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

Mark Sabbatini By

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A free trip to a jazz festival near Cancun, complete with luxury trappings. All I'm expected to do in return is write something about it.

What could possibly go wrong, aside from a few meddlesome skeptics questioning my objectivity?

To them here's my assessment of the 2007 Riviera Maya Jazz Festival: Greatest. Festival. Ever.

Just kidding. A three-day, six-concert festival featuring headline shows by commercial stalwarts Marcus Miller, Tower of Power and George Benson doesn't get that honor unless the junket includes first-class plane tickets. Also, with Mexico's population historically indifferent or hostile toward jazz, the Americanized fusion played by the three regional bands was hardly ideal for capturing the country's underestimated role in the genre's development. Finally, while the rest of the media on the public relations tour mostly raved about the all-inclusive resort and daytime tour activities, I was a magnet for a comedy of mishaps confirming I'm as suited for such places as a milk bucket under a bull.

So this isn't the unabashed puffery our truly hype-worthy hosts are hoping for, but the Riviera Maya festival is a pretty good experience in a pretty good winter destination. In fact, my recommendation for people interested in unveiling the obscurity of Mexican jazz is to stay longer and go beyond the cushion of familiar luxury, something that may be aided by a longer festival in future years.

It all started with an e-mail in my spam box, alongside the impotence and weight loss ads, inviting me to the festival from November 29 to December 1.

"The Riviera Maya is emerging as one of the premiere jazz music events in the Americas. Hosted by the Riviera Maya Tourism Promotion Board, press trip participants will have the opportunity to experience a first-rate line-up for one of the most important musical events. Headlining the Festival will be legendary jazz artist George Benson along with Tower of Power, a group known for their combination of R&B, soul and jazz."

"This fully-hosted trip includes airfare from your nearest gateway city, hotel, stay, all meals and entry fees to attractions in accordance with the itinerary." The festival location, it added, was "named a Top Destination in Mexico two years in a row by Travel Weekly...and is also one of the fastest growing destinations in Mexico."

I've gotten similar pitches before. Last year an invitation to a festival in Cuba turned out to be a chance to pay my way there (and probably get arrested, thanks to U.S. restrictions) like any other visitor. But the Mexico invite was intriguing enough to invest three minutes on an e-mail, since my global tour of unusual jazz spots generally avoids tropical beach areas, which I don't particularly like. I got a response almost immediately from Stephanie Worth of the New York PR firm Adams Unlimited, and a couple of days and a few messages later I was booked for four days near some town called Playa del Carmen.

A little Web research reveals Playa del Carmen was a small fishing village that's now a tourist mecca of about 100,000 about an hour's drive from even more party-hearty Cancun. Featured attractions for the booming number of cruise ship and resort visitors include a lengthy pedestrian mall, lively nightlife scene and, of course, vast turquoise-water beaches.

The jazz festival is on one of the more popular beaches and organizers estimated more than 10,000 people a night might attend the free performances. Each night featured an opening concert by a regional band, none known to me, but one of which has been among the country's premier groups for more than two decades.

"Riviera Maya" refers to a 40-mile tourism district along the main highway from Playa del Carmen to Tulum pueblo, consisting largely of vast all-inclusive resorts, villa rentals, and recreational facilities offering things like scuba diving and jungle ATV riding.

"The resorts are generally secluded, and prevent one from experiencing the sights, sounds, and tastes of the city, and to some extent Mexican culture as well, since you will be surrounded by Western tourists and amenities," Wikipedia's travel guide notes.

No matter, I figured. I was told the city had a jazz club or two, and I figured I could scope out the local scene and learn about jazz in Mexico in general by wandering the less touristy streets during the day, which would also be the perfect opportunity to savor brain tacos and other cheap street food.

But, to quote the ominous forbearing of the awesome $7,000 action flick El Mariachi, I was completely wrong.

'Jazz Is Music For And Made By Savages'

Mexico's first jazz musicians were exiled with one-way tickets to New Orleans, setting the stage for more than a century of local hostility and global indifference toward subsequent players.

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."

"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.


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