When Cuban jazz musician Alfredo Rodriguez crossed the Mexican border into the United States in January 2009, he had a pretty unusual reason for doing so: He was going to make music with Quincy Jones.
If this sounds like a far-fetched fantasy or dream, it was. But it came with serious backing and a promise from the legendary superproducer himself.
Rodriguez had met Jones at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, where the jazz musician had been selected to represent Cuba in a collective of 12 pianists from around the globe. After watching Rodriguez’s performance, Jones approached him to express his desire to help the young pianist advance his musical career.
“Obviously, I was living in Cuba, and he, obviously, is from the States,” Rodriguez says. “Knowing the political relationship between Cuba and the States, which had been very set apart for so many years, I knew it was going to be very difficult.”
So when Rodriguez was presented with the opportunity to travel off the island, he jumped at it. He was invited to join his father, famed Cuban singer and namesake Alfredito Rodriguez, at a concert in Mexico. The younger Rodriguez flew to Nuevo Laredo International Airport and attempted to cross the border, where he was detained for over a day before being released and granted political asylum.
“I told them the truth,” he remembers. “I told them: ‘I’m here because I want to cross the border, and if you stop me today, I’m going to try doing it another day because this is my dream and no one is going to stop [me from] dreaming.'” The first calls he made once he was granted asylum were to his manager and Quincy Jones’ manager.
“They said by phone: ‘If you made it to the States, we’re here, the offer is open, and we’re going to sign you as a new Quincy Jones [protégé].’ I took the risk without knowing if it was going to happen or not, but I did it, and everything came out really good.” He laughs before clarifying, “[It’s] really good now, but it was a big risk.”
Rodriguez’s latest album, The Little Dream — which he’ll perform with the Alfredo Rodriguez Trio Friday, October 26, at the Wertheim Center at FIU — is a joyous ode to the realization of his own dream and a call to arms for younger people to take bold risks in the pursuit of theirs. He’s dedicated the album to DACA recipients, for whom the future is once again uncertain, with anti-immigrant sentiments and policies coming from the very top of the Trump administration. And though Rodriguez’s message is primarily for immigrants striving to achieve their goals, he says it can apply to others across the human experience.
“Since I crossed the border, my life has been full of crossing borders,” he says. “My life has always been [about] trying to break those barriers that we put onto ourselves as human beings, not even just as musicians. We musicians do the same to the others… They want to say, ‘Oh, you are a jazz pianist or you are a classical musician. You are a Cuban musician, so you have to play the Buena Vista Social Club.’ My goal is to change that.”
Alfredo Rodriguez. 7:30 p.m. Friday, October 26, at Herbert and Nicole Wertheim Performing Arts Center, 10910 SW 17th St., Miami; 305-348-0496; carta.fiu.edu. Tickets cost $10 to $25 via carta.fiu.edu.