The Quiet Cuban

When he appeared in Miami last year, jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba ignited a firestorm of controversy. Though he now lives in South Florida, he just wants to play music, not politics.

"We went backstage. Through an interpreter, Gonzalo told me he was a fan of a record I'd done with Keith Jarrett." Haden and Rubalcaba spent the next day at a Havana recording studio. The two hit it off, and the Hadens visited Rubalcaba's home. "Gonzalo is just a beautiful person -- so humble, so gracious, so bright" Haden says. "Those are qualities that go along with his playing, too."

It was a lasting impression.
"When I got back, I was trying to figure out a way to bring Gonzalo to the States," says Haden. "The more I inquired, the more I saw it was impossible." (The federal Berman Amendment, which exempts music and other informational materials from the U.S. embargo, was not enacted until 1988.)

In 1989 the Montreal Jazz Festival paid a weeklong tribute to Haden, during which the bass player performed with Don Cherry, Jack DeJohnette, Paul Bley, and other well-known musicians. When Haden discovered that Canada maintains diplomatic relations with Cuba, he had the festival organizers fly the young pianist to Montreal to join him in concert. Haden later took a tape of the performance with him on a trip to New York, where he had a meeting with Blue Note Records president Bruce Lundvall.

"I was speaking to Bruce about an upcoming record of mine, and I told him I had a tape of a pianist I wanted him to hear," Haden recalls. "I said, 'This guy is unbelievable, he's fantastic. You're not going to hear anybody like this.' He put it on his cassette player and just about fell on the floor. Maybe a week after that, I called him from California. His secretary told me he'd gone to Havana."

Lundvall was no stranger to Cuba's musicians. In the mid-Seventies, while working at Columbia Records, he recorded two albums by Chucho Valdes's Afro-Cuban jazz group Irakere. And in 1979 he'd masterminded a meeting of American and Cuban musicians in Cuba that resulted in two historically significant Havana Jam albums.

By the time Lundvall saw him, Rubalcaba was already well enough known in Europe to have snagged a deal with the German jazz label Messidor. The Blue Note president wanted to offer him a contract, but he found that under the terms of the U.S. economic embargo, he couldn't sign Rubalcaba directly to Blue Note. (The embargo prohibits U.S. companies from putting Cuban musicians under contract.) He could, however, sign him to Blue Note's Japanese affiliate Toshiba/EMI, then record albums on that jazz imprint Somethin' Else, and distribute the albums through Blue Note in the United States.

In early 1990 an American lawyer for Blue Note, a Japanese lawyer from Toshiba, and a lawyer from Cuba representing Rubalcaba hammered out the deal in Toronto. (Lundvall reached a similar agreement this year with Chucho Valdes.) The next year Somethin' Else issued Discovery: Live at Montreux. "A lot of people discovered Gonzalo when that album came out," says Somethin' Else executive Hitoshi Namekata. "It's important for the market in the United States that the artists perform -- [Americans] need to see the artist to buy him. But people just listened to this album and they bought it."

The pianist came to the United States for the first time in 1993, but not to perform. He was among a group of jazz musicians who served as pallbearers at Gillespie's funeral. The trumpet player's widow Lorraine and Wynton Marsalis were among those who pressed the State Department for his visa. Afterward Blue Note lobbied on his behalf for permission to perform, and on a second trip the same year, he appeared at Lincoln Center. The pianist's prodigious talent had already created a buzz in jazz circles, and aficionados were eager to hear him play. The show sold out. Rubalcaba was barraged with requests for interviews by journalists intrigued by his revolutionary upbringing.

"Everyone was trying to get him to talk about Fidel," says Lundvall. "The State Department was watching his every move. But he said, 'I'm not political. I'm not here to talk about politics. I'm here to play my music and build a cultural bridge to my country.' I think it was because of the way he handled himself that we were able to get him another visa very quickly."

Lundvall remembers that when he, Rubalcaba, and the pianist's manager Jose Forteza got back to their Los Angeles hotel after a subsequent 1993 benefit concert on the UCLA campus, they learned that the U.S. government had granted Rubalcaba permission to play in the States and be compensated for future appearances. This was possible because Rubalcaba was no longer living in Cuba. Since 1992 he'd been a legal resident of the Dominican Republic; he'd first visited that country in 1988 to play on an album by the popular merengue singer Juan Luis Guerra. Eventually he moved there with his family and Forteza. Cuban officials had agreed to allow Rubalcaba to live outside Cuba and work as an independent agent.

"Gonzalo is one of our great artists, and it was perfectly clear to the government that he should be based somewhere where he could realize his projects," says Ciro Benemelis, an official at the Cuban Music Institute in Havana who helped Rubalcaba work out the arrangement. At the time, Benemelis worked for the state artists' management agency, Artex. "It was an artistic decision," he adds, "not a political decision."

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