(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on December 14, 2001)
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I've been telling myself that I have to write a column about Cuban superstar flutist-bandleader-composer Jose Fajardo. In fact, just a few months ago, I told him so.
“Maestro,” I said, interrupting his lunch at a restaurant near his home in Union City. “You must let me interview you. I want to write your story.”
The great Fajardo looked up and smiled, seemingly flattered by the offer, as if someone who has received so much press could still be flattered by another interview.
“Of course,” he said, “any time.” He pulled out a pen and wrote his home number on a paper napkin. “All you have to do is call,” he said.
But life goes on, and breaking news becomes priority, and times passes, and sometimes we don't get to do everything we have stored in the back of our minds.
I saw the great maestro again Wednesday night, at the Rivero Funeral Home in Union City. I could no longer interview him. He died Tuesday of heart complications at 82.
But at the funeral home, with Fajardo in an open casket still holding his beloved wooden flute, I was still getting my interview – through the people who knew him best.
“I was his next-door neighbor,” said Maria Calvo. “He used to come talk to me about his ailments.”
Some were fans, some were friends, some were family, and some were famous.
“I was the singer in his orchestra,” said Jorge “Papito” Sanchez. “I can tell you many anecdotes about our music and our travels.”
The funeral home was so crowded that people had to stand in line to get one last audience with el maestro, who recorded some three dozen albums of Cuban dance music, known today as salsa.
Fajardo was among the first to be inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 1998. And even in his 80s, he performed with his orchestra, Fajardo and his Stars, at least once a month at New York's La Maganette dance club.
“He will be missed,” said Joe Hernandez, the hall of fame president. “Fajardo was one of the great giants and pioneers of Afro-Cuban music. He was a mentor to many in the music business, including Hall of Famer Johnny Pacheco and Dave Valentin, both great flute players. I know I will miss him dearly.”
And Pacheco, another superstar of Latin music, was at the funeral home, confirming that statement.
“When he came here for the first time in 1956, it was to play at the Palladium,” Pacheco said. “I was just starting out with the flute and Fajardo taught me some [finger] positions that I didn't know. It was with his help that I became a flutist. And through the years, he was always my best adviser. He was really my teacher, my maestro.”
In Cuba, in the late 1950s, Fajardo was so popular that he had three full orchestras in different parts of the island. On the weekends, while the bands set up to perform, Fajardo would fly from gig to gig in a helicopter. In the early 1960s, he fled Cuba, denouncing Fidel Castro's communist regime, and reestablished his band in exile, performing mostly in New Jersey, New York, Miami, and Puerto Rico. He went on to produce many more hit records.
“Even after he had a major heart operation, just a couple of Wednesdays ago, he got up on stage and performed one number with my band,” said Eddie Zervigon, the leader of Orquesta Broadway and another flutist who calls Fajardo his maestro. “He was amazing. Even when he was ill and weak, when the music started playing, you could see how it would energize him. When he has playing his flute, he was rejuvenated.”
With a Cuban-flag wreath of red, white, and blue flowers, Fajardo's body was flown to Miami on Thursday and will be viewed by his fans in the Cuban-American community today. He will be buried in family plot in Hialeah, Fla., Saturday. He leaves behind his wife, Miriam; a daughter, Ines, and a son, Armando, all North Jersey residents.
At the Union City funeral home Wednesday, New York State Assemblyman Jose Rivera, a fan of Fajardo's music, walked around with a portable video player, showing everyone his videos of Fajardo playing with his orchestra.
“I try to document everything,” Rivera said. “And some of the happiest moments I have recorded involve Fajardo. I loved to dance to his music . . . ever since I was a teenager at the old [New York] Palladium.
“I remember when the Cubans like Fajardo brought the charanga style of Cuban music to New York, with a lot of violins led by a flute,” added Rivera, who is Puerto Rican. “We had never heard it before, but it was beautiful.”