Mario Rivera, favorite sideman of music legends, dies


Mario Rivera's apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was filled with musical instruments. Every room. Wall to wall.

When he hosted friends, at the ungodly hours when musicians go home from playing gigs, he'd encourage them, regardless of musical skills, to beat on drums, bang soft hammers on a xylophone, finger keyboards, pluck bass guitars, strum regular ones, blow on all manner of wind instruments, knock claves, rasp gourds, shake maracas and chekeres, jam.

''Go ahead!'', he'd say, ''¡cúrate!'', roughly translated, ``get your ya-yas out.''

If Rivera, who died in New York on Friday after a two-year battle with bone cancer, had not made a name for himself as one of the most sought-after sidemen in jazz and Latin jazz, he could have had a successful career as a music therapist.

Rivera, 68, had played with a who's who of jazz and Latin masters: Tito Puente, Machito, Eddie Palmieri, George Coleman, Dizzy Gillespie, Slide Hampton, Chico O'Farrill. He was in Miami in October, backing veteran Cuban piano master Bebo Valdés, with whom he also recorded a big-band CD.

Sidemen are the unsung heroes of music; they back legends but seldom become superstars. But Rivera was a legend on his own right.

His main ax was the saxophone and his riffs and solos are as good as any big name saxman's in any genre. For, yes, Rivera dominated all the musical languages. He could be an orquesta de salsa workhorse. Or an intense jazz combo artist. Or a big-band soulman. Or, his natural habitat, the linchpin of a Latin jazz group -- most notably, he was a mainstay of Tito Puente's Latin jazz ensembles.

''Mario was such a vital individual that death is nothing short of incongruous,'' says Latin jazz historian and producer Nat Chediak, who worked with Rivera on recordings as well as the music documentary Calle 54. As for his artistry, Chediak believes that ``there are few Latino musicians in jazz who can touch him.''

In 1993, Rivera made his own wonderful CD, El Comandante, a playful and infectious fusion of Dominican merengue and jazz.

Rivera was Dominican. Before the diaspora of the '80s, which transformed Washington Heights, north of Rivera's home, into Quisqueya Heights, the gifted musician was, along with Fania Records founder Johnny Pacheco, a prominent Dominican figure in a Latin scene dominated by Puerto Ricans and Cubans.

When merengue nudged salsa aside in the '80s and early '90s, major artists from the Dominican Republic doing New York concerts would go to Rivera's home to pay their respects to their countryman.

Artists of all backgrounds respected Rivera, for he was a musician's musician. And in the music world, as in all arts, crafts and professions, there is no greater honor than to have colleagues think you're great. In Mario Rivera's case, the greatest. The bottom of this page is my answer to this notice. Greg Henry Waters

Here is a history of Tito Prente and Mario Rivera, their lives cross paths for more than 30 years performing together.

When you read Tito's background you will be amazed at his education and how his musical skills developed.  He told me once that what he missed about performing was performing every night.  After he became famous he did not perform every night.  You know a musician needs to practice everyday whether he is making money or not.  Tito understood this dilemma and knew he needed to perform as much as possible.  I met Tito through my friend Paul Litrenta who was Tito's lead trumpet player and went on those first tours to South America and California.  Paul passed away a few years ago also. Tito was the only Latin band I ever performed with so I guess I am not a heavy Latin player, ha ha. But it was an honor for me to know Mario and Tito. And Tito's Spanish was perfect too. I remember seeing him on TV speaking and I was so impressed because I could understand him. (I speak Spanish as a second language.) Now I understand the relationship between Tito and Mario. (Mario had a very supportive attitude to leaders. This was a gift to the band leaders he worked for. He understood their problems.) I do not think I ever understood it really. When Jimmy died I never worked for Tito again. But Mario was the soul of the band and Tito really needed that strength for running a band. It is not easy and the pressure sidemen put on the leader is not fun. This is why I think leaders became so mean to protect themselves from the aggressive behavior of the sidemen.

Mario and I played together in my band and on gigs together with Tito.  He was a friend and I miss him like I miss my friend Paul and others.

Anyway, we all miss both Paul, Tito and Mario! What more can I say? Greg Henry Waters

I have setup a non-profit fund for Tito, Mario and Chico for a latin music live performance fund. Support live music,composers and instrumental musicians! Greg Henry Waters Creative Music Productions. Inc.
Greg Henry Waters Tribute Letter, Mario 2007

Notes compiled by Chip Boaz

Born on April 20, 1923 in New York City, Ernest Anthony Puente, Jr. developed an early interest in music listening to big band jazz on the radio. He studied piano for seven years, learning current pop songs, classical pieces, and traditional Latin music. At the same time, young Puente took percussion lessons, focusing upon fundamental technique, reading, and big band drumming. He soon began singing with a local group and performed ballroom dance with his sister Anna. Puente’s passion for music drove his activities from a young age, allowing him to build important professional skills.

A Young Professional Musician
Still in his pre-teen years, Puente began performing with a variety of groups around New York City. During his time with Los Happy Boys, Puente became interested in Latin percussion and absorbed basic timbale technique. His refined sight-reading abilities gained him a sub position and eventually a permanent job with the Machito Orchestra. In addition, he maintained steady work with pianists Noro Morales and Jose Curbelo. During his early high school years, Puente booked his weekends full of professional gigs. After two years, he left high school and pursued music full time. By the early 1940’s, Puente worked full-time for the Machito Orchestra and completed his first recordings with both Machito and Jose Curbelo. His music career stopped abruptly in 1942 after being drafted into the Navy.


Navy Days
Despite his military duties, he continued to immerse himself in music during his three year Navy stint. He performed in the bar, playing saxophone and congas, and worked as the ship’s bugler. Puente met a shipmate with big band arranging experience and learned the basics of writing. He created some original material that he sent back to New York; he received a round of positive response from his former band mates. Between musical activities, Puente saw action in nine World War II battles, for which he received a Presidential commendation. In 1945, the Navy honorably discharged Puente, and he returned to New York.

New York Bandleader and Recording Artist
Upon Puente’s return, he jumped headfirst into a musical lifestyle, grabbing all New York could offer. The G.I. Bill paid his tuition at the Julliard School of Music, where he studied theory, conducting, and orchestration. He continued to write arrangements for local Latin bandleaders, including Morales and Curbelo. Puente’s performance schedule remained full as he worked with his former employers as well as the Copacabana nightclub’s Brazilian band. He occasionally led a small band for pick-up gigs until Federico Pagani offered him a regular Sunday afternoon gig at the Alma Dance Studios. The next year, the Alma changed owners, and it became the center of Latin dance music, the Palladium. Puente held a regular gig for many years, expanding his conjunto to a mini big band. By the early 1950s, Puente’s reputation as a bandleader had grown enough to move him into a recording career.

Over the next ten years, Puente recorded a number of classic albums. In 1951, he began recording for the New York based Tico label. He released a variety of dance albums until 1955, when he created the landmark Puente in Percussion, an album featuring only percussion and bass. Puente moved to RCA in 1956 and scored a hit with Cuban Carnival. He followed that album with Puente Goes Jazz, another album that found great success. In 1957, Puente recorded another classic percussion album entitled Top Percussion, and then Night Beat, which featured Doc Severinson. He then recorded the essential Latin album, 1958’s Dance Mania, which included important Puente hits “El Cayuco,” “Mambo Gozon,” and “Hong Kong Mambo.” He recorded a few more albums for RCA, but despite successful sales, the label never completely supported Puente’s work. In the early 1960s, he moved onto other avenues.

New Honors and Success
The 1960s and 1970s brought a string of commercial successes and honors for Puente. He recorded a variety of albums with singer La Lupe such as 1965’s Tito Puente Swings/The Exciting Lupe Sings and 1967’s El Rey y Yo. Puente also joined vocalist Celia Cruz for several albums including the 1966 album Cuba Y Puerto Rico Son and the 1969 release Quimbo Quimbumbia. In 1970, guitarist Carlos Santana included a rock version of Puente’s “Oye Como Va” on his hugely successful album Abraxas. Two years later, Santana recorded another Puente classic “Para Los Rumberos,” which became a part of Santana III. Both these tracks received immense amounts of airplay and massive sales, which introduced Puente to a new audience. In the late 70s, Puente traveled to Europe and Japan as part of the Latin Percussion Jazz Ensemble, an all-star Latin Jazz group. Puente received adoration around the world, reflecting the long reaching influenced created by his music.

Moving Into The Millenium
The 1980s and 1990s saw more boosts in Puente’s career, starting with a move to Concord Picante Records. He released a string of albums throughout the 1980s, including the Grammy winning recordings On Broadway, Mambo Diablo, and Goza Mi Timbal. He maintained a rigorous touring schedule, regularly traveling with his small group around the world. In 1989, Puente was honored with both the Downbeat Reader’s Poll Top Percussionist Award and the National Academy of Arts and Science Eubie Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1991, he appeared in the movie, The Mambo Kings, and then released his 100th album as a solo artist, The Mambo King: His 100th Album. He was featured in The Cosby Show and animated in The Simpsons. In 1997, President Bill Clinton honored Puente with National Medal of Arts and in 2000; he won his fifth Grammy Award for Mambo Birdland. Until the millennium, Puente continued to create and received a wealth of gratitude for his gifts.

Puente died during a grueling 14-hour heart surgery on May 31, 2000. Fans and musicians around the world mourned, but ultimately, the world rejoiced in Puente’s massive musical legacy. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award Posthumously from the Grammy Foundation in 2003. An uncountable number of musicians have felt Puente’s influence, and many more will likely discover the King. An impeccable musician, a strong professional, an entertaining showman, Puente left a rich history of recordings and performances, most likely the most influential Latin music artist in history.

Mario Rivera: The True Multi-Instrumentalist

Most musicians learn multiple instruments over the course of their musical careers. It’s not really that difficult - musical concepts transfer between instruments. Each new instrument only presents a technique issue. With some discipline, a trained musician can master technique. They regularly hear other instrumentalists, both on record and in live performance. They carry the desired sound in their heads; if create an inferior sound, they often self-correct their technique. As with any musical endeavor, learning a new instrument simply requires time and hard-work.

Still, I’ve often questioned the idea of a true multi-instrumentalist – a huge divide exists between instrumental proficiency and musical expression. I play several different instruments, but honestly, I would not perform professionally on most of them. I’ve seen musicians in many different genres move between instruments during performance, and I’ve almost always wished that they hadn’t attempted this feat. I’ve even seen musicians move between instruments and demonstrate incredible amounts of technique - unfortunately they left their musicality back on their main instrument. Even though most musicians can play multiple instruments, how many can actually play them well?

Mario Rivera defied all prior conceptions of the multi-instrumentalist. He doubled on all saxophones, from bari to soprano - a common idea for saxophone players. He also played flute, alto flute, and piccolo very well - not out of the ordinary for an outstanding woodwind player. He undertook timbales, congas, bongó, tambora, and a few more percussion instruments - most Latin musicians gain at least a surface knowledge of these instruments. He performed on trumpet and vibes as well, a somewhat uncommon accomplishment. Unlike most musicians, Rivera played all these instruments at an exceedingly high level of musicianship.

Rivera’s amazing musicianship needs to be seen to be believed - so enjoy the videos below. The first track shows Rivera playing bari sax on a swing tune which eventually moves into a merengue. The second clip places Rivera on vibes, playing over an up-tempo Samba. The third clip starts with Rivera on muted trumpet, which he soon trades for flute. The last clip features both Rivera and Dave Valentin trading scat solos, then flute solos, and eventually timbale solos. All these clips are from a performance with Rivera’s group at the Bern Jazz Festival; it’s an amazing display of musicianship - enjoy!

Stumble it!



Mario Rivera Tenor Sax Solo on “Mambo Diablo”

Tito Puente’s extensive discography presents several opportunities to admire the improvisations of saxophonist Mario Rivera. His ability to authentically interpret traditional salsa, Latin Jazz, and be-bop made him the perfect featured soloist - wherever Puente went musically, Rivera explored passionately. Puente’s work throughout the 1980s and 1990s with the Concord Picante label especially showcase Rivera well. During this time, Puente for the most part put aside salsa and focused upon jazz. This left generous improvisatory space, which Rivera gladly filled.

Rivera’s tenor sax solo on the song “Mambo Diablo” from the Tito Puente album Mambo Diablo contains a good example of his ability to create a musically inventive statement. The song revolves around one chord, F minor 7, and for the most part, Rivera utilizes an F natural minor scale. He plays 32 measures squeezed between two mambos. The rhythmic basis for the song is an up-tempo son montuno and the rhythm section maintains an aggressive feel throughout Rivera’s solo. His rhythmic knowledge and fluid technique allow him to match the band at every turn, creating a finely tuned musical statement.

Some Points of Interest:
*Rivera’s Creative Use of Passing Tones to Create Tension
Near the end of his solo, Rivera moves outside his scalar approach and includes a variety of passing tones. His solo immediately takes on a different color, full of movement and tension. Check out measures 25 - 27 and the way that Rivera moves from the fifth back down to the root, hitting every chromatic note at some point. Instead falling through a series of chromatic notes though, he ascends and descends chromatically between scale tones. He resolves this new direction with a reference to an F blues scale before returning to the F natural minor scale.

*Rivera’s Combination of Virtuosity and Thematic Development
At a couple of points during his solo, Rivera moves into a sixteenth note flurry, displaying serious instrumental control. In typical Rivera fashion, every creative development relies upon an infallible musical reasoning. Look at measures 20 through 24, where Rivera plays a series of sixteenth notes and sixteenth note triplets. The sixteenth notes connect long rhythmic values that lie on chord tones. The sixteenth note approaches allow Rivera to emphasize the chord tones and different points of the measure. This all leads into a ferocious run that introduces his chromatic variation.
Mario Rivera Mambo Diablo solo (C)
Rivera consistently brought strong musicianship wherever he performed, this solo serves as a great example. Transposed versions are below - enjoy!
Mario Rivera “Mambo Diablo” solo (Bb)
Mario Rivera “Mambo Diablo” solo (Eb)
Mario Rivera “Mambo Diablo” solo (BC)


Mario Rivera, 1939 - 2007


An essential voice in New York’s Latin Jazz scene, saxophonist Mario Rivera died Friday morning August 10, 2007 at St. Vincent’s Hospital. He had been suffering from cancer for quite a while. His death leaves a gaping hole in the world of Latin Jazz.

Rivera was born in the Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic on July 22, 1939. Although best known as a saxophonist, Rivera lived as a multi-instrumentalist, mastering flute, trumpet, tambora, timbales, congas, vibes and more. He toured with Tito Rodriguez from 1963 – 1965. Rivera eventually moved to New York and began performing with a variety of musicians from both Latin Jazz and traditional jazz circles, including Machito, Eddie Palmieri, Mongo Santamaria, Sonny Stitt, and George Coleman. In 1988, he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nation’s Orchestra and then later became a member of the Lincoln Center Afro-Latin Jazz Big Band. Rivera’s most high-profile musical relationship was as a member of Tito Puente’s various ensembles, a partnership that lasted over two decades. His recording credits as a sideman range include Puente, Palmieri, Machito, and Gillespie as well as Chico O’Farrill, Conrad Herwig, Stanley Turrentine, and Papo Vazquez. As a leader, Rivera recorded one album, El Commandante, a bold mixture of jazz and Dominican Merengue. Although never recorded, he also led a straight-ahead jazz group called the Salsa Refugees. Rivera’s status as the ultimate sideman left him loved by the Latin Jazz community, but largely unknown by the greater public. He contributed whole-heartedly to numerous Latin Jazz situations, and his involvement should be treasured.

I’m working on more information about Mario and his music, please come back for more tributes to this master musician. If you have any memories about Mr. Rivera or info about his life that you can share, please comment or e-mail me! by Chip Boaz

When we get old and our body doesn't work we need special care! A note I wrote to Miami News about Mario by Greg Henry Waters next part!

 Mario was a man who had five children and sisters too. His son Phoenix became an outstanding percussionist.  You said nothing about his family, I was with him in the hospital and watched him slowly die.  It was awful those last days.  They were not giving him medication for the pain for the bone cancer.   I helped a little to get the doctor to give him a regular pain shot, but because I am not a part of the family I do not know what happened the last few days.

He has sons in Chicago, Florida, New York city and ? 

His son’s e mail is  Phoenix stayed with his Dad most all the time since he was born from my understanding. 

They have not called me, his sister or Phoenix.  The singer was there who worked with Mario on tour dates.  I did not get her name. We are all very upset and I never worked with her when I performed with Tito.. 

Mario was a good man and performed in my 10 piece jazz band for three years until my wife left me with the kids and I lost all my drive for a couple of years.  I remember how Mario never complained and always supported the music. 

When I went to visit him I took him out a few days to walk and one day there was a street fair.  I tried to bring him some happiness. I bought him a watch because he told me that he had a big watch like I had.  I took some pictures of Mario and his son. 

His son was very devoted too and went everyday for months.  Mario has a tape of a concert in Europe where he plays vibes, trumpet, alto flute, soprano flute, tenor and soprano saxophone plus timbales.  He gave everything to his music.  I was complaining about playing so many woodwind instruments. 

He said to me those last weeks in the hospital, this means there are more possibilities.  I will always remember that music gives us more possibilities.   

In the hospital with his sister, Fatama? We watched him cry out for two ½ hours before they came in to give him a shot.  When he quieted down I went home and said good bye because I knew he only had a few more days left.  I told his sister to complain and complain to see to it that he gets enough pain shots.  No one should have to suffer like that.  I am very upset about this. 

I haven’t seen Mario for some 10 years or so because I left the music seen to travel and become a new musician.  I got back two years ago in 2004 Sept.  I heard Mario was in the hospital when I was at a musician’s birthday party,. Sarah Jane Cion 

I was so happy to be in contact with Mario once again.  I hope you can write about him some more, about his family and his music. His band he took to Europe was a special band his son has a tape of the concert. 

Artist of Music

Greg Henry Waters