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.

Rubalcaba refused to give in. "I said, 'All right, if you want to cancel it, go ahead, but it's your decision,'" he recalls. "'What I'm going to do in Miami is play the piano and make music. Anything else they're saying about me is just a story that whoever's saying it is making up.'

"I've only canceled a few concerts in my life," he continues, "and they've been for technical reasons, not political ones. I knew there was nothing to be afraid of."

At about quarter past eight Rubalcaba, dressed in a black suit and black shirt, stepped onto the stage to tense applause. About 300 people were sitting in the 1700-seat theater. The audience hushed as he began to play "Imagine." It was impossible not to equate the song with the scene outside, and the theater audience swelled with emotion.

Later, after playing Charlie Haden's "First Song," Rubalcaba spoke to those in attendance. "I want to thank you, above all, for your presence," he said. "I think the most important thing was to play." He went on to perform a mix of Latin classics, jazz standards, and original compositions, ending with "Mima," dedicated to his mother. The concert lasted an hour and a half. The pianist finished what he had come to do and wiped his brow with a silk handkerchief while the audience clapped and whistled wildly. He would later say that despite the tension, the catcalls, and the fact that he had to perform alone, it was worth it.

"There is nothing more gratifying, nothing more fulfilling than to get up on a stage and do what you know how to do," he says today. "To do what you need to do. There's just nothing at all like that."

Sitting at his table at the Van Dyke, the pianist swishes the melting ice around in his glass. A jazz band starts to play in the restaurant's second-floor lounge. The busboy has long since finished his shift and gone off in search of his elusive American dream. And no one looks up as Rubalcaba pays the check and heads for home.

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