Marsalis' Lincoln Center Orchestra in Cuba: More Politics Than Music?

By Greg Thomas

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra's (JLCO) residency in Cuba last week at the invitation of the Cuban Institute of Music was significant for reasons historical, cultural and political. This was JLCO's first time in that country since forming in 1992. But Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) and music director of the orchestra, has long engaged the big band in confronting and embracing the Afro-Cuban, as both its own cultural dynamic and as an integral part of the African-American improvisational tradition called jazz.


That cultural confrontation and embrace is a statement in a long discourse that's controlled, not by words and policies, but by feelings and modes of seeing, valuing and relating — of swinging — among personalities willing to commingle no matter what's going on politically. Rhythms speak a language of their own, and though the rhythmic orientation and overall musical systems of Afro-Cubans and black Americans had and have many distinctions, the two groups found a fertile ground for discussion and interplay on Canal St. in New Orleans in the 19th century.

As Ned Sublette puts it in his recent essay, "The Latin and the Jazz": "The birth of jazz was tectonic: two great musical plates were crunching up against each other. The epicenter where that musical earthquake occurred was New Orleans … Havana's little-sister city, which in the last third of the eighteenth century took on the structure of a city under Spanish rule. … For more than 190 years, New Orleans was in constant communication with its grand trading partner Havana, tethered to it by The Loop Current in the Gulf of Mexico …"


This history has been overlooked since President John F. Kennedy's embargo in 1962. Willful forgetfulness settled into the official accounts, but cultural history has quietly remembered nonetheless. As Frank Stewart — JALC's senior staff photographer and, in 1977, the first North American photographer allowed into Cuba since the Cuban Revolution — says, "In terms of ideology, it's like a thousand miles [between Cuba and the United States], but in location it's only 90 miles. What we're trying to do is bridge that gap artistically. This is about the arts getting together, and not so much about politics; the power of culture to overcome negativity."

But some, such as saxophone-clarinet virtuoso Paquito D'Rivera, born in Havana in 1948, ain't with that. Paquito left his homeland 30 years ago, never to return. In a letter posted to The Real Cuba blog, he disagreed with his friends at JLCO about their trip to Cuba:

Everybody should know by now that every single activity there, is related and connected to a political goal, and relevant names — like Wynton Marsalis or Tania León, for example — will be used, no doubts about it, for propaganda matters, help legitimizing the 50 year plus old dictatorship, and against those of us, fighting for a better future for our people.

When asked about the political dimension of the trip, JALC Executive Director Adrian Ellis said, "This is about a musical agenda, which is related to the musical relationships between Havana, New Orleans and New York. … This is about the music, not about the larger politics. I'm sure at some level our ability to go there has been affected by larger politics and larger issues, but we have taken the opportunity to explore a musical agenda that we think is very musically and culturally important."

At a joint press conference with Chucho Valdés, Marsalis focused on the music when asked about the political relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. "I know what we are here to do, and we are here in the spirit that we always are. Our tagline is 'Uplift through swing,' " he said. "We raise people's spirits all over the world through the art of swing. And in our music, swing means come together and stay together, even when you don't want to."


Carlos Henriquez, the orchestra's bassist and the co-music director of the evening concerts in Havana at the Teatro Julio A. Mella Oct. 5-9, has his own connections to the Afro-Cuban. "Being Puerto Rican, born in New York, the rhythms of Puerto Rican music are influenced a lot by Afro-Cuban music," he says.

"We kept that tradition alive in New York. Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, they all honored Cuban musicians and Cuban music like it's the highest," Henriquez continues. "So personally, I want[ed] to go down there and investigate, learn, see and meet some of the old cats, and ask them questions about the music. Meet the people, meet the students, and just see the musical vibe out there."


To Henriquez, Jazz at Lincoln Center's purpose for the trip to Cuba was to bridge gaps. "JALC going there continues the bridge between jazz and Afro-Cuban music that was laid by Dizzy Gillespie and Machito, Cachao and Chico O'Farrill, even Desi Arnaz and Chano Pozo," he said. "That bridge needs to continue, regardless of whatever's going on. The music must continue crossing that bridge."

Of the political and the musical, he takes a long-term view. "My belief is that all the political and diplomatic situations always have an end. Todo tiene su final. In music, nothing has an ending to it. We're going there to perform music that 100 years from now, they're going to be talking about. The political is not in our hands, but at some point the political will change — but that music is still going to be rolling. You dig?"


Chucho Valdés will perform with the Afro-Cuban Messengers in the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York on Oct. 22 and 23. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will perform in Frederick P. Rose Hall Oct. 21-23 in a series of concerts themed "Jazz Meets Clave." Both are part of JALC's Afro-Cuban Celebration in the first full month of its 2010-2011 season, and are the U.S. leg of the cultural exchange.

Greg Thomas is a jazz writer, producer, curator and educator.

Greg Thomas is a cultural journalist and frequent contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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