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Havana is music. From first thing in the morning till last thing at night it pours out of houses, bars and cafes, echoes down narrow alleys, reverberates from balconies, blares from radios, booms from cars and wafts round squares. ‘Where can we hear some real Cuban music?’ incoming innocents ask their taxi driver as they head from the airport into the city. ‘Where can we not hear it?’ might be a more appropriate enquiry.
Jazz is one of the city’s most popular musical forms and the Havana jazz sound is unique, the result of centuries of musical mixture to which Africa and Spain contributed the main ingredients and China, France, Italy, Mexico, Argentina and the United States added the seasoning. The sophisticated, cosmopolitan result attracts aficionados from all over the world—both to perform and to listen—and the resulting cross-cultural fertilization enlarges the virtuous circle of continually-evolving creative development.
The Havana International Jazz Festival first took place in 1979. Over the years it has become one of the most important dates in jazz-lovers’ diaries. During the festival, fans flock to major concerts at the Amadeo Roldán, Nacional and Mella Theatres, but it’s the intimate events in Havana’s clubs that really get the juices flowing. The most extraordinary leaps of musical telepathy seem to occur in smoky, rum-soaked Vedado hangouts like La Zorra y el Cuervo and the Jazz Café.
Jazz in Cuba dates back further than most people realize. Slavery was abolished on the island in 1886 and many freed black Cubans emigrated to New Orleans, while the American intervention of 1898 in the Cuban independence wars heralded the start of a prolonged US presence in Cuba. Conditions were thus perfect for mutual musical exchange. The musicians that had moved to New Orleans took with them the rhythms and style that were already considered Cuban and incorporated them into the nascent jazz form, as did musicians returning to the States from Cuban holidays.
The high point of this musical evolution was the spark which ignited between Cuban drummer Luciano (Chano) Pozo—who was eventually shot in a bar in Harlem—and American jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Their sound was the first appearance of what later came to be known as “Latin jazz”—and that was just the beginning. Now Cuban musicians are foremost amongst the world’s jazz performers. Prior to the Revolution popular musicians were largely self-taught; from the early 1060s onwards, most members of popular bands have been music school graduates to whom virtuoso performances are almost second nature.
Over the years the lineup at the Jazz Festival has included Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Haden, Roy Hargrove, Steve Coleman, Richie Cole, Max Roach, Carmen McRae, Leon Thomas, Teté Montoliu, Airto Moreira, Tania María, Dave Valentin, Michel Legrand and Ivan Lins. The celebrated British saxophonist, Ronnie Scott, promoted Cuban jazz from his famous Frith Street club throughout his professional life. However, it is Cuban musicians who have been the driving force behind the Festival. Whether they favor pure jazz or fusion, the list of participants includes important names: Armando Romeu; Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Ruvalcaba; Bobby Carcassés; Los Van Van; Ernán López-Nussa; NG La Banda; Orlando Valle… and the waves of impressive young musicians emerging from Cuban schools has resulted in the establishment of the JoJazz (Joven Jazz = Young Jazz) Festival which takes place prior to the main event as a competition for young musicians.
If you’re in Havana from December 15-23, do a circuit of the Vedado clubs and you’ll more than likely spot an international jazz great appearing incognito at the bar, hidden behind a cocktail. And keep a sharp lookout for a black giant with a sleepy gaze, leisurely performing musical miracles at the piano—it will be six-time Grammy winner Chucho Valdes. As the organizer of the International Jazz Festival, he, more than anyone else, knows that if it ain’t got that swing, it ain’t Havana