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The Genres: Jesse “Chuy” Varela on Latin Jazz

Eddie Palmieri
Eddie Palmieri (photo: Joel Meyerowitz)

“How can you call my music Latin jazz!” the late Mario Bauzá barked at me in an interview in the 1980s. I was a neophyte radio deejay in the San Francisco Bay area and had finally tracked down the godfather of what I considered to be Latin jazz, and here he was scolding me for using the term.

“What I do is Afro-Cuban jazz. There’s 27 countries in Latin America and each has its own music. My music is not from there; it’s from Africa,” he said. As blunt as it was, his message shared an important perspective about the 20th-century graft of jazz and Latin rhythms. “Two branches of the same tree,” he said about the hemispheric fusion he helped pioneer.

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