply to except the Yeyito who was and is, but not reachable nevertheless, Paquito D’Rivera did the next best thing. He wrote a series of letters in reply to Yeyito that have become the chapters in this breathtaking book.

The story begins in Cuba, of course, because that is where D’Rivera was born and lived a significant and full life until his family fled the Castro Regime to live in New York. It tells of the struggle to make it as a musician, something that his father, Tito wholeheartedly supported from his musical instruments shop in Havana. Life was not kind to artists in Post Revolution Cuba. Constantly suspicious of artists, the regime kept a strict eye on them, and as ordinary folk, if they were not apologists of a brutal regime they eked out a very meagre existence using ration cards to buy even milk, meat and other food. D’Rivera’s family were no exceptions and suffered immensely until (we get to know later in the book) his father’s store was closed down by the regime and all of his instruments confiscated. Tito could only keep his store open if he sold the equipment that he was ‘commanded’ to sell. Despite all of this, Paquito D’Rivera tells Yeyito, he managed to live a full life. His determination to succeed in life and in music was why.

The first two chapters recall D’Rivera’s meeting with Dizzy Gillespie who was instrumental in bringing the music of Cuba to the United States and carving out of the collision of cultures, a musical idiom that came to be called “Cubop”. The chapters are hilarious and recount the chase. Dizzy was, after all, impish and apparently as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel. Paquito D’Rivera hears that Dizzy is looking for him from some members of his retinue at a club that the saxophonist played. The chase began, with Dizzy constantly eluding D’Rivera. Along the way, Paquito D’Rivera makes a detour to buy a little more meat that the government permitted and stashing it in his saxophone case. Of course, you cannot escape the long arm of the revolutionary (or is it reactionary) government. The eyes of their spies are everywhere. In this instance D’Rivera is given away by an old crone and he is picked up by the police. What follows is a hilarious encounter between the saxophonist and the police who are driving him to a nameless government building – from the rumblings in his stomach to riotous journey in his mind as he fears the police will discover his stash of meat. Of course, all’s well that ends well – well almost. When the interrogation begins, the policeman receives a call ostensibly from a higher-up authority who asks that the saxophonist is brought to rendezvous with the mysterious man who smokes a pipe just like Sherlock Holmes. The rest of the journey is like some fantasy until we discover that the pipe-smoking Sherlock is none other than Dizzy Gillespie. The revolution is denied and Paquito D’Rivera is free.

Dizzy Gillespie, Paquito D'Rivera, Bebo ValdesThis is the (hilarious) spirit in which the rest of the book is written even when Paquito D’Rivera is talking about his musical escapades with the celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Brasil project as well as the saxophonist’s own love of Brasil. It tells the touching story of Paquito D’Rivera and that great Cuban icon, Bebo Valdés. From Chapter five (page 67) onwards, the book reads like Paquito D’Rivera’s magical solos in what becomes the symphonic part or the book – the Letters to Yeyito. Despite his meanderings all over Latin America and Europe, Mexico and finally the United States, where the saxophonist starts right from the bottom all over again, the saxophonist’s rich and colourful life unfolds. Although the narrative is addressed to Yeyito the reader – you and me – never feel excluded from the book. We all become the excited audience in Paquito D’Rivera’s exquisite concert performance.

What is striking in this book as in accounts by other musicians from the Latin part of the continent is that no matter how hard life is there seems not to be a dependence on external factors to prop up their life in the arts. The musicians at least – Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, and the greatest émigré of all – Bebo Valdés seem so centered and sure of themselves that even in the direst of circumstances you get the feeling that their heads are held high and they seem to survive on the sheer pride of being artists more than anything else. Human existence seems to never compromise on anything to reach their goals. No matter how hard the struggle is you always know that come through. It is the triumph of human endeavour that unfolds before your eyes. This book is no exception even when Paquito D’Rivera is narrating about his battle to win over the clarinet, an instrument that he has now come to be known as the consummate master of. This constant wrestling over the artistic and the existential aspects of his life are handled with candour and stateliness. The honesty is brutal as is the endgame with is something quite remarkable.

This is a book as important and essential a part of Paquito D’Rivera’s repertoire

Much of this has also to do with Moreno’s translation, which is beautifully expressive but seems always to be told in Paquito D’Rivera’s voice. This is truly remarkable in literature. It is not often that languages lend themselves to rendering from one to the other. What is even more remarkable is that although the English translation is musical but vastly different from the music of the original, the vividness of the Latin-American original is captured in the translation at all times. Languages of the Latin root are very voluptuous and this is reflected in Paquito D’Rivera’s music with breathtaking and endless beauty. The same can be said of the book. Obviously if you can read the work in Spanish you will be experiencing the ‘real thing’. However, I am not so sure that we do not do the same with this wonderful English version as well.

Published By: Restless Books
No. of pp: 227pp
ISBN: 978-1-632-060198
Price: $15:99 US/$18:99 CDN
Buy this book on amazon: Paquito D’Rivera – Letters to Yeyito

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Charles Rodriguez

    Mar 24, 2016 at 6:58 pm

    Is this book a different one from Paquito’s previous book, Mi Vida Saxual? It seems to be covering the same territory.

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Book Reviews

Boricua Jazz: La Historia del Jazz Puertorriqueño

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Boricua Jazz - La Historia del Jazz Puertorriqueño - Wilbert Sostre

Desde Rafael Hernández a Miguel Zenón (Second Edition)

In November 2020, author, journalist, educator Wilbert Sostre Maldonado released the second (Spanish) edition of Boricua Jazz: La Historia del Jazz Puertorriqueño · Desde Rafael Hernández a Miguel Zenón (Boricua Jazz: The Story of Puerto Rican Jazz from Rafael Hernández to Miguel Zenón).

Maldonado was introduced to jazz and other genres when he studied music and guitar in high school. The seed for Boricua Jazz was planted in 2005, when he wrote reviews for a variety of publications, including Jazz Times, Jazz Inside Magazine, and Latin Jazz Network, and realized, apart from random biographies there were no publications that contained accurate, credible information about Puerto Rican artists.

Through the use of existing biographical data, interviews, requests for information, books, magazines, articles, websites, and active participation in Puerto Rico’s music scene Maldonado created the First Edition of Boricua Jazz in 2019.

The Second Edition contains updated biographies, discographies, and new photos. Also, it contains a comprehensive index (which the First Edition lacked) and information about artists and groups that participated in the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival (1991-2017), biographical data, and in most cases, a discography.

Chapter Breakdown

• CHAPTER 1 – Shines a light on jazz in New Orleans (the cradle of jazz), blues, ragtime, black military bands, and Billie Holliday, Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet, among others. The chapter also includes an excellent selection of early jazz recordings (1940-1960).
• CHAPTER 2 – Summarizes the musical forms developing in Puerto Rico during the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Also, it documents the first encounters between American and Puerto Rican music.
• CHAPTERS 3 & 4 – They focus on Puerto Rican jazz and draws from Basilio Serrano’s groundbreaking book, Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz – 1900 -1939 – Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz (iUniverse, 2015), and other publications.
• CHAPTER 5 – Dedicated to the valve trombonist, composer, arranger, crack shot sight-reader, transcriber, and progenitor of Latin jazz, Juan Tizol.
• Chapter 6 – Documents the interactions between jazz and salsa. Also, it highlights the trajectories of Puerto Rican musicians who made significant contributions to jazz on the island and in the States.
• CHAPTER 7 – Pays tribute to the independent organizations (1960-1970) that exposed the island to jazz, such as the San Juan Jazz Workshop, the Don Pedro Jazz Workshop, and the Caribbean Workshop. The more prominent, international festivals such as the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Fest would not be possible without these organizations.
• CHAPTER 8 – Focuses on festivals, concerts, and jazz on the island.
• CHAPTER 9 – Proposes the emergence of Bomba Jazz (Afro-Puerto Rican Jazz), which is unique to the island.
• CHAPTER 10 – Brings readers to the present-day and features emerging jazz players who are giving continuity to the history of the Boricua Jazz Masters.

Throughout the book, Maldonado rightly credits the musicians, composers, arrangers, bandleaders, promoters, presenters, educators, universities, websites, radio show hosts, authors, historians, and journalists whose contributions to jazz were critical to its development and popularization on the island.

Boricua Jazz is a primer for readers who are curious about American jazz, Puerto Rican music and culture, and the relationship between the two. On a personal note, it’s an invaluable reference tool. According to Maldonado, an English Edition is in the works.

En Español

En Noviembre 2020, el autor, periodista y educador Wilbert Sostre Maldonado lanzó la segunda edición (en español) de Boricua Jazz: La Historia del Jazz Puertorriqueño · Desde Rafael Hernández a Miguel Zenón (Boricua Jazz: The Story of Puerto Rican Jazz from Rafael Hernández to Miguel Zenón).

Maldonado conoció el jazz y otros géneros cuando estudió música y guitarra en la escuela secundaria. La semilla de Boricua Jazz se plantó en 2005, cuando escribió críticas para una variedad de publicaciones, incluyendo Jazz Times, Jazz Inside Magazine y Latin Jazz Network. Para su sorpresa, se dió cuenta de que, aparte de biografías al azar, no había publicaciones que contuvieran información precisa y creíble sobre artistas puertorriqueños. Esto, a pesar de que los artistas puertorriqueños, hombres y mujeres, se “escondían” a plena vista.

Mediante el uso de datos biográficos existentes, entrevistas, solicitudes de información, libros, revistas, artículos, sitios web y participación activa en la escena musical de Puerto Rico, Maldonado creó la Primera Edición de Boricua Jazz en 2019, una nutrida base de datos de 500 páginas y una valiosa herramienta de referencia.

La segunda edición contiene biografías y discografías actualizadas y fotos nuevas. Además, información detallada sobre artistas fallecidos. También contiene un índice completo (del que carecía la Primera Edición) e información sobre artistas y grupos que participaron en el Festival de Jazz de Puerto Rico Heineken (1991-2017). Boricua Jazz también contiene datos biográficos y, en la mayoría de los casos, una discografía.

Desglose por Capítulo

• CAPÍTULO 1 – arroja luz sobre el jazz en Nueva Orleans (la cuna del jazz), el blues, el ragtime, las bandas militares negras y Billie Holliday, Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong y Sidney Bechet, entre otros. El capítulo también incluye una excelente selección de primeras grabaciones de jazz (1940-1960).
• CAPÍTULO 2 – Resume las formas musicales que se desarrollaron en Puerto Rico durante el siglo XIX y principios del siglo XX. Además, documenta los primeros encuentros entre la música estadounidense y puertorriqueña.
• CAPÍTULOS 3 y 4 – Se centran en el jazz puertorriqueño y se basan en el innovador libro de Basilio Serrano, Pioneros puertorriqueños en el jazz – 1900-1939 – Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz (iUniverse, 2015), y otras publicaciones.
• CAPÍTULO 5 – Dedicado al trombonista de válvulas, compositor, arreglista, visionario, transcriptor y progenitor del jazz latino, Juan Tizol.
• Capítulo 6 – Documenta las interacciones entre el jazz y la salsa. Asimismo, destaca las trayectorias de músicos puertorriqueños que hicieron importantes aportes al jazz en la isla y en Estados Unidos.
• CAPÍTULO 7 – Rinde homenaje a las organizaciones independientes (1960-1970) que expusieron a la isla al jazz, como el San Juan Jazz Workshop, el Don Pedro Jazz Workshop y el Caribbean Workshop. Los festivales internacionales más destacados como el Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Fest no serían posibles sin estas organizaciones.
• CAPÍTULO 8 – Se centra en festivales, conciertos y jazz en la isla.
• CAPÍTULO 9 – Propone el surgimiento del Bomba Jazz (Jazz Afropuertorriqueño), único en la isla.
• CAPÍTULO 10 – Lleva a los lectores a la actualidad y presenta a jazzistas emergentes que están dando continuidad a la historia de los Boricua Jazz Masters.

A lo largo del libro, Maldonado acredita con razón a los músicos, compositores, arreglistas, directores de orquesta, promotores, presentadores, educadores, universidades, sitios web, presentadores de programas de radio, autores, historiadores y periodistas cuyas contribuciones al jazz fueron fundamentales para su desarrollo y popularización en la isla. Additionally, Maldonado deserves credit for being up to the task in this dedicated investigative endeavor.

Boricua Jazz es un manual para lectores curiosos por el jazz, la música y la cultura puertorriqueña. En una nota personal, es una herramienta de referencia invaluable a la que me refiero a menudo. Según el autor, se está preparando una edición en inglés.

About the Author

Wilbert Sostre Maldonado is a freelance contributing writer, creator of Jazzin’ magazine and the author of the book Boricua Jazz: Desde Rafael Hernández a Miguel Zenón, La Historia del Jazz Puertorriqueño. Also, he is the host and producer of Puerto Rico Jazz @ Radio Vieques, Brave New Radio, William Paterson University & Radio Procer, 1380am, 98.5FM Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. His writings appear on Latin Jazz Network, Vid 90 magazine, All About Jazz, Jazz Inside Magazine, Jazztimes, and other publications.

Author, journalist, educator Wilbert Sostre Maldonado

Reference

• Lapidus, Ben – New York and the International Sound of Latin Music – 1940-1990 (University Press of Mississippi-Jackson, 2021)
• Maldonado, William Sostre – Boricua Jazz, La Historia del Jazz Puertorriqueño (First Edition)
• Serrano, Basilio – Juan Tizol, His Caravan Through Life and American Culture (Xlibris)
• Serrano, Basilio – Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz, 1900-1939 – Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz (iUniverse)
• Sublette, Ned – Cuba and its Music, From the First Drums to the Mambo (Chicago Review Press)

© 2021 Tomas Peña – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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