Saturday, August 11, 2007

RIP Mario Rivera

I am not an expert of contemporary Latin music or Latin jazz, even. But I do know enough to recognize that Mario Rivera was a ubiquitous and integral presence on both those scenes.

You may have missed it, but Rivera appeared in all white playing some killin' tenor sax with Tito Puente's little big band with Giovanni Hidalgo, Dave Valentin and others in one of the musical vignettes in the ground-breaking documentary film on Latin jazz, by Spanish director Fernando Trueba, Calle 54.

I could try to eulogize Rivera myself, (whom I had the privilege of seeing live on more than one occasion with bands led by Carlos 'Patato' Valdez, the Tito Puente Orchestra and other bands), but I won't try since drummer/percussionist, composer, big band leader and noted educator Bobby Sanabria has already done so in a much more eloquent and expert fashion than I could ever have.

I received this note via the Jazz Programmers List (a jazz radio listserv for radio programmers, promoters and musicians available for subscription at


Today is indeed a day of sadness. El Comandante, Mario Rivera, passed away this morning at St. Vincents Hospital in NYC ending his long battle with cancer.

One can not begin to speak of Mario in terms of his career in just a posting. A virtual series of volumes has to be written. Like so many musicians who are Latino and have been an integral part of the jazz world and the world of their own native culture, their contributions have been long overlooked by those who write the history of both genres.

If you looked up the term multi-instrumentalist in a dictionary, Mario's face would immediately come to mind. Forever the inquisitive practicer, he could playover 20 instruments at a very high level. His"tertulias" at his apartment as Ben Lapidus can attestwere virtual centers of activity for his lengthy practice sessions and if there were other players around there would certainly be a jam session in progress.

He could play all of the family of saxophones on a virtuosic level as a soloist and section player and was one of the very few saxophonists who was also a master of the flute in the Cuban charanga style. But he was most known for his mastery of the tenor saxophone.

According to Scott Yanow's book, Afro-Cuban Jazz, he was born July 22, 1939 in Santo Domingo, The Dominican Republic. After he arrived in NYC in 1961, he worked with Puerto Rican vocalist Joe Valle. His most significant musical associations through the years include Tito Rodriguez (1963-65), The Machito Orchestra, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Palmieri, Eddie Palmieri, Tipica 73, The George Coleman Octet, Dizzy Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra, Slide Hampton's Jazz Masters, the Afro Blue Band, Giovanni Hidalgo, Chico O'Farll's Orchestra and especially Tito Puente's Orchestra and Latin Jazz Ensemble with whom he worked for on and off for decades. In addition Mario occasionally lead the Salsa Refugees, a respite from his work in the Latin field, where he could explore his voice as a jazz soloist.

He was a true musical soldier. By that I mean he was the ultimate sideman. He was there to facilitate and enhance whatever musical situation he was called upon to do. Whether it was a movie soundtrack, jingle date, small combo to big band date or just a guataca jam session, Mario's versatility and most of all, presence, were always welcomed.

Although having appeared on virtually hundreds of recording, perhaps, thousands, Mario to my knowledge recorded only one disc as a leader named after his sobriquet, El Comandante. It has fine examples of combinations of the native rhythm of his homeland, merengue from the Dominican Republic and jazz improvisation. Indeed it can be considered not only a tribute to his homeland and his mastery of jazz harmony but
an homage also to one of his inspirations and yet another unsung hero, fellow Dominican saxophone master, Tavito Vasquez.

I got to know Mario well when I was part of the United Nations Big Band. Like his inventive playing, Mario had a uniquely creative sense of humor, which many here who had the pleasure of working with him can attest to. Nadie se escapaba (no one escaped) and one looked forward to Mario's zingers, because like his playing, they were the epitome of timing and creativity.

Because there are several members of this list serve who had an even more personal and musical relationship with him, I look forward to reading their recollections of Don Mario. He will be missed, but of course never, ever forgotten. Especially when I hear a tambora and guira, a good saxophone mambo, or Giant Steps being played in all the keys. :)

Rest In Peace nuestro Comandante.

Mucho ibiano y aché,
Bobby Sanabria

You can learn more and discuss Mario's life and contributions to the music at JazzCorner's Speakeasy.


julie laura said...

what a shock. i just googled mario in passing, and learned that he died. i'm sorry, and hope phoenix and all his other kids are okay. bye, mario. it was fun, but too short a time, and the world is definitely an emptier place without you. you made it look so easy! and you never stopped. you were smart but never a show-off, just a gentle, generous teacher; thoughtful and quite inspirational, and did i say you made it look so easy? you opened my world and taught me so much that i took with me afterwards, and i always looked at lineups on certain cd's to see if you were on them. i knew you were a great teacher, excellent musician (of course), and hope your life was good and rich after we parted of the ways. thanks for what you gave me; i hope i gave you at least as much... take care wherever you are... surely you will come back as another ascended master musician who rises at such a young age, and i hope you get and share as much love the next time as you did this time.

-- julie

frank said...

Wow, so sad, can't believe it. Such a shame I didn't get to this before.. I was actually looking for Mario Rivera's contact info because I decided to take tenor sax seriously and wanted lessons from him only to find out he's passed away.. He was a huge inspiration to me, I did hear years ago that he was gigging in small harlem clubs and I always had planned to check him out. Wow, he was "the one" in my book. The other dude is Justo Almario but he's not in the NYC area so, there goes that.. Guess I'll keep shedding till I find another..