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.
The Havana jazz sound is unique, the result of centuries of musical mixture to which Africa and Spain contributed the main ingredients while 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 circle of continually evolving creative development.
The Havana International Jazz Festival founded in 1979 has become one of the most important dates in jazz–lovers” diaries. During the festival, fans flock to major concerts at the Amadeo Roldan, 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 immigrated to New Orleans taking 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 that 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.
Today Cuban musicians are foremost amongst the world”s jazz performers. Prior to the Revolution popular musicians were largely self-taught but from the early sixties onwards most members of popular bands have been music school graduates.
Over the years the lineup at the Jazz Festival has included Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Haden, Roy Hargrove and many more. 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 favour 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. The waves emerging from Cuban schools have resulted in the establishment of the Jo Jazz (Joven Jazz = Young Jazz) Festival prior to the main event as a competition for young musicians.
If you”re in Havana from 30 November to 3 December, 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.