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Back Roads Beat

The 2007 Riviera Maya Jazz Festival: Almost Free For You Today

By Published: January 30, 2008
The outcasts were the national military band, sent north by the government to the 1884 Cotton Fair, said Alain Derbez, a saxophonist and author of the book "Jazz In Mexico," during a lecture at the 2002 Guelph Jazz Festival in Ontario. They made a major and generally overlooked contribution to the birth of jazz there.

"Some of these 'soldiers' had to stay there and work and never went back," he said, "some of them taught music to young guys that would turn, with the years, (into) jazz protagonists."

Mexico's earliest music was played on flutes, drums and whistles by indigenous tribes, according to a history written by Camille Collins of Mexico Connect magazine. Spaniards later introduced violins, guitars and other instruments intended for church masses, but Mexicans of Spanish descent known as criollos began playing popular music — including the first mariachis — with them during the 19th century, to the chagrin of priests. The criollos spent the latter part of the century dong "all they could to wipe out every last trace of the Spanish presence in Mexico," with one result being a flourishing in the popularity of mariachis. The Mexican revolution from 1910 to 1917 resulting in many being let go from haciendas, leaving them to wander from "town to town singing songs of revolutionary heroes and enemies, carrying news from one place to another." They slowly regained popularity during the next few decades, but to maintain commercial viability found themselves adding elements of waltzes, polkas, Cuban and jazz to their music.

While such influences meant things such as trumpets replacing traditional instruments, Mexico was hardly perceived as a nucleus of jazz. Half a century after the military band exile, Artie Shaw went a self-imposed exodus south of the border when he couldn't take the fame from his 1939 chart-topping hit "Begin The Beguine."

"I wanted to retire from the planet, not just music," the legendary clarinetist said. When he returned to the U.S. a year later he achieved another hit with an arrangement of "Frenesi," one of his favorite Mexican songs.

Major names are associated with Mexico throughout jazz's history, including Scott Joplin's composition "Mexican Ragtime," Charlie Mingus' death in Cuernavaca, rock guitarist Carlos Santana being the only Mexican jazz player in Joachim Berendt's "Book of Jazz," and drummer Antonio Sanchez becoming a member of the Pat Metheny Group and playing with a who's-who roster of modern icons such as Chick Corea, Charlie Hayden and Chris Potter. But Derbez, referring to such names in his lecture, said Mexico's jazz history is far deeper than high-profile highlights mostly relevant to the U.S. scene.

Among the historical nuggets: the Belen Jazz Band playing during the 1920s in a prison where they were kept with their audience; pliano master Mario Patron conducting his group successfully at the Newport Jazz Festival during the '50s; pianist Juan José Calatayud playing baroque and jazz long before Jacques Loussier brought his concepts from France; saxophonist Henry West and pianist Ana Ruiz teaming with Don Cherry to introduce free jazz to Mexico City during the 1970s.

A landmark date is March 5, 1954, according to Fresh Sound Records, distributor of the Jazz In Mexico: The Legendary 1954 Sessions double CD. It was "the day on which well-known jazz critic Roberto Ayala organized and produced the first recordings of jazz to be recorded in the country by Mexican musicians as pianists Mario Patrón, Pablo Jaime, saxophonists 'El Arabe,' Tommy Rodriguez, Román López, trumpeter César Molina, bassist Vicor Ruiz Pasos, and drummer Tino Contreras. From among all these jazz musicians Ayala made a rigorous selection of the most outstanding, the most authentic, to take part in the recording sessions."

Numerous early videos of jazz performances exist at Web sites such as YouTube, including one below at a Mexico City club (the host page links to numerous other clips and Web resources). According to its narrative, "jazz was at its peak in Mexico when Mexican pioneer jazz musicians Tommy Rodriguez and Chilo Moran co-founded in December 6 of 1956 the famous Jazz Bar. Located right under the nightclub Astoria at Nuevo León 16 in the Condesa neighborhood in Mexico City, it quickly became a favorite hang out for writers, politicians, musicians and jazz fans."


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