A jazz night in Havana

Havana's captivating, sultry allure extends far beyond its rhythmic salsa beats, whose intoxicating sound might be all too iconic and inviting but there is a more soulful way to navigate through Cuba's musical talent. I'm talking about Jazz and in Cuba this music genre doesn't take a back seat to salsa, in fact it at times outshines the former. Cuban Jazz is actually one of the very best in the world and on this blog I invite you to get to know it a bit closer and find out where to be enjoy the finest Cuban Jazz during your time in Havana.

A jazz night in Havana

Many of Havana's most fascinating moments are those spent in Havana's jazz night clubs. La Zorra y el Cuervo (The She-Fox and the Raven) and Jazz Cafe, are the most suitable ones to listen through a sonorous clef, to a fair share of the mystic and spiritual world of the XXI century Cubans.

Thus, I hereby welcome you to make the first move, that will help us walk unbiased through the wonderful door of Cuban jazz.

Suppose I turn on the gramophone and we listen to Bacalao con Pan (Bread and Cod), one of Irakere's (Irakere; famous Cuban band, its name meaning "vegetation" in Yoruban tongue) famous songs from the late 1970s. A while after, I'll invite you to come out and disclose Havana's night; chatting, just as if we were long-time friends, on Linea (Line) or 23rd streets, two of Havana's most busy thoroughfares.

The first thing I'd tell you is that there are many "nights" in Havana. Like in any other XXI century large cosmopolitan city, the wild nights of house or techno cohabit here with those of riff, heavy metal's dark undershirts, and those of the romantic voices that lay claim to the time lost in a bolero. This is the first thing you should know.

But there is another very special night; an intermediate one between those previously mentioned, in which opposing features like popular and classic music, a popular dance and a ball, and nerve and subtlety, come together. In this night you can enjoy first hand with some of Cuban music's most renowned masters. This is, the jazz night.

Where to go

If you have ever been to London's Ronnie Scott's or New York's Blue Note and have found them rather expensive; in Havana you may listen to interpreters such as Roberto Fonseca, Harold Lopez-Nussa and Aldo Lopez Gavilan, who have been highly praised in festivals throughout the world, for entry prices of 2 to 10 CUC (1 to 7 pounds).

In La Zorra y el Cuervo, Jazz Cafe and Cafe Miramar (Miramar Cafe), emblematic clubs charged with sounds, you may not only have a nice drink while meeting interesting people; but you may also listen to a vibrant live jam session up to the morning's early hours.

In the Vedado vicinity, precisely on 23rd St., just a few metres away from the Hotel Nacional (National Hotel); La Zorra y el Cuervo bears a demanding programme Monday through Sunday from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. Coming November it will house interpreters such as trumpet player Yasek Manzano y su Grupo (Yasek Manzano and his Group) on the 22nd, saxophonist Carlos Miyares on the 25th, former Irakere vocalist oscar Valdes con su grupo Diakara (oscar Valdes with his Group "Diakara"), on the 28th, and pianist and singer Bellita y su Jazztumbata (Bellita and her Jazztumbata) on the 29th.

Jazz Cafe is a modern club located across from the Hotel Melia Cohiba (Melia Cohiba Hotel) and Havana's Malecon (sea wall), in which you can enjoy a delicious Pina Colada drink and listen every night to interpreters like saxophonist Cesar Lopez and pianist Roberto Fonseca.

But if you prefer a more cosmopolitan and bohemian site, bearing more artists and cool and easy-going people; then you should visit Cafe Miramar on 94thSt. and 5thAve., in the municipality of Playa.

Another site to consider in your outings is the Teatro del Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, (Theatre of the National Museum of Fine Arts) in Old Havana, to the side of Granma Yacht Monument. The concerts frequently programmed in this theatre are more intimate and special, whereas the jazz groups performing here present their new CDs or commemorate an anniversary.

A bit of history

During our stroll we will also talk about the history of Cuban jazz. I'd tell you for example; that among the highlights of Cuban Jazz history, among its truly outstanding moments; are the performances in the New York City of the 1940s, of the Orquesta de Machito y Mario Bauza (Machito and Mario Bauza Orchestra) and that of Dizzie Gillespie teamed up with percussionist Chano Pozo, thus giving birth to what is known as jazz afrocubano (Afro-Cuban jazz).

Dwelling also among the previously mentioned Cuban jazz highlights, is the formation of the Orquesta de Musica Moderna (Modern Music Orchestra) in the early 1960s. Directed by master Armando Romeu, this orchestra welcomed many of the best musicians of the time, some of which later founded the Irakere band in 1967. Among them, was the great pianist Chucho Valdes.

But if we are to talk about Irakere, we'd better light a cigarette or have a tea in Cuba Libre (Free Cuba), one of the many private cafes which have been opened in Havana during the last three years.

Chucho Valdes' band was a delirious explosion of musical fusion on the island's sky, whose roster bore brilliant instrumentalists like Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D' Rivera and Carlos del Puerto. The band "internationalized" Cuban jazz, upon their spectacular performance in New York City's Newport Jazz Festival in 1978.

Cuban jazz has never looked back since then. The 1980s witnessed the emergence of world-wide first degree level artists like Emiliano Salvador, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Hernan Lopez-Nussa and the Afrocuba group; only to attend three decades later to the birth of young jazz performers bearing a very high technical level, as a result of the academic rigor of the music schools created by the Cuban revolution from its very beginning.

Jazz Festivals in Havana

We could go on talking for hours, but at this stage of our stroll, I'd rather recommend you not to miss the two most important festivals that take place in the island during the months of November and December; the Jojazz and the Festival Internacional Jazz Plaza (International Jazz Plaza Festival).

Jojazz is a revolutionary contest for young jazz exponents, which has propelled gifted performers like drummer Yissi Garcia, bass player Gaston Joya and vibraphone player Tamara Castaneda to international heights.

Founded by master Bobby Carcasses in 1980, the Jazz Plaza - as Cubans know it - is a true multicultural festivity which expands jazz into theatres and outdoor areas throughout the city.

Thanks to this festival, we've been able to enjoy all along, of an unparalleled musical dialogue between Cuban masters and jazz myths like Gillespie himself, Max Roach, Charlie Haden, Airto Moreira, Ronnie Scott and Tete Montoliu.

Well, having given these recommendations, we'd surely concur on the fact that bearing this information, or knowing about Cuban jazz in theory, is not enough. Cuban made jazz is creativity, refined technique and festivity of the senses. Listening to it, is a genuine gift not only because it enables you to travel to the authentic essences of the genre in New Orleans - those that we all acknowledge - ; but also because of its mixture of Latin and Caribbean rhythms and its attachment to the variety of Cuban traditional music like son, mambo or danzon; that turn it into a cocktail you'll never forget.

Having ended our stroll, we are seated in the bar we have selected. The show is about to begin and showing complicity, we look at each other in the eyes and raise a toast to our health... and to that of Cuban jazz.

I recommend

In Havana; the shows of Ruy Lopez-Nussa y la Academia, and Roberto Carcasses y su Trio Salvaje, in Cafe Miramar, on the corner of 5th Ave. and 94th St., in Miramar, Playa, beginning at 10 p.m.).

Back home; Irakere's CD "Misa negra" (Black Mass), Gonzalo Rubalcaba's CD "Supernova" and Leonardo Acosta's Libro Cubano Be Cubano Bop: One Hundred Years of Jazz in Cuba; all available in Internet.

Marcel Lueiro

Marcel Lueiro

Gramophone Operator

As if he were standing in front of a gramophone in an old bar in Havana, Marcel Lueiro uncovers and...

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