Havana, a city where reggaeton, salsa, and classical music live together; the capital of a country where genres such as chachachá, mambo and danzonete where born. With music clearly in its inhabitants’ blood, the city became a host of one of the most prestigious events organized in Cuba: the Jazz Plaza Festival.

For almost a week, the best of Jazz from inside and out of Cuba was present for the fans of the genre. There were many surprises in the event: Arturo O’ Farril came back, and the American trumpeter Orbert Davis together with the quintet from the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic visited the country for the first time; the Jazz orchestra from Kansas City and the French Iba Ibo Yoruba Specimen also came to the festival. In total, more than 35 groups from more than 18 countries celebrated the 34th birthday of this festival, which was first celebrated in 1980.

What are the main attractions of this festival that make it so appealing for musicians from diverse backgrounds such as the United States, Norway, Trinidad and Tobago, Canada, and El Salvador?  How important is it for Cuban and foreign musicians and what are their biggest challenges for the years to come? To answer some of these questions PanAmerican World went to some of the places in Havana where these participants played during the 2014 Jazz Plaza.

Jazz Musicians from the World have their eyes set in Cuba

Lenin Álvarez, keyboardist of the Salvadorian group Brujos, and a special guest of the Jazz Plaza, was one of the artists that was in Cuba around these days and that couldn’t hide his excitement when we approached him. “Last year we were in JoJazz, and we won, that motivated us to put together a project so that we could get hands on all of what we love”, he told us.

“It is one of the most important festivals of Latin America, and coming here and seeing all this Cuban talent and their way of playing is definitely an important learning experience for us that come from the minor leagues of jazz, we get to see how jazz is really made and lived in Cuba. It is a very emotional experience, because Cuban jazz is a point of reference to us”, Álvarez said.

To Alejandro Falcon, pianist, compositor and winner of JoJazz 2013 in composition, the secret touch of an event like this is the fact that Cuban jazz is going through a particularly important time and in the opportunity that represents to have many generations come together here at Jazz Plaza.

“Winners of JoJazz, foreign musicians that are also coming up with new things. In jazz it is very usual to have different generations play together, this gives a very nice dynamic that the public appreciates. Cuba is a power in popular music around the world, and many young musicians are coming here with interesting work” said Falcón.

One of the most renowned Cuban musicians internationally, Ernan Lopez-Nussa, is a pianist, compositor and someone who has mixed different genres but emphasizing on Jazz, said that the most important thing of this festival is the promotion of such a rich and complex genre like jazz.

“It is not about about listening it and enjoying it, it takes training to interpret it, because it is a genre that demands a lot of studying and dedication, it is very hard, maybe the hardest of all. The public has the opportunity of choosing and listening all the different styles and trends that they like the most and discovering new ones. Jazz in Cuba has always come from its roots and traditions, something that identifies it and dignifies it”.

We also had the opportunity to talk to the saxophonist and director of the Madre Tierra Project, Michel Herrera, for whom this exchange of music and cultures brought by Jazz Plaza is a way of making the genre evolve inside from its frontiers.

“The development happens when we bring different ways of enjoying jazz and the music of the world. We have participation from the United States, Europe, and countries such as El Salvador and Mexico, which is the best way of putting together the entire jazz movement.”

Several jazz players talked about the importance of Jazz Plaza for younger generations. “This event is as important for young players as for the more experienced ones. The young players are showing themselves to the world and they get stronger when they watch experienced musicians show their abilities and what they have to say” said López-Nussa.

On a different note, Herrera called for a bigger participation of young talents in the festival. “It would be good to have young people from around the world involved in this project, those who are willing to develop the genre and legitimize the festival around the world. The more known figures we have, the more support we will get. I think in this edition great work has been done and I must say that the Centre of Popular Music has been vital for the Jazz Plaza this year. Nowadays a new perspective of this festival in Cuba is flourishing”, he concluded.

What do young artists get out of the Jazz Plaza? Lenin didn’t take long to answer this question: “I think that the Cuban public has been more and more welcoming every time, at the end we have managed to create that connection we were aiming for. This 17th of December something historic happened, we managed to show a better image of the Cuban jazz artist and we can now say that Cuban society has many components of art in its daily life.”

Some Challenges for Jazz Plaza 2015

The challenges that the Jazz Plaza has ahead are many, according to its organizers, young artists and spectators. And this must be true because we are talking about an event that after three decades will keep betting on good music for the future.

For López-Nussa, the biggest challenge the Jazz Plaza has for 2015 is in organizational subjects. “The festival is being celebrated just because of the enthusiasm and commitment of very few (not enough to organize such a complex event) and because of us, the musicians, that still come despite the bad job they make every year”.

In that sense, María de los Angeles Borges, specialist in programing the National Centre of Popular Music and organizer of Jazz Plaza said that the goal of the festival every year was to polish the imperfections that could appear, in a way that it would be better and better every time and she also confessed that “we would love to have Chucho Valdés in the event”.

While for Michel Herrera the festival has gathered in Havana the best of Cuban jazz and icons of world history of jazz such as Winston Marsalis, Arturo O’ Farril or Michel Camilo, it will have to create sufficient spaces not only to invite great figures but for the rest of Cuban jazz.

In December next year, when Havana opens its doors again to receive the best of Cuban and world-wide jazz, maybe we will have a different festival, through the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States the past 17 of December, we could have a bigger number of American jazz musicians travelling to the island.

“While it is true that the festival had many important American musicians, there are many paths yet to be cleared in terms of cooperation”, said Leonardo Acosta in his essay “Inter-influences and co-influences between Cuba’s and the States’ music”. “The presence of the Cuban players in almost every genre of the popular music in the US, including jazz and its different variations of Cuban popular music (danzón is a great example of this nowadays), create history of separate territories that have been taking things from each other and have survived through more than forty years of breakage and isolation between the two countries.”

Jazz has been and could be a cultural bridge in which these two societies that are so close to each other geographically but so distant for more than five decades could come together.

By M. Gómez (with information from L. García). PanamericanWorld. La Habana