AfroCuban trumpeter.
Photo René Silveira Toledo

The story of the Havana Jazz Festival, aka Jazz Plaza

Cuba’s gift to the global jazz scene

A brief history of jazz in Cuba and the annual Havana International Jazz Festival, founded by Cuba’s Bobby Carcasses and other Cuban musicians in 1979. The first festival venue was Casa de La Cultura Plaza in Vedado, resulting in its original name, Jazz Plaza.

Havana is music

Some cities seem to simply fit to jazz. Tropical, sultry and with an attitude Havana fits the bill.

From first thing in the morning till the last thing at night it pours out of houses, bars and cafes, echoes down narrow alleys, reverberates from balconies, blares from radios, booms from cars and wafts around squares. ‘Where can we hear some real Cuban music?’ incoming innocents ask their taxi driver as they head from the airport into the city. “Where can we not hear it?” might be a more appropriate inquiry.

Jazz is one of the city’s most popular musical forms, and the Havana jazz sound is unique. It is a result of centuries of harmonious mixtures from Africa and Spain, with seasoning from China, France, Italy, Mexico, Argentina, and the United States. The sophisticated outcome appeals to jazz aficionados and musicians the world around. The cross-cultural fertilization enlarges the virtuous circle of continually evolving creative development.

Chucho Valdés at Havana Jazz Festival.
Living legend Chucho Valdés performs at Havana International Jazz Festival. Winner of six Grammy Awards and three Latin Grammy Awards, his career spans 50 years as a pianist, bandleader, composer and arranger, and founder of the group Irakere, one of Cuba’s best-known Latin jazz bands. Valdés was the president of the Havana Jazz Festival organizing committee. Photo Trudi Unger.

Cuban and American connections

The pinnacle jazz evolution was the spark ignited between Cuban drummer Luciano Chano Pozo (later shot in a Harlem bar) – and American jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Their sound was the first appearance of what came to be known as Latin jazz. That was just the beginning. Now Cuban musicians are foremost amongst the world’s jazz performers. Before the Revolution, Cuban popular musicians were mostly self-taught. From the early 1960s onwards most members of bands were music school graduates to whom virtuoso performances are almost second nature.

Over the years the lineup at the Jazz Festival has included Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Haden, Roy Hargrove, Steve Coleman, Richie Cole, Max Roach, Carmen McRae, Leon Thomas, Tete Montoliu, Airto Moreira, Tania María, Dave Valentin, Michel Legrand, and Ivan Lins. The celebrated British saxophonist, Ronnie Scott, promoted Cuban jazz from his famous Frith Street club throughout his professional life.

Modern Cuban music explosion

However, it is Cuban musicians who have been the driving force behind the Festival. Whether they favor pure jazz or fusion, the list of participants includes famous names: Armando Romeu, Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Ruvalcaba, Bobby Carcassés, Los Van Van, Ernán López-Nussa, NG La Banda, Orlando Valle. Next came the waves of impressive young musicians emerging from Cuban schools leading to the establishment of the Jo Jazz Festival competition for young musicians.

If you’re in Havana during the Jazz Festival, you’ll likely spot an international jazz great appearing incognito at the bar, hidden behind a cocktail. Keep a sharp lookout for a black giant with a sleepy gaze, leisurely performing musical miracles at the piano. It will be six-time Grammy winner Chucho Valdés. As the organizer of the International Jazz Festival he, more than anyone else, knows that if it ain’t got that swing, it ain’t Havana.

Article by Juliet Barclay, adapted from Cuba Absolutely magazine. Barclay lived and worked in Cuba for many years as Head of Design for the Directorate of Cultural Heritage of the Office of the City Historian of Havana (OHCH). She has written numerous articles and books about aspects of the island including Havana: Portrait of a City. Now based in London, she regularly visits Cuba to advise and collaborate with OHCH.