Jazz and Communism? The Perfect Oxymoron

Paquito D’Rivera considers the implications of International Jazz Day 2017

TMIJ/UNESCO International Jazz Day 2016, White House Concert, April 29.
Steve Mundinger/Thelonious Monk Institute

The author (left) embraces trumpeter James Morrison at the White House in 2016

Since its first edition, organized by UNESCO and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in 2012, International Jazz Day has presented and encouraged performances and jazz-education initiatives around the globe. Each year, IJD visits a host city with a grip of the world’s best musicians, to give master classes and perform in an all-star gala concert webcast. For 2017, leading up to the official IJD date of April 30, those players and singers converged on Havana, Cuba. As experienced by JazzTimes, the long weekend was a rousing success that saw plenty of enriching collaboration between a diverse jazz A-list and the exceedingly fertile Cuban scene.

More than anything, these inspired musical interactions came off as a portent of the brilliant things to come if interests of human goodwill were able to supersede politics. Nevertheless, and not surprisingly, the event incited pushback from musicians, especially Cuban-American expats, who questioned the wisdom of rewarding a controversial government like Cuba’s with an important event that employs jazz as a metaphor for democracy and fellowship. We present here a reaction from the renowned clarinetist, saxophonist and composer Paquito D’Rivera, who, it’s worth noting, performed at last year’s IJD concert at the White House, in an ensemble featuring his former Irakere bandmate Chucho Valdés. – JazzTimes

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“I don’t like jazz,” the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev declared in the early 1960s. “I used to think it was static when I heard it on the radio.” That anecdote, among many others, can be found in S. Frederick Starr’s passionate 1983 book, Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union. As a result of his objections, many jazz clubs in the Soviet Union closed, and the official musicologist in the Kremlin was removed from office, to be replaced by none other than Leonid Brezhnev!

In the late 1940s, when Mao captured Shanghai, the city’s musical nightlife ceased to exist, simply because the Communists considered those “decadent” nightclubs antithetical to socialism. A similar argument was made in the early 1970s by José Llanuza, the man chosen by the Cuban government to get rid of the cultural hubs they viewed as dens of iniquity.

In a few words, it is obvious that the music of Armstrong, the Duke, Dizzy, Bird and Goodman has not exactly been the favorite choice of extreme-Left dictators. And that is why I want to extend my gratitude to Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Esperanza Spalding, Antonio Sanchez, Marcus Miller, Regina Carter and others for having brought a bit of music and joy to my impoverished native city of Havana for International Jazz Day—even if it could only mean a small Band-Aid applied to the profound and infected wound that Cuba has suffered during almost six decades of tropical communism. Still, I must confess I was glad to know that jazz—a musical genre for which musicians and music lovers of my generation suffered attacks, censorship and persecution—was present in the streets of (what is left of) Havana. A friend, almost in tears, told me over the phone that she saw Spalding play in a small bar while Quincy listened.

Thanks to contemporary technology—much of it unavailable to the regular Cubans on the island—I was able to enjoy excerpts of the concert webcast, and saw that the interaction between local artists and visiting foreigners reached inspiring levels of excitement. The opening Afro-Cuban chant by vocalist-percussionist Oscar Valdés brought back memories of my younger days in Irakere, and the energetic rendition of “Manteca” was very touching, as was the beautifully articulated and constructed solo by Chilean tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana on a swingin’ “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” with Kurt Elling. It was very refreshing to see the multitalented Bobby Carcassés improvise with Esperanza, who also backed the extraordinary Youn Sun Nah on a unique version of “Bésame Mucho.” The ineffable Richard Bona brought a note of humor with his unique African version of “Bilongo,” and Ivan Lins reminded us about the huge contribution of Brazilians to the jazz language. And what about that impressive parade of great pianists of all ages, from Roberto Fonseca, Harold López-Nussa and John Beasley to Herbie, Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and many more? In other words, I have no doubt that UNESCO and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz put together a really great show in Havana.

On the other hand, one could argue that celebrating music that represents democracy like no other, in a country that hasn’t held truly free elections in well over half a century, is a contradiction: a detail that did not prevent Irina Bokova—director-general of UNESCO and for a long time a member of the Bulgarian Communist Party—from using words such as “freedom” and “human rights” in her opening speech. So the music was great, in stark contrast to some inexplicable statements about peace, tolerance, unity, dignity and respect for the beliefs of others. And it was surreal to hear words of thanks for the hospitality provided by an illegitimate, dictatorial and intolerant government that for over half a century has divided Cuban families (mine included), starved its people and glorified subversion and war around the world while brutally silencing, incarcerating and oppressing those at home who disagree with its tyrannical regime.

Nevertheless, I reiterate my friendship with and admiration for the musicians, and thank once again all my free colleagues from around the globe for their good intentions in my long-suffering homeland. Sadly, as that old proverb states, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”