A look at the emergence of Afro-Cuban jazz and its spread to the US and Canada.
By the 1940s, the stage was set for the birth of a new kind of jazz. In the United States, big band orchestras had been including Latin rhythms in their jazz tunes, as well as rumbas and congas in their repertoires, and many Cuban musicians were traveling regularly to play in cities like New York and New Orleans. Others immigrated, especially to New York. Meanwhile, Cuba had become well-known as a playground for U.S. tourists. Travel to the island was easy, alcohol flowed freely (it was prohibited at home), and casinos and live entertainment were in abundance.
Mario Bauzá, who emigrated from Cuba to the US in 1930, is usually held up as the pioneer of Afro-Cuban jazz. In 1943, as director of the New York big band Machito and the Afro-Cubans, he composed “Tanga,” considered by many musical historians to be the genre’s first single. This new style consisted of jazz with Afro-Cuban rhythms including the clave, which is the basis for almost all Cuban music. Latin elements and African percussion instruments such as timbales, bongos, and congas were part of the mix. Bauzá had a further key role in Afro-Cuban jazz: introducing fellow Cuban émigré Chano Pozo to Dizzy Gillespie in 1947. As the popularity of swing and big bands faded, Gillespie, a leader in the new bebop jazz style that fused nicely with Afro-Cuban rhythms, hired Pozo, making him the first regular conga player in an American jazz big band. Soon after, they recorded the standard “Manteca.”
“Soon after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the United States cut diplomatic relations with Cuba, putting an end to the back-and-forth of musicians for about 20 years. With the 1961 United States–backed Bay of Pigs invasion fresh in its mind, the government of Fidel Castro labeled jazz and rock as dangerous foreign influences.”
The mambo craze of the 1950s heightened interest in rhythms from Latin America, and the evolution of Afro-Cuban jazz continued, mostly in the United States. For example, in New York, Havana-born Chico O’Farrill, an important arranger, composer, and bandleader, worked with many artists, including Benny Goodman.
Soon after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the United States cut diplomatic relations with Cuba, putting an end to the back-and-forth of musicians for about 20 years. With the 1961 United States–backed Bay of Pigs invasion fresh in its mind, the government of Fidel Castro labeled jazz and rock as dangerous foreign influences. Nonetheless, they recruited Jesús “Chucho” Valdés, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, and other outstanding musicians for the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna, created in 1967. The group was allowed to perform jazz, but in a manner that could be tolerated by the government.
Seeking greater creativity, Valdés, Sandoval, and D’Rivera became key members of Irakere, founded in 1973 and directed by Valdés, during what was known as the “five grey years” (1971–76). During this period of increased cultural orthodoxy, Cuba became more integrated into the Soviet bloc and African culture was considered backward by many apparatchiks. Irakere pushed ahead nontheless, incorporating popular Cuban dance, Afro-Cuban folkloric, and even classical music. With a heavy horn section, it also included funk influences from American and Canadian-American groups like Earth, Wind & Fire and Blood, Sweat & Tears. When Gillespie, Stan Getz, and a few other American jazz musicians visited Cuba in 1977, they found the band at the forefront of a rich music scene. Invited to the United States the following year, the band won a 1979 Grammy award for its first album, recorded live in part at Carnegie Hall. Arguably, Irakere remains Cuba’s most important jazz band to date.
The ability of artists to travel between the United States and Cuba has continued to wax and wane according to the politics of the day. D’Rivera and Sandoval defected to the United States in the 1980s, where they have had tremendous success. A plethora of American-born artists have taken up the genre, many of whom have performed at the annual Havana Jazz festival that began in 1978.
Given the difficulties inherent in getting visas both to leave Cuba and to enter the United States, a good number of Cuban artists have ended up in Toronto after collaborating and touring with Jane Bunnett, the renowned Canadian sax player and flautist. Bunnett has been traveling to Cuba to perform and record with Cuban musicians since the 1990s. One of her latest projects, the Afro-Cuban jazz band Maqueque, is comprised of young Cuban women.Some of these artists have already left Maqueque to start their own groups, only to be replaced by Bunnett with musicians from what seems to be a never-ending talent pool from the island.
“Valdés is firmly rooted in Cuba, but there now exists a considerable diaspora of Cuban musicians not only in the United States and Canada, but in Europe and other Caribbean countries as well.”
In order to concentrate more on piano playing, Valdés started his own band in 1998, while continuing with Irakere until 2005. Chucho Valdés and the Afro-Cuban Messengers emphasizes African percussion instruments and often includes vocals. Similarly, his latest project, the trio Jazz Batá, focuses on Yoruba music and Batá drumming. Both groups exemplify the current trend of small ensembles and soloists. Valdés has said that he was discouraged from taking up the Batá project in the 1970s, but Jazz Batá has him looking once again toward the roots of Afro-Cuban music and a “deeper Cubanization of jazz and the classic piano jazz trio.”
Valdés is firmly rooted in Cuba, but there now exists a considerable diaspora of Cuban musicians not only in the United States and Canada, but in Europe and other Caribbean countries as well. Non-Cuban musicians have also embraced the music, with the result that Afro-Cuban jazz can be enjoyed live year-round in a number of countries, as well as during the festival season. The genre has slowly evolved over the decades and has seen a rise in the technical talents of its musicians, but continues to hold to its Afro-Cuban roots.
This feature was written by Celeste Mackenzie and was originally published in Stanford Live’s September/October program. Used with the permission of Stanford Live.
Chucho Valdés will perform at Stanford Live’s Bing Concert Hall on October 18. Tickets are available online.