Havana Plaza Jazz Festival 2011: US Interests Section Jazz Party

Louis Heckheimer By

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27th Havana Plaza Jazz Festival
Havana, Cuba
December 15-18, 2011
[Note: The Havana Plaza Jazz Festival took place in Havana, Cuba from December 15th through the 18th, 2011. This is the first of a series of articles reporting on concerts and other activities that took place as well as profiles of Cuban musicians that took part.]

Jazz has found a home in Cuba due to the close proximity of Havana to New Orleans; documentation suggests jazz was played in Havana as far back as 1916, the year before the first jazz records were made. Jazz bands and clubs were plentiful in Havana from the 1920s until the revolution, and Cuban musicians participated in and influenced American jazz from when Mario Bauza served as musical director for Chick Webb's orchestra up to today, when musicians such as Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval work in the US, and Cuba-based musicians such as Chucho Valdes regularly perform internationally.

On the evening of December 14, prior to the start of The 27th Havana Plaza Jazz Festival, the Chief of the United States Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy, John Caulfield , hosted a party honoring the festival's American participants at Casa Del Pueblo de los Estados Unidos. Constructed in 1940, this magnificent estate first served as the American ambassador's residence but has, since the severing of diplomatic relations, acted as the Chief of the United States Interest Section, which assumes the role of US Embassy in Cuba. Many Cuban performing artists young and old—and both famous and lesser known—were amongst the guests in attendance.

Cuba and the United States have had a fraught political history dating back to before the Spanish-American War in 1898 when, despite of what might have been desired, the United States' political and economic influence became a source of instability in Cuba. The Cuban Revolution of 1953-59 was a consequence of the presence of large American corporations and their Cuban allies, who manipulated the political situation at the expense of the Cuban people, resulting in the breaking of political and economic ties and a decades-old travel ban. Nevertheless, the mutual cultural influences between Cuba and the US have remained ongoing for over 150 years—something seen no more clearly than in the bi-directional influence of American jazz on Cuban music and vice versa.

The two American groups performing at the festival were the evening's guests of honor, including the Berklee Faculty Jazz Quartet (BFJQ) and Arturo O'Farrill Trio. With Caulfield welcoming the guests, after a reception of hors d'oeuvres and cocktails, the BFJQ— alto saxophonist Neil Leonard, pianist JoAnne Brackeen, bassist John Lockwood and drummer Yoron Israel—started the concert. The quartet's first two selections were from Leonard's recent CD, Marcel's Window (GASP, 2011)—"Alex in the Atrium" and "4951 Walnut Street"—followed by the standard, "It Could Happen to You." Leonard stated that although the group went through a lot to get to Cuba, it was a once in a lifetime experience to be playing for two of the founding members of the great Cuban jazz group Irakere (Enrique Platas and Oscar Valdés, sitting in the front row), as well as Carlos Alfonso, director of eclectic Cuban super group Sintesis. Leonard reminisced about these groups' influence on him as a young musician.

Pianist Arturo O'Farrill's Cuban connection came through his father, the great arranger Chico O'Farrill—best known for his work with legends including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. With a trio that also featuredf bassist Carlo De Rosa and drummer Vince Cherico, O'Farrill opened his set with Ernesto Lecuona's "Siboney," followed by an original composition for the pianist's son, "In Who I Will Be Pleased," and—as his father said one should play a little Duke Ellington every day—"Warm Valley."

This is where things started to get interesting, An elderly man in a red and white sport shirt got up and began tap dancing, while several other elderly couples followed, beginning a slow lindy hop. When thinking of the 1930s and '40s in America, those not dancing the lindy to Glenn Miller were probably doing the rhumba to Xavier Cugat. Although Latin dancing was exported from Cuba to the US, few know that young people in Cuba were listening to American jazz and swing, and making it their own. The dancers at Casa Del Pueblo were members of a dance group, Los Bailadores de Santa Amalia who have been dancing together since the 1950s.

With so many young Cuban jazz musicians standing around, "Perdido" signaled the time for a jam session, with O'Farrill's trio at the core. Trumpeters Yasek Manzano, Alejandro Delgado, Edwardo Sandoval, Carlin Gonzalez-Cuerto and twelve year-old Jesus Andiez were among the many musicians drawing a line between Cuba and Harlem, as were trombonist Edwardo Sandoval, saxophonists Ernesto Camilo Vega, Emir Santa Cruz and Michel Herrera, and singer Arletis Valdes.

As the evening came to a buoyant close with the strains of jazz, Caulfield summed things up by noting that three generations of people—young, middle-aged and elderly—had come together that night, and from these generations it's clear that communicating through music breaks down borders. If only everything could be this easy; as O'Farrill said, "If not when, now?"

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