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Back Roads Beat

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

By Published: January 30, 2008
"It's in this bar that after his arrival in Mexico Chico O'Farrill met most of the musicians he hired for his big band. With Tommy on tenor sax and Chilo on trumpet, the house band included Pablito Jaimes on piano, Fernando El Jarocho Sandoval on bass and Luis El Patito Vargas on drums. In the Jazz Bar were also the tropical band Mangue and a dance act led by El Gran Fellove, the great Cuban scat pioneer. The popularity of this jazz band was reflected by the Mexican film Industry of that time in camera appearances and performances like in the present film 'Locos Peligrosos' (Crazzy and Dangerous) of 1957 with Germán Valdéz 'Tintan,' Luis Aguilar, Yolanda Varela, Paco Malgesto and Manuel 'Loco' Valdez."

But popularity was a relative thing as most jazz players found little acceptance among fellow citizens of a country where official music study plans "can still consider Stravinsky a sinner," according to Derbez

"All along this secular history, Mexican jazz players and composers have had to fight against prejudice and commonplaces: Jazz is music for and made by savages; jazz has to be played by black musicians, if not, it is not jazz; jazz is the music of a whorehouse; jazz is music of drug addicts, of imperialists, of insane fellows, of old men; Mexican jazz does not exist and has not existed," he said.

Mexican jazz "has not really interested those who have written about jazz in Mexico," he said. Musicians constantly struggled to find places to play, against politicians and other musicians resenting their work, to earn "unimaginable bad salaries," and with "ridiculous" distribution and promotion of recordings. Academic musicians wanted it suppressed in Mexico City during Beethoven's anniversary because they found it "as offense as the automobile horns." Jose Vasconcelos, the country's first secretary of public education, sought to forbade it altogether.

"I prohibited jazz as I prohibited bullfights, because both of them are savage demonstrations," he wrote.

One enigma is why musicians from other Latin countries such as David Sanchez, Chucho Valdez Jr. and Danilo Perez achieve such popularity in the U.S. while those of similar talent in Mexico don't, Derbez wrote in a preview of the 2001 Cancun Jazz Festival.

"Mexican musicians like the piano players Hector Infanzon and Francisco Tellez, the saxophonist Diego Maroto, the singer and keyboard player Iraida Noriega, the bassist Agustin Bernal could be there, among them," he wrote. "Why not? Has anybody listened to guitarist Francisco Mondragon's CDs with Jaco Pastorius, with Archie Shepp? Does somebody remember Mario Patron, Mexican pianist, and his group — George Joyner on bass and Ed Shaughnessy on drums—at the great 1956 edition of the Newport Jazz Festival? What happens with Mexican jazz upstairs?"

More promising developments—sort of—exist today, Derbez wrote in an article appearing about the same time as his lecture.

"The last ten years have seen an explosion of Mexican music groups and soloists," he wrote, but it "is inversely proportional to the spaces and places radio exclusively devoted to jazz."

The festival scene is reasonably active, including the EuroJazz Festival and the Mexico City Jazz Festival each spring in the country's largest city, and the Acapulco Jazz Festival in November. A few other events similar to the Riviera Maya Festival take place in resort towns or places like Baja California, although some have disappeared recently. The Cabo Jazz Escape in San Miguel canceled its December 2006 event due to a lack of sponsor funding and the Rosarito International Jazz Festival in Baja was put on hold in October due to large- scale wildfires in neighboring San Diego (oddly, a laudatory PR-worthy review of it was posted online at a travel site, although details were scarce beyond good-time-was-had-by-all prose).

Mexico's economy is decidedly unbalanced between the haves and have-nots, but organizers of the festival in Playa del Carmen are optimistic for reasons beyond the dollars brought in by the booming tourism industry.

The influx of visitors also means a boost in the working population, although much of that is also temporary or constantly changing, said Ines De Valicourt, the festival's co-producer. As a result, most bands are only a few years old and don't have the decades-long cohesion of a group like Tower Of Power, but they bring strong modern influences from the outside world with them.

"The bands take some influence from the bands of the States and they put it together with the music the young people only listen to now—the rock, the electronic," she said.

Mar Cigumala, manager of the local band Aguamala that opened the festival, said the mix of working immigrants from Central and South America, longtime residents and tourists from countries worldwide has resulted in a greater acceptance of musical diversity.

"They open their arms to anything," she said. "There's so many cultures here."

Braking Barriers

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