Erica von Kleist: Bringing Jazz Horns and Theory to Cuba

Jazz musician shares her passion for jazz and theory with young music students in Cuba

Saxophonist and flautist Erica von Kleist has just come back from a very special music and cultural exchange trip to Cuba, as part of the Horns to Havana program, bringing musical instruments and music to young students in need in Havana. It’s been almost two weeks since she got back but she’s still excited to talk about her time there. “I knew it was going to be a life-changing experience,” she says. “Knowing the power of education and teaching students about jazz, it really outlined their true love of music and their desire to learn more about it.”

Erica von Kleist at Horns to Havana Workshop in September 2011
Erica von Kleist at Horns to Havana Workshop in September 2011

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This was not the young saxophonist’s first time in Cuba. She had performed at the Havana International Jazz Festival in 2000 with a young Latin-jazz group called Insight, featuring the Curtis brothers [Luques and Zaccai] as well as Richie Barshay. She was just 19 years old at the time. “We grew up together in Hartford and we had a band when we were kids,” von Kleist explains. “One of the mentors for that band was Andy Gonzalez [Latin jazz bassist and producer]. Through Andy we got to know the big names in Latin jazz.”

One of those big names was Chucho Valdes, one of the founders of the festival and its longtime artistic director, who invited the group to appear at the 2000 festival in Havana. Needless to say, von Kleist quickly understood that the experience was a unique one for an aspiring jazz musician. “First of all being surrounded by so many amazing musicians like Nicholas Payton and Herbie Hancock—a who’s who of great jazz musicians—was quite exhilarating,” she recalls. Although the group went down to perform at the festival, they also went to one of the arts schools, and so she also learned what Cuban musicians and Cuban people faced. “Getting to know the people there and seeing the surroundings, it was a whole other world from New York City and Connecticut. You have all your creature comforts up here, but down there, it’s a different story.”

The entire experience left an indelible impression on von Kleist, who went on to establish her presence on the NYC jazz scene, both as a leader and a member of groups such as Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society and DIVA. Her debut album Erica von Kleist & No Exceptions, released in 2010, featured several of those same musicians from her early days in Hartford, including Luques and Zaccai Curtis and Richie Barshay, as well as Wynton Marsalis’s pianist Dan Nimmer, vibist Chris Dingman and other emerging players.

Von Kleist initially became involved with the Horns to Havana program through her friendship and performances with Carlo Henriquez and Victor Goines from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The JALC Orchestra recently traveled to Cuba in 2010 and von Kleist says that the musicians in the orchestra were struck by the desperate needs of the young music students down there. “They said, ‘Wow, these kids need instruments. Their instruments are being held together with paper clips and tape. They have no means to fix them, let alone get new ones.’” And two associates of the orchestra, Diane Ward and Susan Sillins, set up the organization called Horns to Havana and not only collected top-notch instruments, but also assembled a group of musicians who wanted to return to Cuba. They called on von Kleist because of her work with those musicians and her past experience in Cuba.

The musicians did not return to Cuba alone or empty-handed. According to a press release received at JazzTimes, the group delivered “a full planeload of musical instruments and nearly another planeload of jazz musicians, luthiers and brass, percussion and woodwind repair technicians to four Cuban music academies for the workshops, clinics and performances scheduled September 4–11, 2011.” Von Kleist says that the organization brought several dozen instruments to young Cuban musicians.

Von Kleist says the response was as dramatic as you might expect. “The students were absolutely thrilled,” she says. “It was like Christmas. For them to see these brand new instruments ready to be played, they were so appreciative.”

The jazz musicians from the U.S. spent nearly all of their time in Cuba doing workshops and clinics with the students. The group went to the Guillermo Tomas Conservatory in Guanabaco, where von Kleist conducted a class specifically for flute students. The group also visited the Cultural Boarding House Complex for Students in Centro Habana and met with students of the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory and the National School of Arts. Von Kleist says that the principle of cultural exchange reigned supreme. “They were really interested in learning more about jazz,” she says. “Carlos and myself and some of the other musicians have played a lot of Afro-Cuban music, but when we were down there on their territory, we didn’t even want to touch that with them, because we know how well they know how to swing when it comes to that type of music. They were happy for us to talk about swing and jazz improvisation to help bridge those gaps.”

For her part, von Kleist I knew it was going to be a humbling experience having been there ten years ago, but she was glad to see that there were some improvements in basic amenities and technology. “A lot has changed since then,” she explains. “There is cell phone service down there now. There is internet access. But it’s still a country slowly getting caught up to the modern world at least in some aspects.”

Because she and the other musicians were so busy working at the schools, they had little time to go out and experience the local music scene in clubs like La Zorra y El Cuervo or the Jazz Café. However, on the first night, the group attended a rumba at a house in eastern Havana. “It was amazing. It was this big party. Everybody was up and dancing. There were all sorts of instruments. The grooves they were playing were really the heart and soul of Afro-Cuban music. To be able to see it in its element, was really special. I don’t want to sound like a cliché but it feels like the entire nation really beats to a rhythm. Everywhere you go you hear the clave and drums.”

Recently, JazzTimes has partnered with the Insight Cuba organization to present legal travel to Cuba for jazz fans to experience Cuban music in a program based on cultural exchange and person-to-person contact. American jazz fans can go on the Havana Jazz Experience trips throughout the year, as well as a special one-time trip in December to the Havana International Jazz Festival.

Von Kleist believes that American jazz fans can learn so much about music and culture from traveling to Cuba. “They can hear the roots of jazz in its most raw and unspoiled form,” she explains. “So much of jazz comes from Cuban music. Cuba and New Orleans are so closely intertwined when it comes to the culture and history. To be able to hear the roots of jazz, the rhythms and the drums, where the vibrancy of jazz comes from—that’s what you can see in Cuban art and music. That’s what a jazz fan would come away with.”

Naturally, von Kleist is hoping to return to Cuba, so that she can continue to give back to younger musicians there. She recently wrote A Cool Approach to Jazz Theory—a jazz theory book for kids that shows kids how to go through and analyze chord symbols on their instruments. “I think it really bridges the gap in jazz education,” she says. “I brought some copies down there with me and the director of the conservatory said that it was exactly what their curriculum needed there. I am hoping to not only have the book translated into Spanish but also do some sort of residency there teaching the students jazz harmony and theory specifically. I think it’s something that’s lacking.”

Regardless of the politics of the embargo and Cuba-U.S. relations, Von Kleist is a believer in cultural and educational exchange. “It’s great that travel regulations have been eased in terms of educational initiatives,” she explains. “That’s what I’d like to be part of—imparting more information about jazz, its theory and history, and the culture of our music with the musicians there in Cuba.”

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