My Sax Life by Paquito D'Rivera

Broadcast 1/26/2006

Born in Havana, Cuba in 1948, Paquito D’Divera was raised from a very early age – under the close supervision of his virtuoso father – to be a musician of the first order. A child prodigy on the clarinet and saxophone, D’Rivera became famous in Cuba and in Puerto Rico performing in classical concert halls and on television in all sorts of musical styles. While working in the inconsistently tolerant artistic environment of Castro’s Cuba, as a young man, he became one of the founding members and eventually the conductor of the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna. D’Rivera was also a founding member and co-director of the innovative musical group Irakere, whose explosive mixture of jazz, rock, classical and traditional Cuban music had never been heard before. The group toured extensively throughout America and Europe, won several Grammy nominations and a sole Grammy.

Then, in the early 80s, stepping off a plane in a Madrid airport, D’Rivera left his musical life – as well as his wife and son – behind in Cuba, defecting in hopes of a better life. In very little time, at least professionally, D’Rivera had settled in New York and was performing, recording, and writing music – in both the classical and jazz worlds -- as never before. These days, of course, D’Rivera has reunited with his family and rebuilt his life as have so many Cuban exiles – two million, is it? – around the world.

With talents that reach beyond the world of music, D’Rivera published a novel, Oh, La Habana, and now the English translation of his memoir Mi vida saxual, known to us gringos as My Sax Life. Weighing in at a generous 349 pages, My Sax Life is a bawdy, intelligent, artistic, and unconventional work of autobiography. Without being egotistical or self-indulgent, and with good-humor and a great deal of heart, this book offers more than a poquito of Paquito on every page. Although I’ve never met the man, it seems safe to say that the personality of the author comes across in each anecdote from his native Cuba, each detailed memory of performing, each gleefully recounted practical joke or naughty story, each off-the-cuff rant against Castro and communism. There is rarely a dull moment.

D’Rivera is at his best when he writes about music, musicians, and other artists, as well as when he describes the distinctive qualities of the Cuban national character – if there is such a thing. He is most shockingly entertaining when he permits himself to be profane and even crude. Unfortunately, he can be tedious when, as often and understandably happens, he falls into the one-note political riff so many Cuban exiles are – understandably – prone to.

But, as anyone in Miami will know, you can’t dislike someone like Paquito for long for his politics – he’s just got too much talent and charisma. And My Sax Life is no different. Like any good jazz performance and jazz performer, you won’t know quite where you’re going when you get started with D’Rivera, and you might not like a few things along the way, but when the show’s over you heard some things you’d never heard before and you were glad you came.

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