I had the honor and privilege of spending a week in Havana, Cuba with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance Ensemble leading up to this year’s International Jazz Day. Here are some of my experiences and reactions:
I’ve always aspired to be a basically reasonable and decent person, and last week as one of the first times I felt my aspirations acknowledged and reciprocated.
The second day we were there we played at a high school music conservatory, complete with a very Cuban-sounding Estonia brand (!) piano. “This is a very strong piano, it was built in Russia,” the teacher told me. I had the honor and joy of playing Maple Leaf Rag on that instrument (making sure to deal with the montunos in the second and third strains) when we gave a History of Jazz presentation
Joplin in Havana. Bud in Havana. Jaki in Havana. Claude Black in Havana. Allan Barnes in Havana. Woody Shaw came in ’79 for Havana Jam but his music never left
Herbie flirting with the idea of sitting in, the crowd chants “que toques!” “que toques!” “que toques!” Six of us sitting at the cafeteria afterwards trying to figure out if Dizzy ever made it to the island (he did, in ’88). “He’s a national hero to us.” Other national heroes included Compay Segundo & Chucho Valdés, canonized in tourist merchandise
Thoth taught us that everything has rhythm. Hammering out dents in a car door in clave. Playing guiro along with the radio in the market. Rhythm and melody in how old men greet each other in the street. Our host/tour guide Talía "didn't play any instruments" but played clave with us (expertly, in 5/4 too!). There was a big applause during a speech by Herbie and a man near me applauded in clave, with his claves
Middle schoolers in Guabanacoa singing “Give me that old time religion, it’s good enough for me” before chilling at the top of the amphitheater in a 30-person line dance to Richard Bona’s set. Middle schooler hitting high F# with ease playing "My Way" from memory on alto sax. (I sat a few rows down from them with a new friend, and her ma and grandma; she was coincidentally there to see her little brother sing in the choir)
I'm not terribly superstitious, and I'm usually pretty wary of any human attempt to predict or control the elements. When we went to Guabanacoa. it looked like we were minutes away from a downpour, and the organizers of the event claimed that if they made an alternate rain plan, then it would surely rain. It didn't rain a drop. I don't necessarily believe in Santaria, I'm just reporting what I saw with my own eyes
I hit the shed pretty hard in the months leading up to our trip, so as not to embarrass myself amidst such a deep piano culture. Once I got there I had to shake my head an plead Gladwell, realizing that I needed about 9990 more hours with tumbaos (and at least that much for Cha Chas too, Cubans do NOT mess around with their chachachás)
True to form, each pianist I heard was better than the last. The pianist at the hotel an older woman playing the shit out of Fur Elise, Chopin fourth prelude, and Almedra. National Symphony playing the shit out of Dvorák 8 (trombones blaring in the best possible sense). National commitment to melody.
The young musicians I met wanted to play me American jazz recordings. Reggaetón blaring from cars and restaurants. Our host only wanted to listen to American pop in the bus. Normally this would worry me but the tradition is so strong
Deep funk played by many of the groups I heard. Must be in the water, the ability of Cuban musicians to take just about anything and make it better. Bright moments hearing Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Dvorak being played SOULFULLY
Live music every couple blocks from noon til close. Getting yelled at for lurking outside a restaurant, a singer chiding us in his guía (improvised lead vocal)
Had a gig at the Pabellón Cuba and hopped across the street after soundcheck to buy a guayabera, a guiro, and maracas, all of which were put to use in our set. Great Egrem record store in the Pabellón too, no CDs over $5
I simultaneously feared and looked forward to witnessing the infamous Cuban dropping of the final “s” from words. I did get on the books one of our hosts dropping the “s” from “la música jazz”
(Shout out to Ciego Montero of course)
We took it as a VERY good omen that the man making coffee at the hotel buffet the first morning was named Orestes
Played in Fulgencio Batista’s former mansion/lair, now a teacher’s college, a stone’s throw from the airport where he fled the country in ’59. (When we were in Panama in January we played, stayed, and taught at the Ciudad del Saber on the grounds of what used to be the School of the Americas, where the CIA trained future puppet dictators. Making the rounds I suppose. But on a more serious note, music serves a very necessary consecrating function in these places)
I had always heard that Cuban music and Cuban musicians are crazy. But I never found that to be the case. To me, “crazy” implies abnormal or irrational. Instead, I found an entire country that feels rhythm together. And I found this to be wonderful and perfectly rational.
It was a bit like the reaction that I had hearing Yossou N’Dour live for the first time; the fact that his group put all other live music I’ve heard to shame didn’t make it “crazy” in and of itself.
Or the experience of hearing Bucky Pizzarelli speak, after which a peer remarked that his words and ideas were “interesting.” But every word Pizzarrelli said was undeniably true. So in this sense I found music in Cuban neither “crazy” nor “interesting,” just undeniably true.
Undeniably true, undeniably good, and undeniably serious. As serious about execution as it is about enjoyment. That about takes care of everything else, no? Technique, aesthetic, blend, clarity, shape, creativity, presence…
(It’s human nature to label and devalue the unknown or the feared. Admitting the undeniable truth of this music takes nothing from me, while in my opinion perpetuating the “crazy” descriptor reinforces fear, ignorance, and distance)
Everyone I heard could sight read, play the classical repertoire of their instrument (without reluctance, in fact with enthusiasm, curiosity, and passion), and improvise on a groove. To me there is nothing “crazy” or “interesting” about that, just very very reasonable.
The equality how the eighth note is articulated in Cuban music often disorients Euroamerican listeners as to the location of “1.” We protest to having to find “1” because we are used to having it spoon-fed to us. But I found this equality and balance neither “interesting” nor “crazy,” just unequivocally true in and of itself.
Interestingly enough, although individual dancers and musicians would clap the clave, big audiences often clapped on 1 & 3, which isn't actually that square (!) when no one in the band (/maybe the cowbell) is emphasizing 1 or 3.
I gave up fairly early on trying to explain just how special everyone I heard was, or how much we admire their musical tradition, or how well all of them would do outside of Cuba. I gave up because I learned that many of them had never left the island and therefore had never been exposed to very much mediocre music to compare themselves to. And I certainly didn’t want to spoil that.
Far from a utopia, I will say that from what I saw, race is a lot better in Cuba than in the US, and the lack of internet access is definitely a good thing for community mental health
I haven’t been enough places to proclaim Havana “the Detroit of the Caribbean,” BUT I did find in common:
- fierce loyalty that only comes when the outside world stops believing in you and when there is a stigma attached to traveling to or living/staying in a place
- serious hospitality, small town vibe
- high musical literacy in audiences; high standard of basic musicianship
- aggressive and raw playing style that doesn't always translate elsewhere
It also warrants examining where jazz would be with federally-mandated music education, crime rates low enough to sustain inner-city and neighborhood venues, and federally-supported big bands.
Some of my parents’ best friends—a non-blood Aunt and Uncle—had us over for Seder a number of times growing up, where I learned the phrase “next year in Jerusalem.” As a non-religious musician, for me it’s gotta be “Next year in Havana.” See you there!