Tears of emotion, spontaneous laughter, admiration without any kind of boundaries, enjoyment of Cuban popular dances, exchanges at all artistic levels, delivery of collective virtuosity and teaching how to make jazz a universal message.
That could be the assessment of the weeklong visit to Cuba in October by trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra of New York, which he directs.
There is another result, one perhaps not as evident or proclaimed: the peoples of both nations were able to create an environment of understanding through music, to achieve a useful reciprocal comprehension. The visiting artist was never publicly asked his opinion on the political dispute that Washington has turned into a half century blockade against Cuba. His enthusiasm in sharing with musicians, students and the Cuban audience, his announcement that he will be coming back each year, and his invitation to young Cuban musicians to study at the cultural center sponsoring his trip would perhaps be the best answer. His declared purpose was “to share our music and to learn”. Wynton said “art is the chronicle of humanity, of people…we don’t deal with prejudices, we try to embrace, to be more inclusive”.
Of his preferred field, jazz, he stated “it’s a gorgeous art form, a beautiful genre that seeks to communicate with the rest of the arts, which teaches us to have dignity and respect for ourselves, respect for the individuality of other people and to work with them”.
In his role as promoter of the genre and one of its driving forces, he said that education is not only a way to teach jazz technique, but also “a commitment to the stories, the songs, the rhythms and the people that make music vital”. Nobody could evade the visit The impact of the eight days of intense activity by the northern musicians in Cuba couldn’t have been more relevant.
Four sold out concerts, two visits to special schools in the capital, conferences and workshops, interviews, declarations and reports of their daily activities in all media, selections from one of their concerts aired by the major TV channel and daily attention by the foreign press characterized the unprecedented visit of the US jazz musicians.
The AFP press agency for example, began one its reports with “Wynton Marsalis and his musicians dance salsa in Cuba’s Santeria Mecca; while ANSA reported “Jazz player Marsalis in ´Final Jam´ in Havana”
Reuters, meanwhile, noted “the American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, a living jazz legend, landed in Cuba this week with his orchestra for a historic series of concerts ...” These and other reports agreed in highlighting what Wynton said in his initial press conference: “We raise the spirits of people all over the world through the art of swing.“
Orlando Vistel, vice president of the Cuban Institute of Music, made the evaluation even before the first note sounded: “These concerts, in our opinion, will be considered transcendent …we are confident that after this experience both sides will be musically, culturally, spiritually and humanly stronger.”
According to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s musical co-director, Carlos Henríquez, the trip was intended to “basically follow the bridge” between Cuban and US music that was opened years ago by such important figures such as Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo.
“We must try to continue this relationship so it grows and shows the world how good Cuban, Afro Cuban and jazz music are” said the double bass player of Puerto Rican origin, adding that without Cuban and Afro Cuban music “jazz would never have existed”.
Lincoln Center, the institution promoting the historic trip, has several artistic divisions. The jazz division is directed by Marsalis.
Its Executive Director Adrian Ellis explained that the mission of jazz at Lincoln Center is to help secure a “healthy, vital and vibrant future” for the genre.
“The history of jazz has many other stories within it: collective and individual, on social justice, structure and improvisation and, as Wynton Marsalis says, on tradition and innovation. That’s why we teach jazz, but we also teach its wider meaning”, said Ellis.
The educational activity, for example, comprises an academy for band directors, a large series of concerts for children, jazz curriculum for schools, jazz band competitions for middle school students, festivals and online learning tools. A first result of this unique event was the invitation to Chucho Valdés and his Afrojazz Messengers to perform in New York. He could confirm what pianist Ernán López-Nussa said: “the thing is not to impose one culture on another, but to interweave, to twine, them so something suggestive happens”.
A significant event in the few days of his stay in Cuba was the participation of Wynton Marsalis, together with Chucho, in the recording a song for a future Omara Portuondo album. On welcoming the visiting musician, the great Cuban singer said “music knows no boundaries, it has no distances and nothing separates it. Music has a sensibility common to us all, geography doesn’t matter. That will be forever.” For the Cuban multi-instrumentalist, singer-composer Bobby Carcassés, interviewed by the press, “in my artistic career jazz has meant not only music and a rhythm but also the discovery of a philosophy. That is the philosophy of freedom. With this approach Wynton has shown that he is not only freely improvising, but also making decisions, since here he is with the musicians, and also with our people and history.”
What impressed me about Wynton is his “elegance and sophistication, technical mastery and purity of sound. He is a virtuoso who draws music from air”, added Carcassés. According to Carcassés, Marsalis’ interest in Cuban music and his unbiased attitude toward the Cuban people in part explains his new visit.
His sound message, rooted in New Orleans family and musical roots, is “always loaded with feelings, truths and spirituality.”
Excellent goodwill ambassador
On many occasions and throughout several US administrations, great US jazz players accomplished missions on behalf of the US State Department as cultural emissaries. It’s a way to relieve tensions and open avenues of understanding. Or at least, that’s the way musicians like Dizzy Gillespie understood it. His visits to Cuba in the 1980’s however, had nothing to do with the will of Washington.
Many other musicians traveled on their own, without any official interest, just to satisfy their thirst for cultural knowledge and enrichment, as has now been the case for Wynton Marsalis and, in previous years, for Dizzy, Roy Hargrove, Max Roach, Carmen McRae, Jack Dejohnete and other giants of the genre.