Sunday, February 26, 2006

Spanish Tinge Under an Iron Heel

The Feb. 20th Jazz Week reports: “Puente Jr., Mayfield Contribute to New Film Exploring Cuban Participation Within Negro Baseball Leagues” link here (paid registration req’d if not industry or academic). Their involvement is certainly appropriate given Cuba’s history in the development of jazz.

Cubans were prominent in the development of jazz from the beginning, with a considerable Cuban community in New Orleans at the turn of the century, active in the city’s musical scene. Many early New Orleans band leaders, like Manuel Perez, were of Cuban descent. Jelly Roll Morton himself was influenced by Cuban rhythms, and coined the term “the Spanish tinge” to describe Latin influences in jazz. In the late twenties Cuban Alberto Socarras continued the tradition, practically introducing the flute into jazz.

In the late 1040’s Dizzy Gillespie combined bop, Latin and big band jazz with his Cubop band, featuring electrifying percussion from Chano Pozo. A legendary figure in Cuba, rumored to be involved in voodoo, Pozo’s time with Gillespie was abruptly cut short when he was killed in bar fight in 1948. Their collaboration did yield classic recordings, such as “Manteca.”

Unfortunately, Cuban would fall under the iron heel of dictator Fidel Castro. Like his fellow Communists, the National Socialists, and Apartheid South Africa, Castro banned jazz. At one point, Arturo Sandoval was imprisoned for listening to Willis Conover’s Voice of America jazz program. Sandoval and fellow musicians like Paquito D’Rivera were able to disguise their jazz as traditional Cuban music well enough to fool the authorities, but they couldn’t kid Dizzy. Gillespie always kept an open ear to Cuba, and when he heard Sandoval and associates, he was able to hire them for the big band he led under the auspices of the United Nations. Ultimately, Gillespie helped both musicians to defect to the United States, but many of their associates still live under Castro’s police state.

The 1990’s saw an explosion off interest in Cuban music, following high profile films like Calle 54 and The Buena Vista Social Club. Castro has lifted his foot from jazz’s throat, for the sake of propaganda and hard currency. However, if you’ve been taken in by one of Castro’s Potemkin jazz tourist packages, don’t mention it to NEA Jazz Master Paquito D’Rivera. Ordinarily one of the most affable artists in music, D’Rivera has no love for Castro, and does not mince words in his autobiography My Sax Life. Enjoy the rich sounds of Cuba, but don’t forget the reality of life under totalitarianism. See at the Real Cuba.