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Bass player Eddie "Gua Gua" Rivera recorded a couple of tunes with his quintet, the Latin Jazz Crew, in a Kendall studio on a recent afternoon. For the first time in three decades, the tips of his long, elegant fingers blistered. Rivera has hardly touched an instrument since May, and the thick callouses he had earned over the years performing with a pantheon of Latin and jazz leaders have disappeared.
But a few blisters are nothing to Rivera, who recently suffered severe internal bleeding after a blood clot formed in his lung. The 48-year-old musician, who has recorded with Charlie Palmieri, Mongo Santamaria, Willie Colon, and a host of other Latin jazz legends, was rushed to Kendall Regional Hospital for an emergency operation just after Memorial Day weekend. Rivera's pulse stopped on the operating table. His doctor told him it was a miracle he survived.
"I'm really blessed, very fortunate," says Rivera, a burly man whose shaggy hair, full beard, and pointed incisors lend him a wolfish air. Rivera gives thanks to not only God and his doctor, but to the many area musicians, including Nestor Torres and Luis Enrique, who have helped pay the bills during his recovery. "The guys in the bands in town have really come out for me," Rivera says. "They've given me the feedback I need to be fed. I'm going to take this illness and turn it around and see it for its good side."
That was easy to do on Sunday, July 6, when dozens of musicians turned out for a raucous "Superjam" benefit in the bass player's honor at MoJazz Cafe. The event, which followed another benefit concert held the previous week at Miami's Mystique nightclub, raised about $1000. Just as significant, the benefit united Miami's invisible musical army: a dizzying array of session musicians that included jazz and Latin aficionados, young and old, Nuyoricans, Puerto Ricans, recently arrived Cubans, Miami natives, and Manhattan transplants. The cafe was literally wall-to-wall with musicians milling near the back door or at the bar, waiting their turn.
A group of MoJazz regulars including sax and flute player Andy Harlow and percussionist Johnny Conga, who organized the benefit, opened the evening with a mellow set that included a cool rendition of the Gershwin chestnut "Summertime." The rhythm intensified with a cover of the Mongo Santamaria classic "Afro-Blue," featuring a rare drop-in appearance by percussionist Danel Diaz on congas.
Rivera, who spent most of the evening at a ringside table hugging one colleague after another, eventually took the stage, joined by a clamorous throng of musicians that bled onto the floor around the stage. They performed the evergreen salsa number "Bilongo," with notable Puerto Rican salsero Sal Nunez, who moved here from San Francisco last year, on lead vocals. Joyously pounding on bass guitar, Gua Gua showed no obvious signs of fatigue and kept on until his wife Cathy began signaling from her table for him to quit.
Her concern was warranted. Rivera is still sporting stitches that run the length of his torso and prevent him lifting his arm high enough to play his beloved upright. (For this performance he had to make do with a bass guitar.)
While Rivera rested, a phalanx of young guns commandeered the stage for a loose, extended jam. The talent included trumpeter Pacho, piano tickler Jorge Luis Sosa, the Rodriguez brothers (Michael and Robert) on trumpet and keyboards, Jamaican bass player Richard White, and Ivan Zervigon, Willy Chirino's ace drummer, on congas. Valentin Valdes, a young showboat on bongos who was handing out promotional posters of himself, dedicated a song to New York percussionist Ray Romero, legendary for his work with Tito Rodriguez and other heavyweight bands. Romero, looking almost as pleased as Rivera, sat at a front table throughout the night.
Rivera later returned with his Latin Jazz Crew: Sosa on keyboards, percussionist Edwin Bonilla, drummer Archie Pena, and Fernando Diez on sax. The group played two original pop-flavored compositions before Rivera finally went home to rest.
The evening was Miami at its best, and the turnout was proof of the bass player's prestige among local players. Born and raised in New York, Rivera grew up surrounded by his father's musician friends at home and listening to the big Latin bands led by Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez at clubs in the Bronx. He took up the trumpet in junior high, then played trombone, but soon switched to electric upright bass, playing clubs with a band of precocious teens, the Caribbean Combo. At sixteen he was performing with Willie Colon. A year later he joined the Duboney Orchestra, led by Charlie Palmieri, who became a mentor and something of a father figure to the young man. It was Palmieri who gave him his nickname Gua Gua (slang for bus in certain Latin American locales).
"In 1966 we were playing in the Catskills. I was a minor, so I'm staying with Charlie in his room," Rivera recalls. "And Charlie has a Wurlitzer electric piano in the room and he's arranging a ballad. I'm coming out of a hot shower and I walk out of the bathroom with my fat little self wrapped in a towel and all of this vapor coming out behind me. Charlie looks up and goes, 'Aaah! You look like a bus in the London fog.' And this sax player was sitting on the couch, nodding -- he had a bad jones, like a lot of guys did in those days -- and he looks up and starts laughing, 'Charlie says you look like a gua gua, man.' And Charlie goes, 'That's it, you're Eddie Gua Gua!'"