Exchange Programs: Jazz Goes to Cuba

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Arturo O’Farrill foster musical give-and-take in Cuba

The next time U.S. government officials debate whether it’s time to lift travel restrictions between this country and Cuba, perhaps they should watch a segment that aired on 60 Minutes in late December. The piece, hosted by Morley Safer, chronicled the 10 days that Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra spent in Havana last October. At one point Ted Nash, the JLCO saxophonist, shows a young Cuban musician how to get a certain tone out of her horn. The beaming smile she emits when she gets it is all the justification anyone should need to understand how these two nations—off limits to each other for some 50 years—might communicate again if only given the chance.

Wynton Marsalis performing with Dave Brubeck at CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival 2010
By Melissa Mergner
Drummer Ali Jackson and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis play for students in Havana
By Frank Stewart

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Jazz has been popular in Cuba for nearly twice that long, and American jazz musicians have incorporated the island’s rhythms—what Jelly Roll Morton called the “Spanish tinge”—almost since the music first emerged. But due to decades-long sanctions that have all but shut off not only travel but commercial trade, the possibility of true cultural exchange has been stamped out: Cubans have heard American jazz largely through tapes copied and passed around, while Cuban music has found its way to the States via those musicians who’ve managed to leave the island and settle in the U.S.

The JLCO junket and a separate visit in December by Arturo O’Farrill, the Cuban-American pianist/composer whose late, Havana-born father, Chico, is a musical legend on the island, underline the burning desire of Cuban and American musicians and fans to resume the give-and-take. “They have such a fervor and such a desire to learn about this music that they’re hungry in a way we don’t understand,” says O’Farrill. “Sometimes it’s humbling to see that. They have such reverence and love.”

O’Farrill’s journey to Cuba was not his first—that took place in 2002—but it was particularly special. It had been the wish of his father, whose credits included arrangements for Stan Kenton and Duke Ellington, to see Cuba again before he died. That never happened, so Arturo instead brought his father’s band, the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, to Cuba. “My dream was to go back with Chico’s musicians and perform his masterpieces on Cuban soil,” the pianist says.

He was able to do that, and to bring along members of his family, including his own two musician sons. During their stay, O’Farrill and the orchestra played not only in Havana but also in San Jose de las Lajas, the birthplace of his grandfather. “We performed a free concert in the public square in front of the church,” he says. “To me that’s pure joy, to see the average countryside Cuban dancing to my father’s music. That is a moment I will treasure till I die.”

While in Cuba, O’Farrill also unveiled a new composition titled “Fathers and Sons: From Havana to New York and Back,” which, he says, “is dedicated to the return, and the further progression, of musical interchange between the United States and Cuba.”

For Marsalis and the JLCO, the opportunity to reboot old connections and make new ones was also of paramount importance. “Havana has the same history of musicianship and musicians [as the U.S.],” says Marsalis. “Afro-Cuban music is such an integral part of our music; we have an intertwined history. Also for me, as a person from New Orleans, we are very related [to Havana]. They used to say New Orleans is the little sister to Havana.”

Carlos Henriquez, the JLCO’s bassist, was assigned by Marsalis to handle the logistical arrangements and to decide on the program. Once there, he was struck by the passion displayed by the Cuban people toward the Americans and their music. In addition to the orchestra’s performance at Havana’s Mella Theatre, “We went to four schools and I was so touched by their musicality,” Henriquez says. “But I started noticing that they didn’t have instruments, so I put a committee together with a couple other folks that went to Cuba, and now there’s an organization called Horns to Havana. We’re going to start trying to go to Cuba and give master classes and have people donate instruments.”

Whether that can happen depends very much on which way the political winds blow. If the embargo should be lifted and the cultural doors reopened, there’s no telling what sort of creativity may result. But then a new challenge might face Cuban artists: retaining the purity that’s resulted from decades of isolation in the face of outside influences. “We Americans are so used to seeing McDonald’s and Starbucks,” says Henriquez. “The beauty of Cuba is they don’t have that. I think [Cuba’s purity] will be lost if they don’t maintain its value.”

“There are a lot of cultural- and paradigm-changing agendas,” O’Farrill adds, “but it all gets turned to dust when you see the beauty and the grace of the human spirit overcoming adversity. That, to me, is why [playing in Cuba] is such an important message: They get to understand what America is about through our music.”

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