The Bittersweet Life of a Cuban Saxophonist

A jazz musician’s life on the road--far from home in a series of look-alike hotels, taste-alike restaurants and sound-alike night clubs--is measured in eight-days-out, nine-weeks-out, or four-months-out, etc.

For Cuban-born saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, the measure was in years: Eight of them between the time he bid farewell to his wife and child in Havana and the time he greeted them again in Miami last January.

“I have no regrets,” D’Rivera said last week from a hotel in Miami. “Some sorrows, though,” he added.

The sorrows stemmed from his not being able to watch his son grow from a 5-year-old to a 13-year-old, as well as from the crumbling of his marriage to his wife, Eneida, once a respected architect in Cuba.


“I left my country to do what I had to do,” said the 40-year-old D’Rivera matter-of-factly. “Somebody had to go ahead, somebody had to do it.”

Doing it, to D’Rivera, refers to his saying goodby to the repression of Castro’s Cuba, a country where jazz was a symbol of American decadence and whose native purveyors were, if not banned, at least discouraged. But to D’Rivera, jazz represented the entirety of his musical ambition and he knew that if he wanted to succeed as a jazz musician, he would first have to seek political asylum in a country only 100 miles and a world away.

“All I ever wanted was to play jazz,” said D’Rivera, who opens with a quintet at the Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood tonight. “America is always where I wanted to go.”

But going those 100 miles to America was no easy feat and when, with the encouragement of his wife, the chance came, it meant leaving his family behind.

In 1980, D’Rivera left Cuba with the immensely popular band, Irakere, for a European tour. During a layover in Madrid, he made his way to the U.S. Embassy and announced his wish to defect. Six months later, with not much more than his saxophone in hand, he arrived in New York City.

Though he was a stranger to the city, the jazz of New York was no stranger to him.

“Thanks to Willis Conover and the Voice of America, I knew a lot about American jazz,” D’Rivera said of the illegal broadcasts he listened to after Castro came to power.

Once stateside, he learned even more about American jazz and he was quickly called upon to share his knowledge of the Latin influences that still pervade his music.


“Some famous musicians,” he said, “I don’t name names, but some were playing the Brazilian music wrong. They learn only the superficial and that’s just an American samba. It’s like a Czechoslovakian tango or Ukrainian jazz. I love Brazilian music very much and I want to help Americans discover or realize something beyond ‘La Bamba’ or ‘La Cucharacha.’ I mean, if you want to learn be-bop, you don’t listen to a Polish saxophonist.”

D’Rivera’s career soared quickly and he became a much-in-demand session player as well. And despite his having met Brenda Feliciano, his girlfriend and manager of the last six years, the thought of his wife and son in Cuba continued to plague him.

Years of effort by Feliciano and D’Rivera, as well as thousands of dollars, went into getting his family out of Cuba. (Both wife and son were reportedly shunned by friends and neighbors and subject to official harassment.) Today, Eneida and Franco share an apartment with D’Rivera’s mother in North Bergen, N.J., a few blocks from where the saxophonist lives with Feliciano.

Having concluded the fight to bring his family to its new home, D’Rivera said he can now devote more of his energy to his music.


“I’m now more ready for the fight,” said D’Rivera, laughing. “The fight to play my music around the world, to compose.”