April is Jazz Appreciation Month. So let’s show love to one of the most vibrant of jazz styles – Afro-Cuban. Some have called it “Latin Jazz”. However, the originators of the style, such as Mario Bauzá, usually bristled at the generic and watered-down sound of that term.
Another thing that caused many Cuban musicians anguish was the fact that Desi Arnaz, the Cuban born actor and conguero was the face and voice of their music, outside of the island, for many years. This was due, of course, to I Love Lucy, the iconic TV show that Arnaz starred in, throughout the 1950’s, with his then-wife Lucille Ball. Arnaz’s character, Ricky Ricardo, was also a Cuban conguero and the version of Cuban music that he played had been heavily watered down, to make it palatable for a mass audience. The general take on Arnaz, from his fellow Cuban musicians was that he was competent on his instrument, but above all, he was a thief and a sellout. Or, in today’s lingo, a cultural appropriator. Arnaz, a white Cuban, from a wealthy family, had taken the Afro-Cuban ritualistic styles that he had observed in his youth; brought them into his music, without attribution and then sanded off the rough edges. In fact, Arnaz/Ricardo’s signature song “Babalú” was based on music that came from an Afro Cuban religious ritual, in worship of the Santerían deity “Babalú Ayé”, a spirit associated with disease and healing; which has its own origins in the West African Yoruba religion. This is about as far away from Lucy, Fred and Ethel as you can get. Ricky Ricardo ain’t real, people. Everything that we will talk of, from this point forward, is.
So, let’s pay homage to some of the musicians who are the true masters of the genre. We’ll start with a listing of some who were the real influencers and pioneers of Afro-Cuban jazz styles. I’m holding this list to fifteen names, (divided into three posts) with a great deal of difficulty. Yes, I understand the list will be far from comprehensive and that I will leave out many remarkable contributors. But my main objective is to provide a starting point for those who want to learn more, about Afro-Cuban music. All the musicians and groups here are Cubano, with one obvious exception.
Our first five names, in alphabetical order
- Mario Bauzá (1911 – 1993)– Considered one of the fathers of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Style, he was a trumpeter, arranger, composer and bandleader. Bauzá was the first to explore fusing jazz arranging techniques with authentic Afro-Cuban rhythms on a consistent basis. While a trumpet player with Chick Webb, Bauzá first met Dizzy Gillespie and he also recommended Ella Fitzgerald to Webb, helping to give Ella her start. His composition “Tanga” is considered one of the first great tunes of the jazz and Cuban mixture known as “Cubop”
- Buena Vista Social Club (1996 – present) – Originally a popular black club in the pre-Castro, segregated Havana, the name came to represent an ensemble of veteran Cuban musicians, who had been organized by American guitarist Ry Cooder, to revive interest in the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba, in 1996. The album that the group recorded under that name, became wildly successful, as did an accompanying documentary, reviving the late-in-life careers of the musicians, many of whom had retired or had been forgotten. Among the groups’ members were Compay Segundo, Rubén González, Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo.
- Cachao (1918 – 2008) – The nickname of bassist Israel López Valdés, by which he was widely known. He is recognized as the co-creator of the Mambo. He was also considered a master of the Cuban style jam session, known as descargas. Cachao is considered to be one of the greatest bassists of all time, in any genre.
- Celia Cruz (1925 – 2003)– The most popular Latin vocalist of the 20th century and an unequivocal musical legend. Defecting to the U.S. during the Cuban revolution, Ms. Cruz became an unstoppable force in a genre dominated by men. She earned twenty-three Gold albums during her career; there is a high school in the Bronx named after her and she has been honored with a U.S. Postage Stamp.
- Dizzy Gillespie (1917 – 1993) – The only non-Cuban on this list, Diz is here as the bridge between Afro-Cuban music and straight-ahead jazz. He met Mario Bauzá, when both were playing trumpet in Chick Webb’s band; the two became lifelong friends. Bauzá introduced Gillespie to a young conguero named Chano Pozo. Diz was floored by Pozo musical ideas and immediately invited Pozo to join his band. Gillespie, Pozo and Bauzá worked on this stylistic fusion that they called “Cubop”, honing it in NY clubs such as the Palladium and the Apollo Theater. “Manteca” and “Tin-Tin Deo”, which Diz co-wrote with Chano, are considered Afro-Cuban jazz classics.
In Part II of this series, we will define the major categories within the Afro-Cuban Jazz style and identify five more innovators, who you should be familiar with.
In or near Charlotte and want to hear some great Afro-Cuban Jazz, live? Then join us in Jazz Arts Charlotte’s THE JAZZ ROOM, on Friday and Saturday, April 26 & 27; as Johnny Conga and Orlando Fiol, will setting the stage on FIRE, with the authentic sounds of Cuba. For tickets and info, visit the Jazz Arts Charlotte Website www.thejazzarts.com.
Hasta la próxima, el jazz continúa …