Back From Cuba: In and Around Havana’s Jazz Plaza Festival

Trumpeters Jesús Ricardo and Adam O'Farrill play during a reception at the U.S. ambassadorial residence in Havana, th night before the opening of  the Jazz Plaza festival. Photo by David Garten

Trumpeters Jesús Ricardo and Adam O’Farrill play during a reception at the U.S. ambassadorial residence in Havana the night before the opening of the Jazz Plaza festival. Photo by David Garten

In November, I ended a four-part conversation-and-music series at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem titled, “NYC: The Afro-Cuban Beat.”

My animating ideas were that to cover great music in New York City means, as much or more now than ever, listening closely to Cuban musicians who live here and to many other musicians who mine Afro-Cuban traditions—and that these rhythms, of hand drums and folklore and dance, course underneath the current New York City jazz scene as surely as the subway courses beneath the city.

Sometimes, my editors ask me why I write so much about Cuban musicians and Afro-Cuban music.

There are the obvious answers: Great music and superior musicianship, period.

Yet also, and more importantly, I’ve worked hard to unravel storylines that say: This is not exotic. There is no “Latin jazz” if there ever was. There is a long and deep cultural history that glues together an entire hemisphere and is still both largely untold and developing new chapters. The section of that story involving the U.S. and Cuba is yet more fascinating (though also disturbing) for its strange and estranged politics, which make it good to write about, and a good metaphor for politics of exclusion and the cultural truths of inclusion.

Also, Cuba (like New Orleans) is one great example of the African root of nearly all music from this hemisphere.

That’s a very long way of saying: My recent trip to Havana woke me up and taught me more. Here’s how I began my piece in The Daily Beast.

A full moon hung low in the Havana sky, looking expectant, the night before a gala mid-December concert opened the 32nd annual Jazz Plaza Havana festival. A reception crowded the courtyard of the U.S. ambassadorial residence, the air spiced with the scent of rum, the sound of music, and a sense of possibilities.

Pianist Arturo O’Farrill sat at a keyboard. That morning, he had carried a wooden box containing the ashes of his father, the celebrated composer and bandleader Chico O’Farrill, to Colon Cemetery. He was bringing Chico—who was born in Havana in 1921 and died in New York City in 2001, and had left Cuba for good in 1959—back home. Now, amid the cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, Arturo was extending the promise that Chico, beginning with his work with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and especially through his landmark “Afro Cuban Jazz Suite,” had mightily advanced—an innate and unbreakable musical connection between the U.S. and Cuba that is less forged than revealed.

The small ensemble O’Farrill led that evening kept shifting in personnel and musical style, befitting this cross-cultural truth. Gregg August, the bassist in O’Farrill’s own Grammy-winning Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, handed his instrument to Darianna Videaux Capitel, a clearly confident 26-year-old female bassist who grew up in Guantanamo. Bebop shifted to bolero when Omara Portuondo, the commanding Cuban singer who gained worldwide fame through her association with Buena Vista Social Club, joined for a song. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, Arturo’s son and a rising star in New York City, traded solos with Cuban trumpeter Jesús Ricardo Anduz, whose brilliant tone and dexterity belied his 19 years; their playful competition spoke of nascent friendship and shared musical dialects. Arturo soon gave way at the keyboard to Fabian Almazan, who would perform as headliner the next night in trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s E-Collective band; he was in Cuba for the first time in 23 years, and had spent the previous week reuniting with relatives he’d last seen when he was nine.

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