Viva Xalapa!: Jazz in Mexico

The Mexican city played host to Latin America’s first jazz education conference

Jazz in Mexico

To most of the world, Latin jazz is either Afro-Cuban or Brazilian. Few listeners would associate it with Mexico, whose best-known musical export remains mariachi. Do Mexicans even care about jazz?

That question was answered for me in October, when I arrived in Xalapa—the capital of Veracruz and one of Mexico’s artiest, most culturally rich cities—for Latin America’s first Congress of Jazz Education, a milestone in jazz history. Jazz professors and students from several countries gathered for four days of lectures, workshops, jamming, and networking. The event was spearheaded by pianist Rafael Alcalá, director of the Center of Jazz Studies at Xalapa’s Universidad Veracruzana. “Our students need to know what is going on in different parts of the world and to know they are not alone in the search,” he explained.

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Thanks largely to the internet, the Mexico City-based jazz station Horizonte 107.9 FM, and occasional visits by American greats, jazz in Mexico has gained a mystique. “The scene here is really growing,” said saxophonist Tim Mayer, who traded a position on the Berklee faculty for a new life as a UV professor. “It’s not just the number of musicians, but the level of interest all over the country.”

In recent years, every Mexican state has had a jazz festival. From 2011 to 2014, guitarist and educator Armando Núñez Portillo curated one in Chihuahua. “We had at that time the most corrupt government we’ve ever had,” he told me, “but it gave money to the best jazz festival we ever had. We brought in Joshua Redman, Joe Lovano, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Eddie Gómez. Young people were exposed to that level of jazz.” The Congress, he added, “is going to change their lives. They’ve never heard so many guys their age who are playing at such a high level.”

To young Mexican musicians, jazz is cool. But they’ve learned that it’s an uphill battle, fueled only by ironclad determination. During the Congress, members of Xalapa’s BlahBlah! Jazz Trio were busy shaking hands and handing out press kits. Bassist Charly Rodriguez had started out as a classical student, but jazz won his heart; he revels in “the freedom of expression of this music, in which you can leave your mark every time you play.”

Some bands, like La Manta and Tlacuatzin, mix jazz improvisation with such Mexican styles as son jarocho and son huasteco; others stay straight-ahead. Prior to Xalapa I’d visited Mexico City, the Manhattan of Mexican jazz. The most popular of its half-dozen jazz clubs is Parker & Lenox, a dark, spacious hangout for hipsters and yuppies. Most of them talk more than listen, but on the night I went, hearty applause greeted the Mariana Terroba Gypsy Project, a group of youngsters who perform Django Reinhardt-era standards with remarkable accuracy and spirit. Terroba, a talented singer, had fallen in love with jazz thanks to Sarah Vaughan: “Her ‘Misty’ was an open door for the beauty that jazz would bring into my life.”

The history of Mexican and American jazz is explored on bopspots.com, a blog maintained by Estefanía Romero, a young jazz researcher and lecturer based in Mexico City. “Jazz keeps me alive,” she said. “It’s so deep. It keeps you thinking and following the rhythm.” In the ’40s, Mexican bandleaders and arrangers began poring over American jazz records and absorbing their influence. As star jazzmen proliferated, critic Roberto Ayala set out on a quest to record them. The results are captured on the two-CD set Jazz in Mexico: The Legendary 1954 Sessions (Fresh Sound). Most of the players—saxophonist Héctor “The Arab” Hallal, trumpeter César Molina, Art Tatum-loving pianist Pablo Jaimes, big-band drummer Tino Contreras—remain unknown outside the country. But the space-age, Mexican-flavored orchestra of Esquivel became a lounge-music favorite in the States; he even opened for Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas. In the ’80s, Sacbé, a Weather Report-inspired fusion band, also gained some stateside renown.

By then, Universidad Veracruzana had launched its own jazz group, Orbis Tertius. In 2000, the college began offering workshops; eight years later its jazz school, JazzUV, was born. According to Mexican drummer and professor Rodrigo Villanueva, “Young people from 25 states of Mexico come here not only to study the music but to create ensembles and jam. The result  is a true social movement.”

At jam sessions held nightly in the university cafeteria during the Congress, students flexed their muscles alongside some of the best players in Latin America. All of them, said the BlahBlah! Jazz Trio’s drummer, Abraham Díaz, shared “the common target to get better and better in this music.” Jatziri Gallegos, a jazz singer and teacher, organized a vocalists’ open-mic at the downtown cabaret and restaurant La Culpa, run by Mercedes Boullosa, an actress and artist as charismatic as an Almodóvar heroine. There, Gallegos sang a sultry “What a Diff’rence a Day Made” (originally a Mexican ballad) in both Spanish and English, adding a scat solo. Two young women, Galia Delgadillo and Sofia Nahomi, turned “The Nearness of You” into a loving duet. One of Gallegos’ students, Jorge Sepúlveda, felt his way through “My Funny Valentine,” which neither he nor his pianist quite knew; it had the tension of a tightrope walk. “I told him the importance of just going with the music, no matter what,” Gallegos said.

Throughout the Congress, many young musicians mimicked their American heroes. But Javier Vargas, the Dominican guitarist who heads the conservatory at the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, urges his students to honor their roots. “In the end,” he said, “people will judge you on how original you are. There will always be great bebop players from the U.S., but you will not hear any of them playing over a merengue beat. We want to offer something where people can say, yeah, that’s Afro-Dominican jazz.”

The Congress ended with a concert that gave dozens of teachers and students their moments to shine. JazzHouse Collective, an acclaimed nonet of young Mexicans, blended tight hard-bop arranging with jaunty rhythms from their home states. Puerto Rican guitarist Isaac Lausell, a professor at Southern Illinois University, played cool, shimmering lines in the Pat Metheny/John Scofield tradition. David Smith, an American saxophonist who teaches in Chiapas, brought back the golden age of East Coast modern jazz with his juicy, swaggering alto sound.

Smith knows what’s percolating in Xalapa. “Students are coming here and seeing the possibilities. For them to dare to believe that certain things are possible, to think that’s part of the human spirit—they’re gonna bring that excitement back to where they live and try to make it happen there.”

Top photo: Students perform in the Universidad Veracruzana lounge. (Photo: James Gavin)