A Little Help from His Friends

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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."

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.

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Judy Cantor