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!'"
In addition to bestowing a nickname that has stuck, Palmieri encouraged the young musician to further his musical education, arranging for Rivera to take lessons from Cuban bass master Israel "Cachao" Lopez.
"I had seen Cachao play with Tito Rodriguez's, orchestra so I was excited. I'm like, 'Yeah, this guy's bad,'" Rivera recounts. "I go to his apartment and he's sitting there in his robe with a stocking cap on his head because he's going to work that night with Rodriguez. He starts singing, 'Do-re-mi-fa-sol,' and I'm flashing back to junior high school when I saw the Sound of Music in the auditorium, and I'm thinking 'This is a piece of cake; it's like 'Doe a deer,' you know? For a whole hour he's going do-re-sol-lo-do-re-re and the exercises start getting more complicated and I'm going 'Man, now it's getting deep.' I can't follow him.
"I'm flabbergasted," Rivera continues, cackling. "I go, 'Yo, Cachao, you gonna whip out the bass and show me a tumbao now?' And he says, 'Primero la lectura, entonces la aplicamos al instrumento.' (First the reading, then we apply it to the instrument.) And I don't speak much Spanish -- I'm Nuyorican, I was raised in the streets of New York -- so I'm trying to decipher that: 'First the lecture and then apply it to the instrument.' That was it. I said, 'I'm out of here,' and I never took another lesson in my life. But I'll always be grateful to Cachao for sending me on another track."
He went back to the way he had always learned: heading out to clubs and watching the musicians play live. "Wow, that was the thing," Rivera says. "I didn't see anyone up there singing do-re-mi."
Of the musicians Rivera observed, probably the most influential were the ones in Mongo Santamaria's band, with whom Rivera played for about three years starting in 1970.
"Mongo was my rhythm school," Rivera states flatly. It was with Santamaria's percussion-heavy band that the fledgling bassist realized the extent to which his chosen instrument has to function as part of the rhythm section. "You gotta remember that when the Latin big bands started coming on the scene in New York, usually the first sax player -- an American cat -- would become the arranger for the group, and when he arranged the rhythm section it was kind of in the background, like in the American big bands. What I brought into the Latin music in New York was I broke away from the standard bass figures and I started playing what I learned in Mongo's band, in essence to function as the melodic bass drum. If you don't have schooling in the drum, if you don't understand the different rhythms that are happening in the rhythm section, man, you're missing out. You're never going to play with total capacity as a bassist in Latin music or especially Latin jazz," Rivera says. "You don't have to hit the skins, but you've got to understand how to breathe what the percussion section's playing so you can understand when to take a simple note and fit it between their beat. Once you're doing that, it's beautiful."
As a house musician for Fania Records in the Seventies, Rivera became known for his innovative use of the upright electric bass -- commonly known as the baby bass -- in salsa and Latin jazz. "In my estimation there are three or four really great bass players in Latin music," says Arturo Campa, a Miami promoter and former vocalist with Eddie Palmieri's band. "Cachao and Bobby Rodriguez, and Eddie Gua Gua is definitely one of them. He's transcended Latin music. It would be impossible to list all of the people he's played with. He's played with practically everyone." In 1977 he was gigging with Gato Barbieri at Miami's Gusman Theater and ran into Cathy Lopez, who had grown up a few blocks from Rivera in his old Bronx stomping grounds. They soon married and, in 1980, moved to Puerto Rico, where Rivera became a founding member of the experimental big band Batacumbele.
The group's mission was to create a kind of contemporary Puerto Rican roots-based Latin jazz and dance music. But the band had a hard time competing against the radio-ready merengue imported from the Dominican Republic. In 1983 Rivera returned to the States and settled in Miami.
Rivera found South Florida a good place to raise his four kids, if "a little weird" professionally. He has played with formidable musicians like Nestor Torres and hasn't wanted for session work. But there are some gigs he'd rather forget. When he first came to Miami, for instance, he had a short stint playing cumbia music with a Colombian band in a perpetually empty Kendall club. ("That was a laundry-type situation, because nobody went there but somehow there was always money to pay us"). On another occasion, he resorted to performing Madonna covers to pay the bills.
Closer to his heart has been his work as musical director of his Pentacostal church, Faith Christian Center in Perrine. And two years ago, he formed the Latin Jazz Crew to back touring musicians who pass through town. The quintet also plays original Latin jazz music, although paying gigs have been hard to come by.
"I go around town and I try to get a gig for my band, and club owners ask if I've got a singer." He sighs. "It's a jazz group. We don't play for a dancing crowd. It's about playing music, not dancing. When we play, the people are sitting there and they're listening to what's going on and they're tapping their feet and they're having a ball in their heart."
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Undaunted, Rivera and his crew are working on a CD produced by Arturo Campa for release in the fall. His latest song, "The Angel Spoke to Lourdes," is a tribute to Lourdes Bosch, the pulmonary specialist he credits with bringing him back from the dead.
And in an unlikely instance of life imitating art, Batacumbele, his band from Puerto Rico days, recently came back from the dead as well as embarking on a reunion tour earlier this year.
Despite the energy he exhibited at MoJazz -- his first performance since the operation -- Rivera has a way to go in his recovery. He knows he has to rest. But he's a reluctant convalescent.
"I'm dying to play," he shouts, then catches himself. "Wait a minute. Let me restate that: I'm living to play.