Hot Jazz in Cold Wars

havana—“The next performance will be Tightrope,” says the announcer, “who will play 100-percent improvised jazz.” Free jazz. Oh no. Two hours into the second night of Havana’s International Jazz Plaza …

Brian Fitzgerald/Courtesy of Greenpeace

havana—“The next performance will be Tightrope,” says the announcer, “who will play 100-percent improvised jazz.” Free jazz. Oh no. Two hours into the second night of Havana’s International Jazz Plaza Festival, an onslaught of wild, shapeless sound is about to be unleashed on my ears. Tightrope, a Toronto-based band, looks like a crossbreed of punk rockers and music geeks: the black-clad drummer, Stich, has his hair shorn off at the sides while the trumpeter, “Brownman,” a.k.a. Nick Ali, is sporting mismatched nylon pants and wire-framed spectacles.

Then Stich rips open the set with a cooking drum solo, all straight beats and hard funk. The bass player, a local hired gun who looks better suited to background dancing for Britney Spears, lays sharp lines of low sound on top of the drums, building a fierce rhythm, bar by bar, that gets necks bobbing. Brownman brings in tart hits of trumpet, trading notes with the melodic hooks of his brother, Marcus, who is blowing the alto sax beside him. The audience is grooving now—Brownman and his boys have the jazz fanatics in the theatre, myself included, diving deep into their infectious sound, twisting and blowing and beating into the Cuban night.

Cuba has always been integral to the jazz world, acting as an island crossroads for Iberian sounds and African slave rhythms. When American jazz first flowed out of the Delta blues into the swinging sound of New Orleans, the great pianist Jelly Roll Morton said that the music had a “Spanish tinge”—a sound straight from nearby Havana. In Cuba, jazz developed by marrying instrumentation with African rhythms, paralleling the country’s syncretist Santeria religion, which melded Catholicism and Yoruban-deity worship. Cuban musicians began coming to New York in the 1930s, trading notes with the big bands of Benny Goodman and Dizzy Gillespie and leaving behind a legacy of rhythm-heavy, primal sounds. American musicians, for their part, would jet down to Havana in the winter, soaking in the casinos, clubs, and dance halls of the swinging city before returning stateside. Out of this cultural cross-pollination arose the International Jazz Plaza Festival, which for the past three decades was where American superstars like Herbie Hancock and Roy Hargrove jammed with Havana’s greats.

Traditionally, dozens of musicians from the United States have performed at the festival. But for the past two years, the horns of Hargrove and his compatriots have been absent from the Havana night. This year only two Americans, Byron Motley and Lola Pfeiffer, are representing the birthplace of jazz, thanks to new travel restrictions imposed (in a nod to Miami’s Castro-hating Cuban exiles) by the Bush administration in June 2004. Those wishing to play at the festival must either risk fines and prosecution by sneaking in via a third country or obtain a special licence from the US Treasury Department.

But Americans’ loss has been Canadians’ gain. The Bush administration’s policy has allowed bands such as Tightrope to vault into headlining gigs. This year, six groups schooled in American-style jazz but carrying Canadian passports played to large crowds, and Canadian acts comprised a bigger share of the international roster than any other country.

After Brownman and his band wrap up their set to a raucous ovation, they head to a reception thrown by the Canadian embassy in the courtyard of a nearby hotel. Aged rum, cigars, and good cheer are everywhere. As a blues band from Ottawa called Quarter Life peppers the air with the first strains of the Hockey Night in Canada theme, Brownman chats excitedly by the bar with the Canadian ambassador to Cuba, Alexandra Bugailiskis. I amble into the conversation.

“So,” I ask the ambassador, “do you think Canadian musicians are getting better exposure because the Americans can’t get here?” She concedes politely that, yes, “maybe it’s given us a little bit of an advantage,” then offers a nice diplomatic footnote about cultural exchange and how welcoming the Cubans are to our musicians.

Brownman is more forthcoming. “It is, straight up,” he says. A late-twentysomething Manhattan School of Music-trained musician and relentless self-promoter, Brownman retains a certain boyishness, evinced by those nylon pants and his nickname, a direct reference to his skin colour (he was born in Trinidad). He has been coming to Cuba since 2002 and is certain that the absence of an American contingent has opened doors for Europeans and Canadians. He misses the Americans, though, particularly the jam sessions he used to have with his idols, Hargrove among them. “I wonder if the overall calibre is good enough. I mean, we’re great,” he says humbly, “but other [Canadian] acts aren’t happening.”

Singer Sarah DeLuca, a chanteuse from Ottawa, opened the Tightrope show. Though she may have received an assist from Florida campaign politics in landing the booking, she deserved every second on stage, delivering subtle acoustic guitar work and romantic piano that traced lovely melodies around her words. As with most of the Canadian acts at the festival, the Cuban audience ate it up. “When you’re here, you see how good it is,” she said afterwards. “The bar is set very high.”

José Dos Santos López, a Cuban jazz aficionado and music critic who produces the daily radio show Jazz Corner, is grateful for Canada’s jump to the top spot. “Canadians have become pinch-hitters,” he says from his air-conditioned office in the mansion that houses the Cuban journalists’ union. “This is the tip of what will become bigger jazz relations between Canada and Cuba.”

Recently, he tells me, there has been discussion in the Cuban jazz community of expanding the Jazz Plaza festival to a neutral country where American musicians can again lend their talents. Some lean toward the Dominican Republic, but many others have suggested Canada, where more and more of the island’s musicians are now going to play and record. Cuban music travelled a long way to artists like Jelly Roll, Benny, and Diz; today it must go further still.

David Sax
David Sax (@saxdavid) is the author of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter  and The Future Is Analog: How to Create a More Human World. He writes for the New York Times and Bloomberg Businessweek.