Drummer’s $500,000 ‘Genius’ Grant Leaves Him Debt-Free

When jazz drummer Dafnis Prieto got the first $25,000 slice of his $500,000 “genius” grant last year, he paid off all his debts and started making plans for the next 19 installments.

He also bought a camera to begin making a film, and he’s writing a book about drumming.

The grants come with no strings attached from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The feeling of artistic freedom is priceless, Prieto says.

“I’m the kind of musician who suffers when I have to play music that I don’t like,” the Cuba-born drummer, 38, said by phone last week from a cruise ship in the Caribbean, where he performed with pianist Eddie Palmieri. “I don’t like to play music just to pay the bills. I’m not mercenary.”

Prieto, who begins a five-night engagement at New York’s Jazz Standard tonight, will play some original compositions in one of his favorite musical formations, the sextet.

The group includes trumpeter Ralph Alessi; Roman Filiu on alto saxophone; tenor and soprano saxophonist Felipe Lamoglia; pianist and fellow countryman Osmany Paredes; and bassist Ben Street.

“The sextet gives me a range of sound with the three horns, something you don’t get with a trio or a quartet,” Prieto said.

After he left Cuba to perform in other countries, he lived for a time in Spain and then settled in New York, where he struggled to make a living.

Latin Rhythms

Today he’s sought-after for his mastery of Latin rhythms and time signatures, and the MacArthur grant has helped put his record label, Dafnison Music, on a solid financial footing. He has had original works commissioned by chamber ensembles and dance groups. In 2007, his CD “Absolute Quintet” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album.

Growing up in musically rich Cuba helped propel his rapid rise on the New York jazz scene, Prieto said. He started playing the bongos at age 6 and entered the conservatory four years later.

“Music is part of the idiosyncrasy and culture of the country,” said the native of Santa Clara, Cuba, who studied at Havana’s National School of Music. “It’s a very powerful place culturally. You can breathe the music, you can feel the rhythm just by seeing a woman walking by.”

Last Album

Prieto lost a friend, Cuban bass player Charles Flores, who died of throat cancer last August at age 41. He released Flores’s last CD, “Impressions of Graffiti.”

“I promised him that I would put out his record,” said Prieto, who performed with Flores as part of jazz pianist Michel Camilo’s trio. “I miss him very much.”

The Dafnis Prieto Sextet performs at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. tonight through Sunday (with an additional set at 11:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday) at the Jazz Standard, 116 E. 27th St. in Manhattan. Information: +1-212-576-2232 or http://www.jazzstandard.net.

(Patrick Cole is a reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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