Friends had told me to expect music everywhere I went in Havana: in the bars and clubs, coming out of doorways, windows and taxis, an outpouring of Latin polyrhythms that went on all day and night, like a soundtrack. What I hadn't expected to find, though, was the vast amount of jazz played by musicians of the highest calibre, both oldtimers and youngsters alike.
The jazz scene in Havana is spearheaded by two state-owned clubs, The Jazz Cafe, and La Zorra y El Cuevo (The Fox & The Crow). Of equal importance are the Havana Jazz International Festival (held annually every year since 1980) and Caliente! (a smaller, more local-oriented but equally swinging get-together). A Swiss company, Sound Managers, co- produces the latter event with the Cuban Musical Institute.
In recent years the week-long International Festival has featured the likes of Herbie Hancock, Chucho Valdez, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Chano Dominguez (Spain). Some dynamic female bands have been headlined as well, such as Clarisa y Las Diabalitas and a group from Germany.
The four-day Caliente! fest has offered the work of various salsa and Latin Jazz bands, plus hot DJs and dance troupes from the Tropicana nightclub.
The Jazz Cafe is located in Havana's first shopping mall, up on the third floor overlooking the malecon (waterfront). The first part of the evening is given over to food, drink and recorded music (not necessarily jazz). The club offers a live band at about 11 pm. Most of the bands are native, with names like Diakara and Top Secret, but occasionally jazz bands from abroad play here, like the Canadian group Wishworld.
The hottest jazz club in town is without doubt The Fox & The Crow. Its manager, Tony Orlando, is Cuban-born but has spent much time in the USA, dealing with the agents and managers who supply the International Festival with talent. Orlando also writes about jazz in Cuban periodicals, hosts a Sunday night jazz show on Radio Cadena Habana, and introduces the bands at The Fox & The Crow, both in Spanish and English. The man is a veritable dynamo.
There is a seven-dollar cover charge at Orlando's club, but food and drink are reasonableand the music is superb. On the first of my ten nights there I heard a band led by a young pianist, Roberto Fonseca, who blew me away with his fire, virtuosity and drive. Just as remarkable was the 21-year-old alto saxophonist, Roberto Martinez, who jammed with Fonseca, then led his own band a few nights later.
Both of these up-and-coming stars studied at the government-sponsored Fine Arts Institute and are proud children of the Cuban Revolution.
During my stay I heard numerous other exciting groups, notably one playing a horn-led fusion of Madagascaran, Cuban and jazz styles that was so infectious and captivating that half the audience got up and danced.
The road to contemporary Afro-Cuban jazz runs through artists like Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Perez Prado and Machito, who in 1947 influenced such stateside musicians as Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie. Other Cuban jazz musicians such as Chico O'Farrill, Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Arturo Sandoval and Chucho Valdez have made major contributions as well.
Orlando told me about a whole slew of younger Cuban players who will soon be making their mark on the jazz world: Elmer Ferrier, Yazek Manzano, Jesus Fuentes, Toni Perez, Alexis Bosch, Mario Hernandez, Toni Rodriguez and Jonge Chicay.
So high is the level of their musicianship, Orlando explained, that many European comapnies come to Havana to record their latest CDs, whether the music is Latin-flavored or not.
The Fox & The Crow is located at Calle 23 and O Streets in the Vedado section of Havana. The music kicks off at about 11.30 pm and goes on until 2 am. No reservations are necessary.
For more information on Havana's jazz festivals, visit Cubarte on the web.