Jazz brings back the idea of creation and knowledge, it transcends borders and breaks embargoes. It’s a universal language that builds bridges between men and women, peoples and cultures…Abel Prieto. Minister of Culture of Cuba at the International Day of Jazz in Havana, Abril 30, 2017.
Cuban music emerged from the encounter of diverse cultures, and since the late 15th century the African diaspora stands out within this context, being the intercultural fusion a distinctive feature in shaping the Cuban nationality.
The Cuban music and the American music
The first exchange between Cuban and American music happened late in the 1890s, when Cuban musicians started having a strong presence in New Orleans and American musicians in Santiago de Cuba.
Since 1898, many American music-dance genres, such as Foxtrot and Turkey Trot were brought to the island by American residents. These Americans took control of the political and economic spheres of the country by ruling over industries, taking control of the lands, the banking sector, the railroad and tourism. Hotels such as the Nacional, Sevilla, Saratoga, Bristol, and Casinos and Nightclubs usually offered Cuban and American music, a process that triggered the rebirth of nationalism, which was expressed in music through the popularity of genres like Danzón and, later on, Son.
Jazz in the city of Havana
The genesis of Jazz in Havana began early in the 20th century, but its assimilation as a music genre of our own did not happen until around 1930, when Cubans like Armando Romeu, Isidro Pérez, Chico O’Farrill and Germán Lebatard used the jazz band format, which was typical of American jazz. This conditioned a preference among Cuban musicians and public in general for the sound, phrasing and diction of this kind of music. The resounding contribution of jazz to the musical atmosphere of that moment brings about the renovation of traditional Cuban music, which is the basis for the emergence of new genres like Afro-Cuban Jazz and the Cubop.
Around 1940, Cuban musicians based in New York such as Mario Bauza, Mongo Santamaría and Chano Pozo created their own style by including Cuban percussion to the jazz band format and to small classic jazz formats. Their conceptual contribution is based on the meter-rhythmic patterns of the Cuban music; Afro-Cuban jazz can be performed without using the typical percussion instruments, because the rhythmic cells, the metrics and beats are learnt and assimilated within the musical discourse created by musicians and supported by the different instrument formats used (drum kit, double bass, piano, guitar, woodwind and brass, etc.). That’s the birth of Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo’s Cubop.
Cuban musicologist Olavo Alen makes reference to the important contribution of Cuban music genres in his dedication to the collection “El joven espíritu del jazz cubano” (The Young Spirit of Cuban Jazz):
Cuban Son, particularly for its improvisations in a traditional context, was present since the early times. Let us remember that “Manteca”, by Chano Pozo-Dizzy Gillespie, is actually a Jazz version of a Son and was presented as such by its composers. This music work became one of the most used standards within the aesthetic current derived from Bebop, known as Cubop in the American Jazz.
It’s worth noting that Max Roach-Clifford Brown and Miles Davis’ quintet used a 6/8 metric pattern and its drummers followed the line of Afro-Cuban Jazz set by Max Roach, Art Blakey and Roy Haynes.Olavo Alen.
Leonardo Acosta said about this process:
… the work of Cuban music arrangers like Chico O’Farrill, Armando Romeu, Bebo Valdés, Peruchin Jústiz and Pucho Escalante was a determining factor for they included important jazz elements related to harmony, voice leading and orchestration in our music.Leonardo Acosta.
Altogether, musicians like Bebo Valdés in 1952 recorded the bolero “Desconfianza” on a sextet format following the jam sessions style or “descargas”, as it’s called in the island.
This conscientious assimilation process of American Jazz with Afro-Cuban music is known as Latin Jazz or Afro-Cuban Jazz, and it became much strengthened during a bilateral exchange between the Cuban and the American musical culture. The fusion of musicians and styles from both currents has enriched the genre, thus providing it with creativity, experimentation, sense of innovation and belonging.
While celebrating the International Jazz Day in Havana on April 30, 2017, pianist Herbie Hancock referred to the importance of Afro-Cuban jazz in the history of this genre, its contribution to the evolution, enrichment and input to reinforce jazz as an expression of freedom and creativity, which is considered today as a banner for the fight against all kinds of racism and discrimination.
During the first decades of the Cuban Revolution, the creation and consumption of jazz continued in the island, but it was limited by cultural policies and institutional decisions that turned out to be very negative for this genre. The total or temporary shutdown of most Night Clubs and Cabarets (especially in Havana City) brought about the disappearance of most jazz band orchestras and the break-up of small format groups.
Work experiences of the “Orquesta Juvenil” and the “Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna” (1996), as well as that of the “Grupo de Experimentación Sonora” of ICAIC –Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográfica (1969) directed by guitarist and composer Leo Brouwer showed new paths for experimentation in the search for a Latin American and, specifically, a Cuban musical identity. The efforts of personalities such as Armando Romeu and Bobby Carcassés should be highlighted, for they kept jazz alive by motivating its study and exchange among young musicians and cultural institutions all over the country.
With the creation of Irakere band in 1973, under the direction of pianist, composer and arranger Chucho Valdés, Afro-Cuban Jazz is back as a preference style in the national musical landscape. The search for a style of its own is characterized by experimentation, and genres like jazz, bebop, rock, funk and electronic music are merged with Cuban and Afro-Cuban rhythms like Son, Rumba and Yoruba music; there is also the inclusion of musical instruments such as batá drums, güiros, chekeré (and other idiophones), drums and timbale, without dismissing the drum kit. These make Irakere’s polyrhythm and timbre a novel element in the musical discourse of the time, an example of that is their album “Misa Negra” (1987) edited by Messidor.
International expansion of Cuban Jazz
Later on, some projects were created, like Afrocuba (1976) directed by saxophonist Nicolás Reinoso, and Afrojazz band (1978), led by trumpeter Bobby Carcassés. But Cuban jazz only reaches international recognition in the 80s, given the advertising campaign provided by the Jazz Plaza Festival.
With the creation of this festival in 1980, a new stage for the development and promotion of this genre begins in Cuba and for the world, thus favoring the exchange of outstanding worldwide jazz exponents for more than 40 years. In addition, the new generation of Cuban musicians, graduated from art schools in the island, keeps a special focus on this music genre throughout their careers.
By the end of the 80’s and throughout the 90’s, economic conditions in Cuba brought about the emigration of accomplished musicians, by then recognized as iconic figures of the Cuban jazz movement. Some left due to political differences, and others in the search for an international market that would legitimize their work as artists, with the obvious economic benefit. Among them we can mention Paquito de Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, Gonzalito Rubalcaba, Juan Pablo Torres, Hilario Duran, Horacio Hernández “El Negro”, Omar Sosa, Ramoncito Valle and Oriente López.
The birth of Cuban timba
Nevertheless, Cuban jazz had favorable conditions for its development between 1990 and 2000; promotional events like Jazz Plaza and the JoJazz Contest in 1998, along with other musical phenomena in the Cuban scenery (emergence of timba as an inter-gender), made room for the creation of numerous jazz projects.
Around that time other groups emerged: Otra Visión, led by flautist and ex-Irakere member Orlando Valle “Maraca”, quartet Cuarto Espacio by pianist Ernán López-Nussa, Habana Ensemble by saxophonist Cesar López, also from Irakere, Peruchin and his Group, Top Secret of José Miguel Crego “El Greco”, Lilian Expósito “Bellita” and her Jazz Tumbatá, Temperamento by pianist Roberto Fonseca, Oscar Valdés and Diákara and quartet Ferber Opus directed by Arielito Hernández, among others.
Timba, as a music inter-genre, was a distinctive feature of the creative processes of contemporary popular music in the last decade of the 20 century, and reached its peak during one of the most complex socio-cultural moments of the Cuban society. The main tendencies and ways of making popular music in the island (the fusion of jazz, rock, funk, ballad, bolero, salsa, rumba, cha-cha-chá, etc.) are merged in this genre.
Consolidation of Cuban jazz
Back then, young musicians making jazz would become part of popular Cuban music orchestras, which consolidated their skills to play several styles and genres, an experience that would later develop their talents as performers, which led the way to the influence of timba codes on the island’s young jazz.
As it happened, Plaza Jazz Festival is strengthened not only due to dancing music orchestras with their performances of popular music, but also with its exceptional jazz concerts. Orchestras such as NG La Banda, directed by flute virtuoso and composer José Luis Cortés and the group Klimax, by percussionist Giraldo Piloto are examples of this. At the time, music projects stood out: Paulito FG and his elite, Isaac Delgado, Manolito Simonet, Charanga Habanera, among others.
On the other hand, the creation of the JoJazz Contest (1998) managed by artistic director Alexis Vázquez, strengthens and consolidates the presence of a young Cuban Jazz. This event includes a contest for individual and group performance, and the contest for composition and concert performance. It has become a space for the validation of collective and personal talent, thus becoming a platform for the promotion and national and international visibility for the youngest musicians of this genre.
To that fact, we can add the participation of these musicians in international competitions like the Montreux Festival (Switzerland), where Harold López-Nussa (2005), and Rolando Luna (2007) obtained performance awards for piano, and Héctor Quintana for electric guitar (2015). Whereas others like Alfredo Rodríguez, Alejandro Vargas and Jorge Luis Pacheco made it to the finals of this event.
The young Cuban jazz appears from a generation graduated from art schools that adopts this genre as a main form of expression and identity. As they adapt to the socio-economic and cultural conditions of their time, these young musicians make music using many different and unlimited instruments formats that could be typical of the genre or not. A main thing was collaboration (under the principle of everybody plays with all) which allows us to identify each artistic project by its personal style and aesthetics.
On a paper about Cuban jazz and novel Cuban musicians, Spanish specialist Julián Ruesga stated:
The current Cuban jazz, or jazz made by Cuban musicians emerges from a high-spirited jazz scenario, which is charged with new and different connotations that are no longer those of the Latin Jazz of the 40s and 60s of the 20 century.Julián Ruesga.
The undisputable top exponents of this genre in Cuba are: Chucho Valdés and Irakere, Emiliano Salvador, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Boby Carcassés, Afrocuba, Ernán López-Nussa, Germán Velazco, Orlando Valle, Cesar López, Orlando Cuba Jazz, Julito Padrón among others, whose work stand out for their performance and composition. They have taken young musicians as part of their projects, adding their aesthetic seal to their musical discourse. That’s how both groups have come up with a homogeneous language in the search for a Cuban contemporary jazz that responds to their timeline.
Most of these young jazz musicians create a discourse from the Cuban musical tradition (Son, Rumba, Changüí, Mambo, Afro-Cuban chants, etc.) to reinterpret genres and experiment by adding contemporary worldwide Jazz codes, new tendencies and genres of contemporary music as well, and they all have convergence points in their aesthetics. About this musical phenomenon Joaquín Borges Triana declares:
… Jazz made by Cubans today is derived from multiple identities hybrids. Through time, it has opened up to new influences, it keeps moving and its future is associated with many different musical forms, which are also enriched by jazz (…) This is an example of what the new Cuban culture is doing around the world, of how it influences other cultures and how these have done the same.Joaquín Borges Triana.
Jazz musicians have especial interest in having a multifaceted professional career by creating and performing in different settings of the current contemporary Cuban music. Their music is mixed with Cuban traditional codes, which requires a high level of experimentation, either through musical language ( structure, morphology, harmony, rhythm and metrics), or through the use of instrument formats as a way to rediscover tradition from a new pitch, colors and textures, which consolidates their integrity as performers and composers. Concerning this matter, musicologist Leonardo Acosta expressed in his notes to Canciones, an album by Harold López-Nussa, from the Record Company Colibrí Productions:
“Canciones” is now part of this heterogeneous and wide current trend of Cuban music -and musicians- that happily choose quality and artistic beauty, wisely combining tradition and innovation, without rejecting or fearing the creative assimilation of the best and most progressive of the universal music. These Canciones (songs) represent the talent and effort of the best musicians today for maintaining a rich legacy threatened by global pop marketing and its mediocre local followers during these awful times. It’s about making music that is not tempted by easy and futile virtuosity, the sort of music that rises as an antidote against the retrograde noisy current of superficiality and indulgence of racket and distortion enthusiasts…Leonardo Acosta.
The study of this genre as well as the processes that have accompanied its evolution led us to use this knowledge in the creation of a phonographic and audiovisual product for the development of the Cuban music industry. The Collection Joven Espíritu del Jazz Cubano (Young Spirit of Cuban Jazz), of Colibrí Productions, created in 2004, which could record a CD and/or DVD as the prize of the JoJazz contest. Their international and national promotion strongly favored the validation of these projects and made it possible to have a united and organic movement, with different traits and aesthetic paradigms within an international context, where influences, innovations, and musical exchanges characterize the jazz of this century.
Its heritage, as well as the inner Cuban spirit, its tradition and modernity make Cuban jazz a type of music of subtle complexity and richness. These reflections are intended to enhance the importance of protecting and developing this line of creation in Cuba. These young creators are the music of today, in my opinion, they are one of the main branches for the artistic avant-garde of the Cuban music in this millennium. So I conclude with the words of pianist Roberto Fonseca: The future of jazz in Cuba is guaranteed and in great health.
- Acosta Leonardo, Otra visión de la Música cubana, La Habana, Ediciones Museo de la Música, 2014.
- Acosta Leonardo, Un siglo de jazz en Cuba, La Habana, Ediciones Museo de la Música, 2012.
- Acosta Leonardo, Descarga cubana: el jazz en Cuba 1900-1950, La Habana, Ediciones Unión, 2000.
- Souto Carmen (selc), Jam Session. La nueva generación, CIDMUC, La Habana, 2012.
- Cortina Bello Camila, “Trayecto de una cubanidad en movimiento”. In, Carmen Souto (selec), Jam Session. La nueva generación, CIDMUC, La Habana, 2012.
- Ruesga Bono Julián. “Una inmersión en el nuevo, y no sólo joven, jazz cubano”, en Tomajazz, 2014.
- Borges Triana Joaquín, “Jazz hecho hoy por cubanos: igual y diferente”. In Julián Ruesga Bono (selección), Jazz en español. Derivas hispanoamericanas. Edición CulturArts-Musica, Valencia, 2015.
- Hernández Rafael (comp): Mirar el Niágara: huellas culturales entre Cuba y Estados Unidos, Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de la Cultura cubana Juan Marinello, La Habana, 2000.
- Dos Santos Lopez José. “Jazz Cubano. Leyendas del mañana”. Editorial Campa. A. Nueva York, 2020.
- Multimedia de la Revista Clave, Ediciones CIDMUC, La Habana, 2016.
Notes on music Recordings
- “Canciones”, Collection El Joven espíritu el jazz Cubano, edited by Producciones Colibrí, 2007. Leonardo Acosta.
- “Mirando al futuro. 20 años JoJazz”, edited by ABDALA Productions, 2018. Gloria Ochoa de Zabalegui.
- “Sueños de Pueblo” Collection El Joven espíritu el jazz Cubano, edited by Colibrí Productions, 2019. Olavo Alen.