Hot Havana Nights: Report from Jazz Trip to Cuba

Wayne Corey writes about his recent Havana Jazz Experience trip with JazzTimes and Insight Cuba

A crowded basement room ’round midnight. Dim lights. Smoke hangs near the low ceiling. Hands fly over congas. Hot Latin rhythms. The scene is Havana’s famed La Zorra y el Cuervo. For lovers of Afro-Cuban jazz, it doesn’t get any better.

Music is everywhere in Cuba. You may hear a string trio at breakfast, a quartet playing son at lunch and a Buena Vista Social Club-influenced vocal, guitar and percussion trio with dinner. Multi-piece groups play on curbsides. Schoolchildren and neighborhood bands play for visitors. And in jazz clubs hot bands start late at night and go for hours. Music remains the universal language in Cuba.

Jesus Fuentes blows at Havana’s noted La Zorra y el Cuervo nightclub. Jesus Fuentes is a jazz musician, bandleader & record producer.
By Wayne Corey
Havana musicians play for breakfast, lunch and dinner at local restaurants.
By Wayne Corey
Drummers, dancers and singers entertain at a Havana street market.
By Wayne Corey
Writer Wayne Corey across from the home of famed Afro-Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdes.
Havana’s most famous jazz nightclub, La Zorra y el Cuervo, with its “phone booth” entrance.
By Wayne Corey

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Havana jazz is thriving. The musicians are remarkably prolific. In spite of the bad economic conditions—and Cubans are very poor by U.S. standards—music and all of the arts flourish in Havana. In a socialist society where all education is free, dedicated musicians continue to innovate and expand on the Afro-Cuban jazz legacy. That was true in the years before the revolution. It remains true today, 50-plus years later.

The Obama administration and the Cuban government approved the startup of small “people-to-people” programs in late 2011. JazzTimes endorsed the Havana Jazz Experience from InsightCuba, a subsidiary of the non-profit Cross Cultural Solutions. CCS is an organization with years of leading American volunteers to Third World countries. The Havana Jazz Experience for our group of 16 combined a week of music with a week of interaction with Cuban organizations and citizens, including musicians. Participants heard some predictable propaganda from neighborhood groups (CDRs or “Committee to Defend the Revolution”) and national offices. Our days were 12-14 hours. They started early and ended very late in a nightclub.

We heard some of the exciting newer generation of Cuban musicians who have learned from some still-amazing elders as they all create a music scene that brings listeners from around the globe into packed clubs. Seemingly absent from audiences at major clubs, however, are numbers of Cuban citizens. Cover charges at La Zorra y el Cuervo and Jazz Café can reach up to $10 U.S. That’s cheap in the States but big money for jazz-starved but impoverished Cubans.

The influence of the iconic band Irakere remains strong in Havana’s jazz culture. Renowned pianist Chucho Valdes still lives in Havana, plays local gigs and tours at 70. His keyboard technique has had an unmistakable influence on numerous younger players. Original Irakere percussionist Oscar Valdes leads his group Diakara at Havana’s top clubs. Oscar’s influence on young percussionists is obvious. Arturo Sandoval’s chops can be heard in many of today’s young Cuban trumpet players.

Havana’s jazz isn’t all Afro-Cuban, however. Some remarkable variations, often utilizing but not showcasing Latin percussion, can also be heard. AireDconcierto is a strong young Cuban group beginning to receive some international attention. Sounding straight-ahead on a club date, albeit with an unusual instrumental mix, the band’s “Conclarinete” CD borders on chamber jazz. The personable leader Janio Abreu Morcate has a clarinet tone often reminiscent of a younger Paquito D’Rivera. Morcate also plays tenor sax and piano but the clarinet is his primary instrument. Joel Lafont Castillo, the band’s other front man, plays clarinet, alto clarinet and alto sax. With clarinet and alto clarinet often sharing leads, the group has a sound that is unique and highly identifiable. The reed players with bass player Miguel E. Veliz Fonseca and drummer Alain Ortiz Samada compose much of the group’s music that shows an unmistakable classical influence.

Harold Lopez-Nussa comes from a noted Cuban music family, draws crowds to clubs in Havana and tours internationally. Lopez-Nussa’s music is also notably influenced by his classical training. Rember Duharte remains based in Havana but has developed an international reputation. Lopez-Nussa and Duharte were each featured on 90 Miles, the acclaimed 2011 CD and documentary project from Concord Picante led by Christian Scott, Stefon Harris and David Sanchez. Yadasny Portillo and Cauce is a young band drawing enthusiastic crowds in major Havana clubs. Pianist Portillo leads a group that can include two trumpets, tenor and alto sax, bass and an array of percussion. The result is a hot Afro-Cuban sound that can swing hard.

The Havana jazz scene is strong. After just a few nights of listening a visitor concludes Cuba’s musicians are almost stunningly skilled and marvelously trained. Generations of poverty have not sapped the spirit. The desire to create, to innovate and to be heard is intact and flourishing. It is a great shame that the average Cuban cannot afford the “luxury” of hearing this music in the clubs. It is equally sad that too many of these musicians cannot leave their island nation to be heard elsewhere. For their sake and ours, I wish them freedom.

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