Jazz pushes at perceived boundaries and eagerly integrates with other genres. It can be regional, such as New Orleans jazz, Chicago jazz, and Kansas City jazz. It can have defined parameters, as big-band swing and bebop do. There can be subtle blending, as found in cool and modal jazz; rugged individualism, as in hard bop; and extreme dynamics, as in avant-garde jazz, third stream, and free jazz. And then there is the true cross-cultural sound of Latin jazz, which incorporates musical elements from the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking regions of the Caribbean and South America.
The term “Latin jazz” has long been used as a catch-all phrase to describe a variety of musical forms that emerged in the United States. The seeds of these forms were planted in the 19th century and bore their first popular fruit in the musical explorations of Maurice Louis Gottschalk, W.C. Handy, and Jelly Roll Morton (who famously coined the term “the Spanish tinge” to describe a stylistic necessity in jazz). In the 1940s there was further evolution, as musicians like Mario Bauzá, Machito and His Afro-Cubans, Dizzy Gillespie, and Chano Pozo blended jazz harmonies with Caribbean and South American folkloric rhythms. Tito Puente, Antônio Carlos Jobim, Stan Kenton, Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria, and Stan Getz further blazed the trail for Latin jazz and Cuban-inspired jazz explorations.
Just as there is no single music style called “North American jazz,” there is no single style of Latin jazz. It is music without borders, in which the lines of definition can often be blurred and misunderstood. At its core, it’s an amalgam of Middle Eastern, African, and European influences unique to each region from which it has sprung. These different regions all emphasize a rhythmic interlocking of hand percussion and instruments, but they all do so in different ways, which in turn have inspired different vocal and/or dance styles: Argentinian tango; Brazilian samba and bossa nova; Colombian cumbia; Dominican merengue; Cuban rumba, son, mambo, cha-cha, songo, and timba; Peruvian lando, festejo, and marinera; Puerto Rican bomba and plena; and Venezuelan son joropo. Identifying what unites these styles and what separates them, studying their origins and cross-influences, is crucial to understanding how to play, arrange, and appreciate them.
The blending of triple meter and duple meter is a primary building block in the majority of these styles. Depending on which meter you emphasize, the feel of the groove changes dramatically. Clave, an organizational tool primarily used in Latin jazz, is a basic repeating pattern of rhythmic cells such as the three-stroke tresillo (habanera pattern) and the Cuban-based, five-stroke clave pattern. The understanding of its use is vital in arranging and composing in these genres.
A good way of internalizing the duple/triple meter blend is by singing the melody of “Carol of the Bells” while tapping duple and triple meter at the same time on your thighs. Through teaching the exercise below over the years, I’ve found that it’s best learned by building the pattern slowly. Although we’re using the words “Carol the bells” here, any lyrics that fit that rhythm are fine. If you’re left-handed, swap the Ls for the Rs and vice versa.
1) Start out with your weak hand tapping all four beats of the duple meter pattern on your thigh; beats one and three are on the first syllable of “carol” and beats two and four are on the word “the.”
2) Add the first beat of the triple meter pattern (Tri-) with your strong hand on the other thigh. Notice that the two patterns line up on beats one and three.
3) Add the second beat of the triple meter pattern (pi-).
4) Add the third beat of the triple meter pattern (let).
Car – ol the bells Car – ol the bells
R R R R R R
(Tri – pi – let) (Tri – pi – let)
L L L L
(1) (2) (3) (4)
Once you feel able to tap this pattern without singing along, give yourself a further challenge and try holding a conversation while tapping it.
Many books and videos will help you study and learn rhythmic styles—including James Dreier’s Latin Jazz Guide: A Path to Authentic Percussion and Ensemble Performance and John Storm Roberts’ The Latin Tinge—but if you really want to absorb Latin jazz, I recommend studying with a professional percussionist, no matter what your principal instrument is. On a rudimentary level, what you learn from playing a percussion instrument should become a visceral part of your playing and singing experience. Transcribe whenever possible and study percussion solos in particular.
There is no substitute for playing. It may feel awkward at first and you will inevitably resort to muscle memory, but as your vocabulary increases, so will your fluency. On a personal note, studying Latin jazz styles has profoundly affected my overall artistic vision. My hope is that you will be inspired to look at any of these genres and draw inspiration from the journey.