Afro-Cuban Jazz is all sugar, drums and clave

By Vail Jazz

This is the story of how sugar, drums and clave shaped the development of Afro-Cuban jazz … but a little history first. Columbus’ discovery of Cuba in 1492 led to Spain’s colonization of the island. Over the next 150 years, Havana became the way-station for ships carrying the wealth of Mexico back to Spain, while receiving the rich music and dance traditions of Spain. Becoming the first great music capital of the Western Hemisphere, Havana, along with New Orleans and New York City, were the only cities in the Western Hemisphere with opera companies in the 19th century. By 1900, it was the third largest city in the Western Hemisphere.

During the 19th and early 20th century people moved freely between Havana and New Orleans via daily ferryboat service. It was a time of musical cross-pollination as musicians soaked up the rich musical traditions of each culture. Not to be forgotten, the U.S. invaded Cuba to expel the Spanish and between 1898 and 1922 there were three separate extended periods of U.S. military occupations of Cuba with troops mustered in New Orleans at a time when ragtime music was evolving into jazz in the Crescent City.

The story of Afro-Cuban jazz, however, actually begins in Haiti in 1791 when the Haitian slaves revolted against their slave masters. The French colony was then producing 40 percent of the world’s sugar output, but by 1804, with the revolution successful, the sugar industry was in shambles. Cuba and Louisiana (not then part of the U.S.) jumped in to fill the void and dramatically increased the number of slaves brought to each area, with Cuba becoming the largest producer of sugar in the world by 1840. As a footnote, during the period of slavery in the Americas, more than 1 million slaves were brought to the small island of Cuba, twice the number of slaves brought to the U.S.

Both Spanish and U.S. slave masters lived in fear of revolt by their slaves and operated their plantations like prisons. However, they diverged in their approach by allowing slaves to make music. In the U.S., African drumming was prohibited for fear of the drummers communicating plans of an insurrection. An exception was in New Orleans’ “Congo Square,” where the slaves could play African drums on Sundays only. Cuban slaves on the other hand were allowed to play African drums and the clave, a pair of rounded hardwood sticks (dowels used in ship building) used to play polyrhythms that came from Africa. The primary rhythm is also known as clave, a five beat pattern (3-2 or 2-3) which is the foundation of Afro-Cuban jazz.

This is the proverbial “fork in the road.” Cuban slaves, significantly greater in number than U.S. slaves, retained a strong connection to their African drumming and polyrhythmic roots and melded them with a Spanish music tradition. The result wasn’t the same “gumbo” as in New Orleans, where a much broader and diverse European music tradition was fused with the slaves’ emphasis, out of necessity due to the lack of access to drums, to a music shaped by simpler African rhythmic patterns and vocal traditions. Also consider that Cuba didn’t abolish slavery until 1886, 21 years after the US and therefore the rhythms of Africa continued to be renewed in the slave population of Cuba much later in time than in the U.S.

“Jelly Roll” Morton, a New Orleans ragtime and early jazz piano player, was clearly influenced by the music of Cuba and the habanera (literally Havana) rhythm, which was one of the African polyrhythm patterns brought to Cuba by the slaves. He famously referred to it when he said: “You got to have that Spanish tinge” in the music. Without question, the Afro-Cuban musical motifs were influences as jazz began to evolve in New Orleans, but the branches of the jazz tree grew in different directions.

Fast forward to the early 1940s, Cuban bands are established in NYC playing popular Cuban dance music (mambo). Mario Bauzá, a Cuban trumpet player living in NYC since the 1930s, composes in 1943 the first true Afro-Cuban jazz tune, “Tangá” (African for marijuana), blending American jazz with clave. By the mid-40s, Afro-Cuban jazz is taking off and Dizzy Gillespie, the great bebop trumpeter, is searching for a new sound for his music. Dizzy is good friends with Bauzá, and in 1947 on Bauza’s recommendation, Dizzy hires Chano Pozo, a Cuban conguero (conga) virtuoso. Chano joins Dizzy’s world famous band as the first “Latin” percussionist and they jointly write the classics “Manteca” and “Tin Tine Deo,” fusing bebop and Afro-Cuban music. Unfortunately, their musical collaboration is short lived as Chano is killed at the age of 33 in a bar fight in 1948.

It is impossible to single out any one musician that should be credited with the development of Afro-Cuban jazz, but Bauzá, Dizzy and Chano, notwithstanding his early death, were seminal figures in the music’s creation.

An article about Afro-Cuban jazz would not be complete without a brief mention of the key percussion instrument used to make the distinctive sounds of Afro-Cuban jazz: congas, timbales, güiros (gourds played with a stick), bongos, and claves. Cuban musicians often joke that they get to play all of the above, but American jazz musicians only get to play the drum kit.

With the lifting of the embargo of Cuba by the U.S., Vail Jazz is pleased to present in concert Maraca and his Latin Jazz All-Stars lead by Cuban flutist Orlando Maraca on Aug. 18 at 6 p.m. in Lionshead as part of the 22nd Annual Vail Jazz Festival.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 22nd year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.