In the Key of Paquito

Rain is falling lightly when piano player Paquito Hechavarria gets the bum's rush from a Coral Gables restaurant. The musician is three nights into a gig accompanying a blues singer at Mike's Hideaway, an upscale eatery that boasts a pristine white baby grand but few customers for dinner on a recent night. Hechavarria and restaurant chef/manager Michael Wells, who have only a verbal contract, have been wrangling about the pianist's overtime and allotted breaks. The argument escalates; the restaurateur tells Hechavarria to leave the premises and refuses to pay him.

In what could be a shadowy scene from a Forties film noir, the two men stand outside the door shouting and swearing. Wells moves in close; Hechavarria defensively holds his rolled umbrella across his chest and dances aside with a boxer's shuffle. He leaves without his paycheck.

Short and stocky, with a round head and arched blond eyebrows, Hechavarria bears some resemblance to James Cagney as he struts away from the restaurant door straightening his black guayabera. "How can that guy treat me like that?" he asks plaintively in Cuban-accented English. Shaking his head, he takes a fierce drag on his cigarette and exhales slowly: "Obviously, he does not know who is Paquito Hechavarria."

("He ain't no Liberace," Wells later comments. "He's pushy and rude." Hechavarria's check, he adds, is in the mail.)

As is true for many other local Latin talents, widespread public recognition has eluded Hechavarria, despite the fact that he has been one of Miami's hardest-working musicians for almost four decades. A teenage wonder who played with Conjunto Casino, Orquesta Riverside, and other celebrated bands in Fifties Havana, he was hired as a house musician at the Fontainebleau when he came to Miami in the early Sixties. During the hotel's heyday, he accompanied Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., and a host of other American entertainers in the famed Boom Boom Room. He left Miami to play Caesars Palace and later returned. In the mid-Eighties, he formed Grupo Wal-Pa-Ta-Ca with bassist Israel "Cachao" Lopez and percussionists Walfredo de los Reyes and Tany Gil. (The group's name was formed from the first syllable of each member's name.) The foursome recorded several Latin jam sessions in Miami well before Andy Garcia "discovered" mambo innovator Cachao. (In the wake of Cachao's Grammy-winning comeback, the Wal-Pa-Ta-Ca descargas, with songs composed by Hechavarria, have been reissued on CD by Tania Records.)

Known among fellow musicians for his cascading chord work and a repertoire that ranges from jamming Latin jazz to saccharine pop with an Afro-Cuban beat, Hechavarria has been enlisted as a session man on recordings by artists as varied as Mongo Santamaria, Nestor Torres, Barry Manilow, and Gloria Estefan. His most recognizable riff is in the introduction to the Miami Sound Machine's crossover anthem "Conga."

"Asking when I first heard Paquito is like asking when I first brushed my teeth," says Nat Chediak, director of the Miami Film Festival and a long-time fan who has in his collection most of the recordings Hechavarria made in Cuba. "He's just always been there. Paquito is Miami's foremost Cuban pianist as far as Afro-Cuban music is concerned.... He is to be feared."

For the past few years Hechavarria, age 57, has probably been most visible to Miami audiences as the centerpiece of the band that provides nightly postscreening entertainment during the annual film fest. The jam kicks off Saturday at the Doubletree Grand Hotel's Blue Water Bistro (on North Bayshore Drive behind the Omni Mall), where Hechavarria will be joined by percussionist Gualberto del Prado, bassist Manny Patino, and a succession of drop-in guests for an only-in-Miami mix of Cuban sabor and American standards. (Chediak is expecting a special appearance by Lucrezia, a young Cuban singer living in Barcelona, who recorded the soundtrack for the festival selection Balseros).

Hechavarria is not a tinkler. With a sweaty brow and a cigarette forever dangling from his lips, he rides the keys so hard his thumbs are often bruised. Certain numbers have become film festival perennials; Chediak is eagerly awaiting Hechavarria's Afro-Cuban arrangements of Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me" and the Bing Crosby hit "Pennies from Heaven."

"A younger, less disciplined, less talented musician will get an idea and play it to death and you'll be snoring," declares Chediak. "Paquito will have an idea that for four bars will be brilliant. And with the fifth bar he'll have another brilliant idea. He never articulates the same thought twice. Every time he does something different."

The day after his unceremonious departure from Coral Gables, Hechavarria is on the phone from his home in Westchester. Sitting at his spinet, he peppers his conversation with chords. "The trick is to play a lick for five minutes without people getting bored," he explains, echoing Chediak. "You have to keep building the excitement. It's all improvisation. You can't see it written -- it has to come from your heart."

Hechavarria says music has always come naturally to him. When he was a boy, his grandmother gave him a marimba, and he taught himself the songs he heard on the radio. Encouraged by his father, a career military man who loved music, he took private piano lessons and later completed his studies at the Municipal Conservatory of Music in Havana. By fourteen he was in a popular neighborhood band; at sixteen he was drafted by Conjunto Casino and was soon playing at the city's hotspots.

His mentor was the piano player Pedro Justiz, professionally known as Peruchin. "On weekends I would go to the dances at the Club Nautico in Havana, where Peruchin played, and instead of going to look for girls, I would watch him," Hechavarria recalls. "His touch was unique. You get to the tumbao -- the part of the song where you play some chords and you repeat and repeat them, and you stay there while the flute makes a solo, then the trumpet makes a solo. No one could play a tumbao like he could." Eventually Hechavarria replaced Peruchin in the Orquesta Riverside.

In 1962 Hechavarria left Cuba for Miami with his first wife and infant son. He applied for membership in the Miami Federation of Musicians Local 655 (now called the American Federation of Musicians Local 655) and got his union card. He still pays his dues.

Soon after his arrival, he got the job at the Fontainebleau, where he played in the house band with Johnny Rojas and George Aviles, among others. "Before, I had been playing mainly Cuban music," he remembers. "When I started playing at the Fontainebleau, I learned how to play everything -- American jazz, show tunes, whatever. It was like when you go to the university. I always say that I got my graduate degree at the Fontainebleau."

After nine years at the hotel, the pianist went to Las Vegas and joined the orchestra led by Pupi Campo, a pioneer in playing Latin rhythms for mainstream American audiences. The band leader also employed Tito Puente and Charlie Palmieri at various times. In 1973 Hechavarria came back to Miami to be near his two sons and started working at the Fontainebleau again, playing jazz in the Poodle Lounge and the Gigi Room.

"In the Gigi Room you could not go in with just a shirt; you had to wear a tie," Hechavarria says nostalgically. "I'm talking about real class." But that elegant era was coming to an end, and Hechavarria decided to form his own group. The band played around town for the next four years, mostly at the Forge and the airport Ramada Hotel. After that, Hechavarria says, the steady jobs disappeared. "The DJs have destroyed us in a way," he laments. "You go to Miami Beach now and you hear a lot of music, but it's all recorded music. Everything's coming from a DJ or a synthesizer because the owner of the place would rather not spend the money on live musicians."

Hechavarria continues to play sporadically around town and records frequently. In addition to his session work, he released a solo album, Piano, on Sony Discos in 1995. A mix of traditional Cuban songs, original compositions, and a cover of "Light My Fire," the CD features salsa singer Rey Ruiz and saxman Ed Calle. The effort made the Billboard Latin charts but it was too eclectic to really hit big. Hechavarria says his next album, which he plans to record this year for Sony, will have a "simpler concept."

Meanwhile, he is looking forward to this week, when he'll really have a chance to jam. "I'm very happy any time I play at the film festival," he says. "All of my friends come and see me." But he's already thinking about next month's bills. "I'm looking for something steady," he says. "If I can't sell a trio, I sell a duo, or I sell myself. There's nothing more secure in life than to have a steady gig. If you don't have good luck, it's tough. You can be a genius sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring."

Paquito Hechavarria and friends play February 1-8 from (approximately) 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. at the Blue Water Bistro in the Doubletree Grand Hotel, 1717 N Bayshore Dr, second floor; 372-1875. Admission is free.


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