A captivating memoir from one of jazz's most beloved practitioners, fourteen-time Grammy winner Paquito D’Rivera’s Letters to Yeyito: Lessons from a Life in Music is a fascinating tour of a life lived in music, and a useful guidebook for aspiring artists everywhere.
D'Rivera brings the imagination and trademark exuberance of his music to this epistolary memoir about persevering under Castro’s brand of socialism; collaborating with Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Yo-Yo Ma, and other greats; lessons learned during his six-decade-long journey in the arts; and more.
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Read an Excerpt
No one sends letters anymore, not by mail, messenger, or any other way. Like smoke signals, perfumed envelopes are things of the past. Teletype noises have been muted, and I don’t think telegrams even exist anymore! Now technology avails us with email, voicemail, and those text messages! Kids have turned spelling into something impractical, unnecessary, and obsolete with their symbols, codes, and abbreviations. Yes, everything is easier now, and the romance of the old-fashioned epistle, impeccable handwriting, and the unique, personal signature has been lost. However, it was precisely such a letter, written by an unknown person and as of yet unanswered, that motivated me to write this book.
In April 1967, after years of considering jazz to be “imperialistic music” (for reasons that were never clear), the Cuban National Council of Culture decided to authorize the formation of the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna—the Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music, of which I was a founding member. The big band format was typically American, and its vast repertoire included a range of well-known jazz pieces, international pop, Cuban music, and what is today called “Top 40.”
Instruments were imported from Europe, Canada, and Japan, the most outstanding musicians of the genre were gathered, and Armando Romeu, a true icon in jazz circles on the island, was chosen as musical director. Romeu, who came from an illustrious musical family, had directed the Tropicana Night Club’s orchestra for twenty-five years. Internationally renowned artists such as Edith Piaf, Johnny Mathis, Celia Cruz, Benny Moré, Josephine Baker, Carmen Miranda, Maurice Chevalier, Sarah Vaughan, and Nat King Cole had per- formed under his direction.
To give it the “proper” political tone, the Cuban government planned the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna’s grand debut in Guane, a tiny remote town located on the westernmost extreme of the island. Guane’s most illustrious and memorable “son” was perhaps the great and famous “charanguero” flutist, José Fajardo.
After the debut, several tours of the country took place, including turbulent concerts at Havana’s Amadeo Roldán and Karl Marx Theaters. People would kill to come in and listen to Count Basie’s blues and Joseíto Fernández “La Guantanamera” along with songs by The Beatles, Ray Charles, and other foreign artists. Later, the government ordered the formation of similar orchestras in the interior provinces.
Although the fervor was about as short-lived as the official support, which lasted almost two years, the public was still hungry for the happy, snazzy music and followed the splendid orchestra with enthusiasm. They knew the names of songs and musicians by heart. “Mint Julep,” recorded by Ray Charles in 1961 was the biggest hit, and the not-so-young of that era may still remember it nostalgically.
Directed by Armando Romeu and Rafael Somavilla (an extraordinary pianist and arranger from Matanzas), the band members became role models, and many aspiring musicians followed Chucho’s agile fingers, Carlos Emilio’s electrifying guitar, Arturo Sandoval’s high notes, Juan Pablo Torres’s unadulterated “trombonism,” the restless strings of Cachaito’s bass, and Enrique Plá’s overwhelming skills on trap drums.
It was during those days of youth and success that I received a letter written with the simplicity and ingenuity typical of country folk. This letter had the passion of someone who wanted above all else to achieve something in life. The writer was either a young music student or an aspiring one, from a small town lost in the center of our island. He described his emotions, while at our concert in Santa Clara’s Teatro de la Caridad, intensely narrating how, after traveling all day and many kilometers from his hometown, he miraculously entered the theater across from Vidal Park in Santa Clara, which was packed wall-to-wall.
I tried to see you after the concert, but they didn’t let me in. I was pushed around and shoved against the dark, dingy walls of a narrow hallway. They tore my shirt and attacked me, and I was almost strangled with my own tie. It was a huge screaming crowd! I had even brought you a pair of mameys that your uncle Ernesto told me you liked, but in all the mayhem they flew out of my hands and wound up smashed by the feet of the mob.
It was true that I loved mameys, the red and brown fruit, rough on the outside and sweet and tender inside, as zapote in other regions of the Americas. My uncle Ernesto, a funny and gregarious individual who traveled regularly from Havana to Santiago in his ten-wheeler, had evidently talked about our blood relation.
The truth is, I was about eighteen at the time and couldn’t have known how to answer his questions: “What do you like best about the metal Selmer mouthpiece you use? Do you study music theory? How do you play the high notes with confidence? How do you know where to play blues notes when improvising?”
I wouldn’t have known how to answer because I always did those things spontaneously, without thinking. He also wanted to know if I ever got stage fright, but the most confusing question he asked was “Is it a worthwhile pursuit to become a professional musician?”
I finished reading his letter with tears in my eyes and a sensation of pride and joy in my soul, but also frustration. Apparently, in his enthusiasm, Yeyito had forgotten to write his return address. It would have been hard to find that tiny remote town on the map of our long, narrow island, shaped like a sleeping Cayman. He had just signed “Yeyito.”
Needless to say, Yeyito, I never got to meet you or find out if you made a musical career for yourself—either in Cuba or elsewhere, as many of us have. When I remember fragments of your letter, I can’t help but feel as one might feel walking upon the sand of a New York beach some afternoon, under a gray sky, freezing hands in pockets, and finding a letter written decades ago inside a bottle washed ashore. Except that now it is I who throws the bottle into the water, hoping that someday it’ll reach your hands across the oceans.
I owe you an apology for taking more than four decades to answer your letter—although you do share part of the blame, since you forgot to write at least your last name and return address on the envelope you sent with that mysterious messenger who put it under my door in Marianao and disappeared without a trace. A small detail that would have made things a bit faster, don’t you think? But, as they say, better late than never. I will now take advantage of globalization and the Internet, which makes it so much easier for people to communicate, hoping these words will reach you and answer your questions. I will start with whether it was worth it to pursue the musical career that has so generously filled my spirit and stomach for so many years.