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.

When jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba walks up to the entrance of the Van Dyke Cafe on Lincoln Road, no one wields a Cuban flag like a weapon, throws a bottle, or spits, the way protesters in front of the Gusman Center did the night he performed in Miami last year.

On this Tuesday evening, there are no men wearing camouflage fatigues or middle-age Medusas with flying hair and rancorous faces. People in the cocktail-hour crowd in front of the busy restaurant don't stop their schmoozing to call the two-time Grammy nominee a communist and a nigger. Here he is just another attractive patron, dressed in jeans and a white Calvin Klein T-shirt that hugs his boxer's build.

But Rubalcaba does not escape recognition for long. As soon as he sits down at a table and orders an iced tea, a busboy approaches the 34-year-old musician. "Excuse me, you're Gonzalito, aren't you?" he asks excitedly in Spanish. "I've only been able to see you on-stage before, but, hey, here you are!" He explains that he is a balsero who arrived in Miami after doing time in a Guantanamo refugee camp. But now he's not sure the long journey was worth it. "It's hard here, isn't it?" he asks in a conspiratorial tone. "It's different from what I expected. I thought it would be more democratic."

If Rubalcaba were not a musician, he would make a fine diplomat. He listens politely, leaning forward with his elegant hands folded on the table, a patient smile below his trim mustache. The spray of freckles that covers his handsome face gives him a boyish look. But as the busboy rambles on, it becomes clear that the pianist is not about to commiserate about the politics of exile. Quietly sipping his drink, he waits for a break. Then he extends his hand and warmly wishes the younger Cuban luck, sending him whistling back to work.

Just as tactfully as he dispatches his admirer, Rubalcaba shrugs off any ugly memories he might have of his 1996 Miami performance debut. That concert turned into a cause celebre for both hard-line exiles and supporters of freedom of expression. Elsewhere around the world, Rubalcaba's reputation as a jazz heavyweight is growing, but here his name is forever tied to the ugly side of ideological differences displayed that night outside the Gusman.

"I don't have a bad taste in my mouth about Miami," reflects Rubalcaba, who has often and adamantly declared himself apolitical. "Despite what might have happened, I've always thought that Miami is made up of a lot of very different people who face things with very different attitudes. I'm ready to face all of those facets that exist here. But apparently not all of those facets are ready for me."

Not surprisingly, Rubalcaba has no immediate plans to perform in Miami again, although he says he would be willing to do so when he feels the time is right. Nevertheless, for almost a year Rubalcaba has lived with his family in South Florida, in northwest Broward. The suburban community of Coral Springs stands removed from the cacophony of Cuban Miami, but it's close enough so that his wife Maria can spend time with relatives and friends who live here while her husband is on tour. Rubalcaba first considered moving to New York, where he could have been at the center of the jazz scene. But South Florida seemed a better place for the couple's three children -- a seven-year-old boy born in Cuba, the four-year-old son they had while living in the Dominican Republic, and a seventeen-month-old daughter, the one, notes Rubalcaba, "with a blue passport."

Rubalcaba is now a permanent resident in the United States. Like other Cuban musicians, he came to this country to further his career. But in contrast to the very public arrivals of other well-known Cuban jazz players -- multi-instrumentalist Paquito D'Rivera, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, or more recently saxophonist Carlos Averhoff -- who have denounced the Cuban regime in the press, Rubalcaba's move to these shores has gone virtually unnoticed by the exile media. After all, Rubalcaba has no anti-Cuba declarations to make, since he is not a defector. In fact, a couple of months ago he took a short trip to Havana to visit his mother, who has been ill.

"[Going to Cuba] is not an issue I think about a lot," Rubalcaba says calmly. "Why should I? There are no dark reasons behind my going there."

The U.S. government permits Cuban nationals residing here to visit family members in Cuba. But high-profile artists who have made the painful decision to leave their homeland don't usually go back -- or they go very quietly. For many, the decision to boycott the island while Fidel Castro reigns is a matter of principle. It's also about public image -- at least in Miami, where anyone thought to support the Cuban government, in even the most indirect way, can become the target of exile outrage that usually leads to the cancellation of all South Florida appearances. But Rubalcaba is an exception -- not only did he go on with the Miami show amid protests, he has been able to maintain a comfortable bridge between his roots on the island and the American jazz scene.

For Paquito D'Rivera, who sought political asylum in 1980 and lives in New York, it is unthinkable for Rubalcaba to be living so near the capital of Cuban exile without taking a tough stance against the revolutionary government. "It's like being a Nazi and then moving to Israel," says D'Rivera. "I have nothing personal against Gonzalo Rubalcaba. But he has to make up his mind [to defect] or move to another place."

Rubalcaba sees no reason why he should. He plays jazz and therefore finds it only logical to perform with American jazz musicians, to share their recording projects -- and their freedoms. Bookings for concerts and recording sessions all over the United States -- except Miami -- now crowd his calendar. These would all involve complicated international negotiations if he didn't live here and if the red tape of travel visas were still an issue. And, he says, if he lived in Cuba, he would have to be more selective about his U.S. engagements, since he would not be paid for them. (The U.S. State Department has the discretion to allow Cuban nationals to perform here, but they cannot be paid for their appearances.)

For Rubalcaba the path is clear, and politics has nothing to do with it. "Anyone who's interested in jazz has to come to the United States," he asserts. "This is where you find the real thing."

A photographer and his assistant snap publicity shots as Rubalcaba sits at a black Steinway grand in one of the soundproof rooms of a large recording studio in midtown Manhattan. Stylish in black jeans, black T-shirt, and square-toe suede shoes, his hair cropped short, the pianist pulls his dark gray cardigan tight against the air-conditioned chill and launches into what one reviewer once dubbed his "typewriter mode." His fingers sprint from one end of the keyboard to the other in a series of scales, a dizzying preview of his athletic technique.

Such high-speed playing is a Rubalcaba trademark, and it tends to provoke passionate, if not always positive, responses. (Critics have referred to his rapid-fire drilling as both "dazzling pyrotechnics" and "macho bullshit.") But Rubalcaba's skill at the keyboard and his highly interpretative style have frequently prompted comparisons with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, and McCoy Tyner, as well as Afro-Cuban jazzman Chucho Valdes, who has called the younger musician the best Cuban piano player today.

"He has complete command technically of the piano," says American bass great Charlie Haden, who met the pianist a decade ago in Cuba and has since recorded with him on several albums. "He has such a great ear and a feeling for music. He combines natural talent with technical ability -- and there you have a great musician."

Rubalcaba finishes his warmup and rests his hands in his lap, staring down in silent conversation with the piano keys. Time is short. He is in New York for two days to record with bassist Brian Bromberg and drummer Dennis Chambers for one of his three CDs scheduled for U.S. release in the next few months by Blue Note Records. Already finished is an album with saxophonist Joe Lovano, as well as a four-year project called Antiguo, recorded with Cuban musicians and combining jazz fusion with Afro-Cuban religious chants.

Today Rubalcaba and the two American musicians will record some of the tunes they performed during a recent two-week club tour in Japan: jazz evergreens made popular by Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and other legends. Chambers, a hot young drummer known for his work with former Miles Davis guitarist John Scofield, and Bromberg, a Los Angeles-based session man, are in separate rooms adjoining the pianist's. The trio can see each other through the Plexiglas walls.

In the control booth, recording engineer James Anderson looks over a list of tracks that includes the jazz standard "On Green Dolphin Street." He flicks a switch on the control board, opening a mike in the studio. "Hey, Gonzalo, Green Dolphin Street -- isn't that the street where you have an apartment in Havana?"

Rubalcaba looks up quizzically as Bromberg and Chambers grin behind their instruments. Anderson repeats the question, and Rubalcaba chuckles, getting the joke a beat behind his American colleagues. Recording studios have become a kind of language lab for Rubalcaba, who spoke only a few words of English on his first trip to New York four years ago. Now he can get a point across fluidly, with a light accent, but much of the studio banter still escapes him.

"Although I'm living here among the American musicians now, there are always going to be cultural barriers," he says in Spanish. "The most important thing here is to find some point of communication, and that can be obtained through the music. We relate by instinct -- a look, an interpretation, a transmission of energy takes on more importance than language."

During breaks in the studio, Rubalcaba makes up for a lack of conversation by throwing friendly punches at Bromberg or locking the lanky bassist in a hug. The two first played together in a San Francisco club earlier this year, and they've performed frequently since then.

"What makes Gonzalo unique is that he can play traditional jazz as a traditional jazz piano player, but when he delves into the rhythms of his Cuban background, it's really strong," says Bromberg. "But he separates it -- if he doesn't play in that style, you'd have no idea he's even Cuban."

Other musicians have been impressed, even a little surprised by Rubalcaba's grasp of American jazz idioms. "He's interested in playing as wide a library of sounds as he can get his hands on," says bassist Ron Carter, who has performed and recorded with the Cuban pianist. "He's as knowledgeable as anyone who's kind of been shut off from the world can be."

Rubalcaba's first exposure to jazz came from a stack of worn records that belonged to his father. "They were really old records by old jazz players like Jimmy Dorsey, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner. There was one by Dizzy Gillespie," recalls Rubalcaba. "Scratched LPs with horrible sound. But the most important thing was the music."

The Rubalcaba household in Havana was always filled with music -- and musicians. Gonzalo's grandfather, Jacobo Gonzalez Rubalcaba, was a well-known composer and trombone player who penned danzones that became Cuban standards, notably "El Cadete Constitucional" and "Linda Mercedes." He was 65 when he died in a car accident on the way home from a performance. Gonzalo's father, Guillermo Rubalcaba, a pianist, has carried on the tradition. He played with the band led by Enrique Jorrin, originator of the cha-cha-cha, and went on to lead his own popular dance orchestra. He often held rehearsals, or more informal jams, at home; the great blind piano player Frank Emilio Flyn, bandleader Antonio Arcano, percussionist Tata GYines, bolero singer Pacho Alonso, and Jorrin were among those who dropped in. From the time he was a toddler, little Gonzalito found instruments put in his hands.

Because his older brother Jesus was already playing piano, Gonzalo started on drums. But by age eight he was playing piano as well. As a boy he began to perform with his father in a group made up of Rubalcaba relatives. While he learned the basics of Cuban popular music at home, he studied classical music at Havana's Amadeo Roldan Conservatory. In his teens he entered the National Art School. Like all Cuban music students, he was given an exhaustive education in music theory and performance based in classical music. In the early years of the revolution, teachers at Cuban conservatories prohibited their students from playing jazz, but by Rubalcaba's time, in the late Seventies, they had begun allowing students to experiment with the American art form.

"It's a gift to have this kind of education with all of the intellectual, technical, theoretical, and experimental tools that you have access to," Rubalcaba says. "I think they're tools that allow you to work with traditions, to reorganize traditions, and to extend those traditions further into the universal language of music."

Rubalcaba made his recording debut when he was only eighteen, on a 1981 album by bolero singer Marta Valdes. On one track, "Y Con Tus Palabras," he breaks into Valdes's sultry ballad singing with a stomping piano solo.

"When you find the thing that you have a greater vocation for, you know it," says Rubalcaba. "I think that jazz was always inside me."

The year before, he'd traveled outside Cuba for the first time, not to play jazz but to join Beatriz Marquez, a Cuban singer of popular Latin songs, at a music festival in Colombia. Rubalcaba's reputation as an innovative pianist and composer grew quickly. He did stints with the leading Cuban dance band Los Van Van and the seminal Cuban jazz ensemble Orquesta de Musica Moderna. He performed during cabaret shows at Havana's Hotel Riviera, accompanying popular singers such as Omara Portuando and Elena Burke. In 1983 Rubalcaba went on tour with Orquesta Aragon, traveling in France and Africa. The next year he formed his own band, Proyecto, with musicians he'd met in school. They started to experiment with electronic jazz fusion that incorporated basic Cuban rhythms.

Rubalcaba was just 22 years old when Dizzy Gillespie wandered into the bar of the Hotel Nacional during Havana's 1985 Jazz Plaza Festival. Rubalcaba was playing in a jam session that was part of the weeklong event. "He was such a nice, spontaneous kind of guy," remembers Rubalcaba. "He came up to me and pulled some sheet music out of his pocket and said, 'Do you think we could play this together tomorrow?'" The young performer, then a skinny kid sporting a short Afro, joined Gillespie's orchestra two nights running at the Teatro Karlos Marx. The trumpeter and the pianist played a duet on Gillespie's "Con Alma," moving Gillespie to proclaim that Rubalcaba was the best piano player he'd heard in ten years.

Rubalcaba jammed with Gillespie at the Havana jazz festival again the following year, when Proyecto went on-stage right after Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra.

"The whole group was great," recalls Haden during a phone interview from his home in Malibu, California, "but when the pianist started taking his solo on an electric keyboard, my wife Ruth and I were astounded.

"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."

Since the revolution, Cuban artists have given to the government up to 70 percent of their earnings from foreign appearances. In the past five years that percentage was reduced, and last year artists, like other citizens, began instead to pay income tax on their annual earnings. Since he became a permanent resident of the States, Rubalcaba pays taxes to the U.S. government, and he says that since he left Cuba in 1992 he has been exempted from giving any of his earnings to any Cuban agency. Benemelis confirms the arrangement and adds that some other performers living outside Cuba also have no financial obligations to the state, although they have not definitively abandoned the island.

But Rubalcaba's ability to negotiate a deal that allows him to work as an independent agent and maintain friendly relations with Cuban officials while living in the United States is unusual, if not unique. He concedes that a less successful musician could probably not push the limits of diplomacy between the two countries with such success. "I'm not saying everyone can do it," he elaborates. "I'm just saying that I can."

Benemelis adds that Cuban officials were only recognizing Rubalcaba's talent, though he concedes that if the government had not cooperated with his plans, the pianist would likely have left for good, as other successful musicians have. The Cuban government was essentially cutting its losses by cooperating with his plan to live abroad. "Gonzalo has totally lived up to the expectations we had for him," says Benemelis. "We did not make a mistake. Wherever he is, he's still going to say he's Cuban. And he's still going to be an artist who was trained in Cuba."

A large American audience was able to witness Rubalcaba's playing for the first time in 1995, when he performed at the televised Grammy ceremonies in Los Angeles. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for his album Rapsodia, but he didn't win. Soon afterward he applied for U.S. residency.

It's easy to assume, especially in Miami, that all Cuban nationals are political refugees. But INS spokesman Lemar Wooley doesn't find Rubalcaba's arrangement so unusual. "Political asylum and permanent residency aren't necessarily tied together," says Wooley. "People who are Cuban nationals can come into the country from other countries, where they are legal residents."

Nor is it uncommon for Cubans living in the States to travel to Cuba, says Wooley, since the rules of the embargo allow Cuban nationals to visit family members on the island. The only problem, says Wooley, would be if Rubalcaba were earning money while in Cuba. Not likely, since it's an American company that writes his checks -- after Rubalcaba became a permanent U.S. resident, he signed to Blue Note and, as of his next album with Joe Lovano, will no longer work through its Japanese affiliate.

Rubalcaba still plays with his Cuban band Cuarteto Cubano. But since he has been living here, the group has done only a couple of tours a year in Latin America or Europe, and has avoided the hassle of visas and embargo restrictions entirely. Although he notes that his playing has grown in the United States, he relishes the occasions when he plays with his compatriots. "Cubans have a certain way of expressing themselves," he says. "I could never stop being Cuban, independent of the fact that I'm opening myself up more musically."

Jimmy Branly, a 24-year-old Cuban drummer who recently joined Cuarteto Cubano, agrees. "Gonzalo's work is very complex rhythmically," Branly says by phone from Havana. "It has roots in elements like the rumba that American musicians really can't dominate. The truth is, we're Cubans, and we're always going to understand each other better."

In the New York recording studio, the three musicians put on headphones, and James Anderson adjusts some settings on the board. Brian Bromberg plucks his acoustic bass while scatting in a Donald Duck voice. Rubalcaba cracks up, then leans forward and joins in, playing the first notes of the Duke Ellington favorite "Caravan." The song will be the opening track on the album.

While most versions of Ellington trombonist Juan Tizol's composition have a sultry Middle Eastern mood, Rubalcaba and his companions give it a decidedly Latin tinge. They start the song off light and breezy, then tighten up, giving it a more percussive sound. Rubalcaba throws in a tumbao -- the repetitive rhythmic chord pattern characteristic of Cuban music -- opening the way for a solo by Bromberg. He plays low on the stand-up bass, his fingers creating a deeply resonant thumping that recalls hands hitting the sides of a wooden cajon. Dennis Chambers keeps time with a Cuban clave rhythm. As the music slides into jazzier phrasing, Rubalcaba bobs his head and practically bounces off the bench as he plays.

When the song ends the musicians pour into the control room, pouncing on a delivery from Starbucks. Rubalcaba grabs one of his two cappuccinos and sits down in front of the control board. While he waits for Anderson to rewind the tape, he starts drumming his third and fourth fingers on the board. Sitting next to him, Anderson tries to copy the move, but he can't isolate the movements of two fingers. Rubalcaba laughs and drums faster. Bromberg can't resist a jibe: "Hey, Gonzalo, that's pretty good. Wow, you must be a really great piano player."

Rubalcaba keeps looking down, concentrating on his fleeting fingers. His reply is almost inaudible, a whisper meant for his own ears: "Not yet."

As the tape plays back, the pianist sits nodding his head to the beat with his eyes half closed. He cringes where the mike picked up some static. Hitoshi Namekata, the executive producer of the record, leans against a wall, smoking a cigarette and speaking softly in Japanese to an assistant. "We keep this one?" he asks Rubalcaba in English. "It's a good one."

Rubalcaba takes a deep breath and thinks for a moment. He smiles. "Again," he says, getting up. He prods the other musicians into the studio for another take.

"These are songs that are very well-known," he says later during a lunch break. "Everyone has played them. The only reason to record them now is if they can have a different outcome, if you can bring something new to them." Although he appears relaxed, Rubalcaba is worried that the day's session won't have such a revelatory result. His English isn't proficient enough for him to determine if his colleagues share his feeling. "I find there's a slowness among young American musicians today," confides the pianist, picking at a caesar salad. "There's a desire to repeat what's already been done. There's a trend to be retro without adding a lot of creative elements."

Rubalcaba refuses to do that. And although he often covers other people's songs -- from jazz standards to Cuban classics -- he's obsessed with making them his own. Such was the case with John Lennon's "Imagine," which has become something of a signature piece for Rubalcaba. It's easy to read the Cuban's choice of the idealistic ballad as an allusion to the repressive policies of Castro's regime or to Cuba's long rift with the United States. But when the pianist first played the song at a Japanese music festival a few years ago, it was not his idea. The festival promoters suggested it as a song that could reach a broad audience. At first he resisted -- he'd never even been a Beatles fan. But he did respect the lyrics and their sentiment, so he agreed. The audience loved it. "It's one of those things that have such a response you just have to give in to it," he admits. "What's happened is that when I perform, sooner or later, I always have to play 'Imagine.' That's a serious problem." But there was one time when Rubalcaba truly felt moved to play Lennon's peace anthem.

That was in Miami.

On April 10, 1996, more than 30 police officers stood outside the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts. More were on horseback. The letters on the theater marquee above them proclaimed "Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Piano Genius and Cuban Quartet."

As the 8:00 p.m. curtain time approached, audience members began to arrive. More than 200 people were already there -- few of them familiar with Rubalcaba's music or even his name. They had come to the theater to protest. Dade County Commissioner Javier Souto's office had even arranged for private buses to transport them downtown from Westchester, the middle-class, largely Cuban Miami suburb.

Like stars at some sadistic movie premiere, the well-dressed ticketholders walked stiffly down Flagler Street while the crowd screamed at them in Spanish: "Prostitute!" "Communist!" "Traitor!" "Dyke!" "Faggot!" Protesters spat upon the concertgoers -- a group that included doctors, journalists, business people, students, and musicians -- as television camera crews followed them to the theater door. A police officer got hit with a flying bottle. "Whore, are you going to go hear that nigger play?" one demonstrator shouted at a Miami Herald writer. As human rights activist Ramón Cernuda walked toward the entrance, a group of people followed him, beating him on the head with a Cuban flag fastened to a stick and tearing off his glasses. Cernuda told a TV reporter that he'd decided to attend the concert only after he heard that a demonstration was planned: He was there to support Rubalcaba's right to play.

Inside the Gusman, as dogs sniffed the aisles for bombs, Rubalcaba sat alone in the green room, rehearsing on a silent practice keyboard. Emilio Vandenedes, a Miami-based musicologist and DJ who hosts a Cuban music program on WOCN-AM (1450), went backstage to see him. A year before, Vandenedes had driven the pianist around on his first visit to Miami -- a daylong layover on his way back to the Dominican Republic from the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. "Okay, I'll take the first one -- then we'll make a run for it!" Vandenedes joked, charging into the room. The two men laughed and embraced. After a few minutes of backstage small talk, Vandenedes left and Rubalcaba went quietly back to his exercises.

"I was prepared for whatever the reaction in Miami might be," the pianist says now, relaxing in his chair at the Van Dyke. "After all, it was not the first time something like this had happened."

Rubalcaba had a taste of exile politics when he made his U.S. debut at Lincoln Center in 1993. Bomb threats were phoned in to the theater and a small protest formed outside. "But within the dynamic atmosphere of New York and all of the activity there, nobody felt it," recalls Rubalcaba. "The theater was sold out. Nobody even noticed the protest -- I didn't find out myself until after the concert ended."

He had a feeling that things in Miami would not be so peaceful.
Rubalcaba's stop in Miami came near the end of a five-week U.S. tour with his Cuban group Cuarteto Cubano. The pianist's albums had garnered a big following among jazz buffs in San Francisco, Denver, and Seattle. Boston, Philadelphia, and New York were strong markets as well. Neither Miami nor San Juan, Puerto Rico, was on the concert schedule until Miami promoter Rolando Mendoza called Jose Forteza, Rubalcaba's manager, proposing those dates to him. (Mendoza could not be reached by New Times for this story.) Forteza quickly warmed to the idea.

"The Grammy Awards had acknowledged Gonzalo's existence, so I didn't think it could be offensive to anyone," recalls Forteza, who now lives in Miami. He and Rubalcaba recently ended their nine-year professional relationship, but the two remain friends. "Especially for a guy who has never been a political person, never made a statement for or against anything, only for music. The guy plays 'Imagine,' 'My Funny Valentine,' 'Bouncing with Bud' -- I don't think there is a single political word in any of those songs."

But Rubalcaba was more realistic about possible reactions to his presence in Miami. The previous year Mendoza had canceled a concert by the father-son pianists Bebo and Chucho Valdes (the latter lives in Cuba) after receiving menacing phone calls. Although Mendoza maintained there would be no such threat to Rubalcaba's appearance, the musician says he felt compelled to question the promoter's commitment during a meeting in the Dominican Republic.

"Do you know what it means to bring me to Miami?" Rubalcaba asked him. "If you are totally conscious of what you are doing, if you have the courage and the conscience of what you are doing, okay, then I'll do it."

In February the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald announced the local debut of the "Cuban jazz great." But excitement about the concert was short-lived. Later that month Miami Film Festival director Nat Chediak stopped the distribution at a film screening of flyers announcing the event. He said at the time that he feared perceived support of the pianist's concert could result in loss of public funding for the festival. Efrain Veiga, co-owner of Yuca restaurant (then located in Coral Gables), canceled a reception for the musician after he received calls alleging that Rubalcaba was a Castro supporter.

Rubalcaba was too busy performing around the country -- with critical success -- to pay attention to developments in Miami. But when he got to New York with Forteza and the group a few days before the Miami concert, a fax from Rolando Mendoza was waiting for them, with news that the situation had grown "very negative."

A group of long-time exiles had formed the Association of Free Cuban Musicians, solely for the purpose of trying to prevent Rubalcaba's appearance. They wrote to State Rep. Carlos Valdes and local officials, calling the upcoming concert "an offense to our long-suffering community that should not be tolerated." Valdes told the Miami Herald that Rubalcaba's appearance was "very disrespectful" and promised to do what he could. Exile radio commentators urged listeners to join the protest against "the communist," warning that the money from the concert would go into Castro's pockets.

The Friday before the concert, the Miami Police Department told employees at the Gusman that they could expect a demonstration and started preparing for extra security. (Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union intervened later, when the police department tried, unsuccessfully, to make Mendoza pay $7500 for the extra officers.)

A handful of anti-Castro activists made calls to the State Department, denouncing the concert and inquiring about its legality. State Department officials confirmed that Rubalcaba could appear in Miami. But they found the concert would violate the conditions of the visas of the members of Cuarteto Cubano, who lived in Cuba, since the concert had not been included in the list of dates provided by New York booking agent Joanne Jimenez.

"I was the sponsor for the tour," says Jimenez, who received a call from the State Department on the day of the Miami show. "They were scheduled to finish up the tour in New York, then pass though Florida on their way back home. The State Department phoned and said, 'What are they doing playing in Florida?'"

Rather than run the risk of violating their visas and being barred from re-entry into the United States, the band members went home. But Rubalcaba had come to this country as a resident of the Dominican Republic, with the special status he had already enjoyed for two years. He stayed.

The day of the concert, a Wednesday, Rubalcaba rested in his room at the Biltmore Hotel. "I listened to [Spanish-language] radio and there was just an incredible manipulation going on," he says. "There was so much disinformation. There were commentaries that had no reason behind them. Everything turned into just a big rumor, just a bunch of gossip."

All day long the phone rang. Representatives from his label in Japan and New York told him to forget about the concert. Jimenez also urged him to cancel. "My suggestion was that he shouldn't do it," says Jimenez. "I was concerned for his safety. I've lived in this country all my life, and I know how violent it is. I know how easily people can go crazy and do crazy things."

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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