Gustavo Lezcano, 59

Gustavo Lezcano, Miami Sound Machine member and music teacher, dies at 59

 

hcohen@MiamiHerald.com

Musician Gustavo Lezcano, a member of Miami Sound Machine in its formative years, loved to stay in one place. He avoided the club-crawl lifestyle endemic to the musician’s trade.

Indeed, he spent 32 years as a music teacher at Gratigny Elementary School in North Miami. There, he taught music appreciation and often filtered American history lessons through music’s lens. He took his students from lyricist Francis Scott Key’s The Star Spangled Banner to Elvis 101, The Beatles 101 and beyond.

But through music, the Havana-born Lezcano was akin to a world traveler.

Lezcano, who left Cuba at age 7 for Brooklyn and, soon after, South Florida, followed his muse onto concert stages, recording studios, classrooms, and a dusty road on the Mississippi Delta to steep in the rich history of the blues.

His sweet and soulful riffs on the harmonica gave lift to the music of Gloria Estefan and the Bee Gees.

“If you told him there was a harmonica player in any radius, he wanted to go there,” said girlfriend Deborah Ramirez on Wednesday, hours after Lezcano collapsed after emceeing and playing harmonica with his Gratigny students at a school talent show. He died at age 59. The cause probably was heart failure, said Ramirez, an editor with El Sentinel.

Earlier this month, Lezcano reunited with Miami Sound Machine mates Gloria and Emilio Estefan at the reopening of the Estefans’ restaurant, Larios on the Beach, as he hopped onto the stage to jam on his harmonica with a Cuban band.

“He used to play the blues with an incredible feeling. He’s going to leave a legacy of great music,” said Emilio Estefan, who was touched that time hadn’t diminished the friendship. “To see him perform there was one of my special moments. I’m so sad, but the good thing was it was a week before he passed away and we saw him happy and performing.”

Lezcano joined the Miami Sound Machine in the early 1980s after he graduated from Florida Atlantic University with a degree in music education in 1976. Lezcano was originally tapped for his skills on guitar and keyboards, where he exhibited some funky Stevie Wonder-like flair. But the harmonica was his passion. Lezcano, who graduated from Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale, recommended his guitarist pal Wesley B. Wright for his spot.

“He was a uniquely talented individual and, with his whimsical personality, he always brought a laugh to the table of any project he was working on,” Wright said.

Former Miami Sound Machine drummer Enrique “Kiki” Garcia also remembers a musician free from the hardened temperament often caused by long nights in the studio and miles on the road.

“Gustavo was one of the most talented musicians I have met, and one of the best harmonica players in the world,” Garcia said. “On top of that, what a soulful human being. Good natured. Always laughing. It was a pleasure and an honor to play with him in Miami Sound Machine for many years.”

Lezcano wrote the title track for Eyes of Innocence, the Sound Machine’s first English-language crossover attempt in 1984. The album’s single, Dr. Beat, a Top 20 hit on Billboard’s Dance Club Play chart, sports one of Lezcano’s distinctive harmonica fills.

He would remain in the Sound Machine through the group’s breakthrough in 1985, Primitive Love, an album that featured three Billboard Top 10 pop singles — Conga, Bad Boy and Words Get in the Way. Gloria’s name moved out front in 1987 as the group was retooled as a vehicle for its star vocalist.

Lezcano’s favorite band was War, and its harmonica player, Lee Oskar, was his inspiration during his time with the Estefans. “He thought he might be able to carve out a role for a harmonica player like Lee Oskar did in War, like he’d become the Latin Lee Oskar,” Ramirez said. Years later, in 2002, Lezcano played with Oskar and War at an in-store appearance at Bob Perry’s former, beloved Blue Note record store in North Miami Beach.

“We hosted the band for a midnight release party, and Gus came and sat in at 3 a.m. and tore it up. I will never forget him performing on Slippin’ Into Darkness and The World Is a Ghetto. He lit up the place as he did every time he came by. The sweetest, most beautiful cat I have ever met,” Perry said.

The gig wouldn’t be the last time “have-harmonica-will-travel” Lezcano unexpectedly sat in during a performance. In October 2013, Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler ventured off his concert stage at Miami Beach’s New World Center for his encore to join Lezcano in the third row. The performer was enticed by something he had heard out in the seats during an interactive moment with his fans.

“Gustavo whipped out his harmonica and did a little riff,” Ramirez said. “He figured what key [Drexler] was in — he loved the minor key — and Drexler, playing guitar, hears him . . and invites him to continue playing with him. The audience was applauding, and someone recorded that onto SoundCloud. That was the kind of thing he did.”

During his run with the Miami Sound Machine, Lezcano taught music at Gratigny, but his name would appear on Miami-made projects after he left the group. Most notably, Lezcano contributed a lilting harmonica lead that carried the melodic hook on the Bee Gees’ acoustic ballad, Blue Island, from the 1993 album Size Isn’t Everything, and that year played a charity concert for diabetes research with the Gibb brothers.

“He was a fantastic musician, but above all he was an amazing father,” said eldest daughter Maria Angel. “He was always there for us and supportive, and I feel like it’s my brothers’ and sisters’ job to carry that light he put in our lives out and shine it through as a memorial to him.”

Lezcano is also survived by his other children, Gustavo Jr., Brando, Alessandra and Celina; his mother Raquel; his sister, also named Raquel; and brother Jose.

Visitation is scheduled for 4 p.m. to midnight Sunday at Vista Memorial Gardens, 14200 NW 57th Ave., Miami Lakes, with burial at 9 a.m. Monday.

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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