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The Past Has Presence: Latin Jazz Presses On

June 30, 2020

Latin jazz has been described by Rebeca Mauleón — who plays it, teaches it, and has written several respected books about it — as “a beautiful flower growing through the asphalt.”

The metaphor is rooted in many areas of the genre’s history, including its hybrid germination along the nighttime streets or Manhattan, where American jazz innovators and expatriate Cuban and Puerto Rican percussionists and instrumentalists met up in the 1940s, and its persistence in the conservatories of Havana after the revolution of 1959, despite repression by the socialist and communist government.

Mauleón, who’s on the faculties of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the City College of San Francisco, is now helping the music survive the pandemic shutdown with a six-week California Jazz Conservatory class, beginning July 6. Presented online via Zoom, Mauleón’s Piano Afro-Cubano, according to its announcement, will “guide students on a journey through the evolution of piano in Afro-Cuban music, beginning with 19th-century repertoire and  culminating with the most current trends in Latin jazz and timba. Mauleón shares the techniques of traditional to modern piano playing, covering styles and genres such as the danza, danzón, son-montuno, guajira, cha-cha-chá, timba, and more.”

This list represents only a fraction of the elements which contributed to the formation of Latin jazz, and which continue to serve as singularly rich resources for composers and performers. The names refer to a variety of dance forms, some of them derived from Spanish, English, and French colonial models, integrated in the Caribbean with western and central African call-and-response structure and rhythms, imported by slaves, along with conga and batá drums and other percussion. The rhythms are based on clave (pronounced ‘CLAH-vay’) patterns, named for the pair of wooden sticks which sound them.

The panoply of rhythms, which famously attracted jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and inspired his 1947 collaboration with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo on “Manteca,” form up a codified canon unlike anything else in jazz. “Where it helps is, if [other jazz musicians] want me to find something to go with a certain figure or a certain vibe, I can draw upon these things,” testifies John Santos, a Bay Area-based Latin jazz historian, educator, percussionist, bandleader, and composer who has performed with Gillespie and many jazz greats over three generations. “It might be something from an ancient Yoruba tradition, and it helps to have that in your bag.” In his own ensembles — Rebeca Mauleón joined him in his Grupo Tambor Cubano folklore ensemble, as a teenager in the late ’70s, and later in Batachanga, a charanga group —, “I would always make work tapes to demonstrate the different rhythms,” Santos points out. “There’s a benefit to having a repertoire that many people you’re working with can be familiar with.”

Caribbean influence on American music long precedes the naming of Latin jazz and the “Spanish tinge” referenced by Jelly Roll Morton, looking back on his innovations in ragtime piano at the beginning of the 20th Century. “It was really a Cuban tinge,” says Mauleón, “the implicit structured aesthetic of Caribbean rhythms in the left-hand syncopation, or left-hand stride with right-hand syncopation.”

“The first black music that got disseminated to the [American] recording industry was Cuban music, in the first two decades of the [20th] century, because the labels did not want to record black American music,” adds Santos. “But they looked at Cuban music as something more exotic, something they could sell ... and some of the teachers of Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton were from the Caribbean.”

Immigration from Puerto Rico grew throughout the century, creating “an audience that would support Cuban music, and the platform from which Latin jazz would be born.” Puerto Ricans playing Cuban instruments “revolutionized jazz and were a big part of the bebop separation from swing. [The hybrid innovation of “Manteca” was referred to as “Cubop.”] The big band era in Latin jazz picked up on the coattails of the slowing down of the big band era in swing, so that, with the Latin groups, dancing was still a big thing in New York City. And they incorporated jazz into that. [Ethnically Puerto Rican bandleader] Tito Puente used to say that what made something Latin jazz was that it was danceable.

“But you also had Dizzy and James Moody and Charlie Parker experimenting by bringing in Afro-Cuban elements to their small combos, trios and quartets,” Santos continues. “So you had a thing that wasn’t necessarily for dancing, but was a very important part of Latin jazz. That eventually found its way to Eddie Palmieri [starting in the 1960s] and the Fort Apache Band [in the 1980s], not playing for dances but making vibrant wonderful creative music, which evolved.”

Fania Records, founded in 1964, promoted a user-friendly sound termed "salsa," which drew on Latin jazz and older dance fads — including rumba, cha-cha, and mambo —  to engender new ones, in the process reviving musical careers and positioning Cuban and Puerto Rican music in the socially and financially active nightlife of New York City, Miami, and elsewhere, for decades to come. Mauleón is careful to note that salsa is “a term that was developed outside of Cuba, and many people in Cuba felt that their music had been appropriated.” Popular Brazilian music was also embraced by American jazz and pop musicians and audiences in the ’60s, partly because of the prominence of translated lyrics, rarely found in Latin jazz or salsa.

Although lacking the critical mass of Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrant musicians and audiences, the Bay Area and Southern California welcomed musical transplants such as percussionists Mongo Santamaria and Armando Peraza, who came to California in the 1950s. They were joined in their genre by white instrumentalists and composers Cal Tjader and Vince Guaraldi, and later Clare Fischer. Mexican-American Pete Escovedo, raised in Oakland, co-founded the Escovedo Brothers Latin Jazz Sextet, before touring with Carlos Santana, sitting in with Tjader and Puente, and fronting his own Latin jazz, Latin rock, and salsa groups. Santana, another Mexican-American who came to San Francisco as a teenager, reimagined Puente’s “Oye Como Va” as a runaway rock hit.

“There were a lot of clubs in North Beach” showcasing Latin jazz in the 1950s and ’60s, notes Mauleón, “and the West Coast sound was looking at small ensembles, as opposed to big bands. There wasn’t the cultural resonance you would see in New York, where everybody in the band would either be Puerto Rican or Cuban. But there would usually be at least one Latino in the ensemble, or maybe two, and there was this intersectionality with the standard jazz repertoire, Latinizing it, and making things in clave. The white audiences here were really supporting that sound.”

In the home country, the forces behind the Cuban Revolution of 1959 mandated politically correct changes in culture. “They were saying that jazz was a ‘privileged’ music” of capitalist American origin, recounts Santos, “and if you were caught listening to jazz, you would be expelled from the conservatory. But jazz was in the DNA of Cuban musicians, and those musicians didn’t stop being incredible.”

Among that younger generation was pianist Chucho Valdés, who completed his conservatory training early and, as an 18-year-old already leading his own jazz group, chose to remain in Cuba while his father and teacher Bebo Valdés fled to the U.S. The younger Valdés “had to make the radical decision to retain a connection to his music,” notes Mauleón, who in 2018 co-authored Decoding Afro-Cuban Jazz (Sher Music Co.) with Valdés. “He straddled the political line and circumvented it, trying to come up with a way of expressing his love and understanding of and complete fluidity and fluency with jazz, but creating something which was truly Cuban. How was he hearing jazz? Because of the Voice of America radio broadcasts, and secretly listening to records.”

In 1973 Valdés founded the large ensemble Irakere (the Yoruban word for forest), which Mauleón describes as “like Art Blakey [and the Jazz Messengers], cultivating a cadre, a workshop, and an open forum for creativity and expression, and at the same time traveling the world and receiving the acknowledgment of people like Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck.” In his compositions and arrangements and the makeup of his band, Valdés moved effortlessly through a century of Cuba’s piano and dance styles and his Western classical training, as well as the polyrhythms and percussion of Africa and the voicings and instrumentation of Latin jazz, updated with electrified rock. His performances incorporated the language and chants of Cuban Santeria, the syncretic religion grounded in Yoruban polytheism and incorporating Catholic saints.

Ironically, the economic and educational systems of Cuba allowed for a more vital development of Latin jazz during the latter part of the 20th century. “The tradition of Eurocentric conservatories went back to the colonial period, and we might be able to say it’s still there,” explains Santos. “But now they teach jazz as well, and Cuban folklore and popular music, and none of that was taught before the revolution. That’s why their musicians are absolute superheroes, because they can read and play anything. Classical music is certainly an influence on jazz, the classic elements of harmony and melody, and the devices that you apply.” The newest generation of Cuban piano stylists includes Alfredo Rodriguez, who has attracted repeated rave audiences in San Francisco over the past several years.

In New York and other centers of Latin jazz in the U.S., “the capitalist system has resulted in keeping music in these little silos, and musicians here have been limited by that,” adds Mauleón. “There’s been a dominance of the jazz canon and its standard repertoire and the Cubanification of that, as opposed to what Chucho and Irakere represent, a new legacy that puts their compositions and the sacred chants at the forefront, which Latin jazz in New York has kind of skirted around.” She perceives the Western classical influence on contemporary Cuban jazz pianists as “like Bach on steroids.”

Following on the Cuban approach, Mauleón is fostering “more cross-pollination between classical and jazz students” with her survey course in The African Roots of Jazz, as part of the Roots, Jazz and American Music Program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, whose registration deadline is July 5. In the fall semester, when Berkeley-bred saxophonist Joshua Redman will join the faculty as “our sort of artistic director,” Mauleón will initiate a Latin jazz ensemble class at the Conservatory.

Social distancing will prevent Santos’s returning this fall to his conga ensemble class at the College of San Mateo and his course in the Sounds of Resistance at the Ethnic College of San Francisco State University. But his Latin jazz recording, The Art of the Descarga, will be released on the Smithsonian Folkways label in August, and he’s hoping that the John Santos Sextet, with guests, will be able to present their scheduled December concert at the Freight & Salvage, behind the release of Volume 3 of his Filosofía Caribeña series.

In the meantime, “it’s scary to think about the future of the music, what’s gonna happen,” Santos admits. Although the internet has facilitated exposure of audiences worldwide to Cuban musicians, “if it’s all online, that drastically changes the nature of the whole idiom.” Smaller jazz venues have mostly gone extinct, but SFJAZZ, where Mauleón serves as education director, has showcased several Latin jazz acts, and Chucho Valdés and the current incarnation of Irakere were featured last month in SFJAZZ’s Fridays at Five series, streaming during shutdown. Still, “we have to create access and equity in the arts,” states Mauleón. “Latin jazz in general has maintained a consistency, and yet its audience has dwindled and has morphed into the jazz audience, which is primarily white and Afro and older. Latinos don’t go see Latin jazz, and if there are 30-year-olds in there, you’re lucky.”

But “that vamp on the keyboard will still be heard,” Mauleón insists. “If we can still be playing and loving Bach, then we can still be playing Tito Puente and Chucho Valdés. Because to me, they are as significant in music history, period! Right?”

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.