Reinventing Latin: Oscar Stagnaro on the Paquito D’Rivera/Berklee Latin Jazz Program

Jim Walker
April 9, 2014
Performing with Paquito D'Rivera (featured in red, next to trumpeter Diego Urcola) requires "passion, seriousness, and respect for what you play," says Berklee Latin Jazz Program academic director Oscar Stagnaro.
Paquito D'Rivera
Bass professor Oscar Stagnaro will head up Berklee's new summer Latin Jazz Program.
Stagnaro enjoys a moment with D'Rivera Quintet drummer and Berklee percussion professor Mark Walker.
Photo by Alberto Romeu
Photo by Jim Walker

Paquito D’Rivera moves seamlessly through different styles of music. From classical to jazz and Cuban to Brazilian, this clarinet and alto saxophone virtuoso knows no boundaries. Students will be treated to his expertise when the Paquito D’Rivera/Berklee Latin Jazz Program launches July 6-10, 2014, adding to the robust complement of the college’s summer programs. The Cuban-born D’Rivera will serve as the program’s artistic director, bringing his style-blending approach to composition and his pure love of music.

This intensive summer program will feature Berklee faculty who are leading Latin music educators and a packed schedule of lectures, small-group instruction on individual instruments, ensembles, jam sessions, and a final concert. The program is open to all instruments and students ages 15 and up.

The program’s academic director, Oscar Stagnaro, views the new program as a big step forward in his mission to introduce more students to the history, varied styles, and pleasures of Latin jazz. The Peruvian bass player—a professor at Berklee since 1987—beams as he describes the heart of the new program: his old friend and bandleader, D’Rivera. Stagnaro discusses the inaugural program in the interview excerpts below.

The summer program is centered around famed Cuban musician and composer Paquito D’Rivera. You’ve played with him since 1992. What should students expect?

"He is a great inspiration and a very generous guy in music and life. That personality comes across with the first step when he comes into the room. He fills the room with joy and respect. He has the kind of personality that helps you to improve and that makes you more certain that what you’re doing is the right thing. I couldn’t think of a more important lesson, especially for a young musician."

What do you think makes him so unique as a musician?

"Paquito is a virtuoso on both clarinet and alto sax and in composition from classical to jazz. He doesn’t have any boundaries like, 'This is Cuban and this is Brazilian.' The way that he composes, he uses all these influences in his music. So he has a different perspective on music, which is much more broad than many people would label what we call Latin jazz these days."

What does D'Rivera stress in his music and instruction?

"With Paquito, it’s passion, seriousness, and respect for what you play. He jokes around but when he’s on stage, he’s like a doctor doing surgery. Serious, high-class fun, but when he plays, it’s no mistakes. He has perfection in mind. But at the same time, it’s fun. He welcomes you to his house when you are on stage with him. Right away, with the first bars, he’s like, 'Welcome to my house.' I don’t know how he does it. Some people have that kind of charisma that invites you in. You feel like you are a team and you feel like you are all together."

Watch Paquito D'Rivera discuss teaching at Berklee in this video:

How will the Latin Jazz Program be structured?

"The schedule will be two hours in the morning of lecture on the history of Brazilian music or Cuban music or Latin American music. Teachers will come in to teach the history because it is super important to have an idea of how the music of all those countries emerged. That’s 9 to 11. And then 11 to 1, we’ll have groups with the different instruments. If I get eight or 10 bass players, I will get them together in a classroom and teach styles according to our repertoire for the concert. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday will be classes and Thursday will be the final concert. In the afternoon, we'll have ensembles from about 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. So, each of us, the five faculty, will have one ensemble. And 6 to 7, we will have lectures with Paquito. He will talk about technique or composition or how to study or what to study. And at night, 8 to 10, there will be two ensemble rooms for jam sessions. It is going to be a full day."

Do you have certain songs that you want to work on with the students?

"Songs? No. But styles, yes. We’ll work on styles from Cuba, Brazil, and Latin America, of course. But also, we expect some students to bring their own music and then put it together here. That is also super important to encourage composition. And they’ll have the input from the faculty here to help them."

For the younger students, this may be their first chance to hear from touring musicians and to learn about the life and the work involved, no?

"Yes, that is the other side of this: the professional side. You are going to come here and grow as a musician and grow as a composer and as a professional. Your skills are going to improve. You are going to have materials to learn, to study for the whole year, at least, or many years. And you’re going to see people from all over the world playing together. I think you always have to lead with the example of what to do so when you teach someone you don’t have to say anything. You do it without words. You show the example of respect, ethics, and professionalism when you are playing."

I would think having that lesson as a young musician would be amazing.

"Yes, that will stick with them forever. Especially when you see it in (D'Rivera) because he is such a great player that you are really inspired. He started playing when he was three-years-old, and he will tell you that he studied and he practiced and he read. But it’s not like magic. It takes a lot of work and he’s going to say that. He still practices. That may be the message that many people don’t get. To get something, you have to work a lot. It’s not like it comes easy. It comes easy after you work a lot."

Do you think students are missing out on Latin jazz now?

"Yes. But I don’t like the term Latin jazz because it implies just Cuban music. Paquito has kind of a new Latin American thing that anyone from any country can participate in, not just Cuban and Brazilian students. We can mix all these different ideas and styles from all over: Colombia and Peru or wherever, and we put them all together in a tune or in a group. One of the concepts for a band to be successful is in the orchestration. It's not only the performance and how well you play but also, do you have a new sound as well?"

What is your dream for this program?

"I hope we have something like 50 new Latin jazz groups from the students, that everybody writes tunes with these styles, and that a creative and refreshing wave of new music comes from this."

Learn more about this summer's Paquito D’Rivera/Berklee Latin Jazz Program here.