TCU Jazz Visits Cuba

A report about the Texas Christian University Jazz Ensemble's performance at Havana International Jazz Festival

In December, as most students and faculty were finishing up final exams and looking forward to Christmas and winter break, the Texas Christian University Jazz Ensemble, directed by Professor Curt Wilson, was traveling to Cuba to perform at the 26th Havana International Jazz Festival.

Brad Matheson, the president of Harmony International was responsible for Wilson and his group being invited to perform in Cuba. Harmony International sponsors performing arts tours all over the world and after hearing the TCU Jazz Ensemble perform at Texas Music Educators Association Convention last year, Matheson was duly impressed and immediately approached Wilson with an invitation to bring the group to Cuba.

After six months of planning and submitting the necessary applications and paperwork that the trip required, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control suddenly took issue with the type of license the group had requested and warned that the legality of the trip was in question. Since 1960, the United States government has enforced an embargo against Cuba and limited travel by making it illegal to spend money to visit the island nation. Only certain types of groups and individuals are permitted to go, provided they are approved under a specific license. Fortunately, due to the efforts of several Texas Congressional members, the licensing issue was resolved and final confirmation was received ten days before the group was scheduled to depart.

The TCU Ensemble performed at the Festival twice, each evening sharing the bill with several other groups from Cuba and Europe. The first performance took place in the Teatro Mella, the 1500-seat theater that hosted Wynton Marsalis’ recent 5-day residency in October. The second performance was in the National Theater, a modern-looking structure that looks out on the expansive Plaza de Revolución. Each evening’s set list varied a bit but included music by Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Patrick Williams, Gordon Goodwin, Zequinha Abreu and the theme from the television show I Love Lucy, that elicited laughs from older members of the audience. Both performances were enthusiastically acknowledged with applause, yelps and whistles, and even a few over-excited patrons running and jumping up the theater aisles afterwards.

Since the 1959 revolution, American big bands performing standards from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s have become a rare occurrence in Cuba. Enrique Plá, Cuban musician and percussionist from the 1970’s jazz/rock/roots band, Irakere was impressed by the sound of the TCU Ensemble and thought that the group must have rehearsed and played together for years. When told that the ensemble had only been together since September, he was impressed and commented that the performance had been an education for him and the rest of the Cuban Audience as they have not heard that particular sound in many years.

The TCU students also enjoyed several cultural exchange opportunities. The first was a joint rehearsal with members of Cuba’s National Band, followed by an outdoor performance in the picturesque Plaza de Armas. Surrounded by tourists, passing locals and the book stall vendors that work there, Cuban music and American jazz reverberated across the courtyard, bouncing off the facades of the 17th and 18th Century buildings that have born witness to many of Havana’s historic events.

The TCU Ensemble then spent time at Havana’s Conservatorio Municipal de Musica and shared their music with Cuban high school musicians. The two groups took turns playing for one another with several of the Cuban students invited onstage by Wilson to solo with the TCU band. Afterwards, there were smiles and handshakes as TCU CDs and t-shirts were handed out to the appreciative Cubans.

The highlight for many of the TCU students was the final night of the Festival featuring Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra from New York City. O’Farrill and his musicians have incorporated the traditional Afro-Cuban clave rhythms and Latin melodic phrasing into their own complex and virtuoso jazz compositions. Cuban piano legend Chucho Valdés, as well as students from the Conservatorio joined the Orchestra onstage for the final jam that unleashed a torrent of consecutive solos, each more impressive than the last. It was pure musical spectacle that capped off an impressive evening of jazz and a successful, memorable trip to Cuba.

TCU Jazz Ensemble Director, Curt Wilson congratulates a Cuban high school saxophonist on his impressive solo
Graduate student, Scott Sidway holds the audience’s attention while performing with the TCU Jazz Ensemble in Old Havana’s Plaza de Armas.
TCU’s Caitlin Koch shares a laugh with a Cuban colleague during a combined rehearsal with the Cuban National Band
The TCU Jazz Ensemble performs at the National Theater in Havana, Cuba
TCU clarinet professor Gary Whitman performing at the Havana International Jazz Festival, Cuba
Students at the Conservatorio Municipal de Musica receive their TCU CD’s and t-shirts
The TCU Jazz Ensemble and group travelers pose outside the Basilica in Old Havana

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