The bubbling joy in Paquito D’Rivera’s saxophone and clarinet playing also animates his conversation. His words flow in effusive, happy phrases and lines. He laughs and injects the occasional curse word for emphasis.
Born in Havana in 1948, D’Rivera — who’ll play Tuesday at the Manship Theatre for the “River City Jazz Masters” series — is the winner of 13 Grammy Awards and dozens more honors. The son of a classical saxophonist, D’Rivera is as comfortable playing Mozart as he is playing jazz.
“Sometimes I play some Cuban music, but Brazil is one of my favorite music producers,” he said from his New Jersey home. “It’s an enormous country, but, in this case, size doesn’t matter because there are other big countries that don’t produce as much music, as much art as Brazil. I am an honorary Brazilian.”
Although the music of D’Rivera’s native Cuba resides in his heart, too, when he was growing up in pre-revolution Havana, Cuban music was simply in the atmosphere.
“I don’t remember playing Celia Cruz in my house or anything,” D’Rivera said. “That was radio music. It was all over the place but not on our turntable.”
Instead, D’Rivera’s father bought recordings by swing clarinetist Benny Goodman, jazz great Duke Ellington and his orchestra. Jazz innovators Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker came later.
“Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were shocking for us,” D’Rivera recalled. “My father ask me, ‘You like it?’ I say, ‘No!’ He say, ‘Me either, but you know something? They sound like very good musicians — but they are going mad or something.’”
Yet soon, D’Rivera and countless other young musicians throughout the world were learning to play the new American jazz music that initially traumatized them.
“Now, it is traditional,” D’Rivera said.
D’Rivera studied classical music at the Havana Conservatory of Music. At 10, he performed with the National Theater Orchestra.
At 17, he was a featured soloist with the Cuban National Symphony. At the same time, his non-improvising classical musician father exposed him to jazz.
“He used to play for me recordings of the Benny Goodman Jazz Orchestra back to back with Benny Goodman’s rendition of the Mozart concerto for clarinet,” D’Rivera said. “So, for me, as a kid, I didn’t know much about the difference between one music and the other. It’s just music.”
Goodman’s recording “The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert” inspired D’Rivera’s childhood dream of being a jazz musician in New York City.
“That was a turning point in my life,” he said. “I was about 8 or 9 years old.”
The dream came true. D’Rivera has performed many times in Carnegie Hall. He also continues to play both jazz and classical music.
“In the days of Mozart and Bach, there were great improvisers,” he said. “In the opinion of many people, Bach was the first bebopper. Sometimes, I use his lines, and they match perfectly with the bebop language.
“I love improvising. There is so much joy in exploring all those paths. You never know what you are going to encounter.”