Last December, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro made global news, announcing on TV a historic thaw in relations between their long-feuding countries.
Shortly thereafter, the U.S. government trumpeted new rules making it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, spend money there and use their credit cards (only cash transactions were allowed before, under strict limitations).
And in August, the American flag ascended above the newly reopened U.S. embassy in Havana.
All of which carries profound implications for jazz, as Chicago listeners are about to be reminded.
For on Friday evening, one of Cuba’s most revered jazz musicians — 74-year-old pianist Chucho Valdes — will make a rare appearance in Orchestra Hall, celebrating the legacy of Irakere, the groundbreaking band he founded in 1973. And on Nov. 13, Chicago trumpeter Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic will expand to include 36 Cuban students who are flying here to participate in an epic CJP concert at the Auditorium Theatre.
Within the course of a single week, Chicagoans will hear several generations of Cuban musicians, from elder statesman Valdes to the young musicians in his Afro-Cuban Messengers to the students Davis trained and conducted last December in Havana.
“I don’t think (this) could have happened at all, if it weren’t for that thaw,” says Davis. “There’s no way.”
Though Valdes has performed periodically in Chicago through the years, his forthcoming appearance with an expanded version of the Afro-Cuban Messengers will give listeners a chance to hear what he considers “the best young musicians of this generation.”
“The concept of Irakere is now going to move forward,” says Valdes, who’s celebrating the release of the album “Tribute to Irakere (Live in Marciac).”
It’s critical to note that despite the ongoing economic embargo the United States placed on Cuba in the early 1960s, the musical relationship between the two countries runs deep and long.
Before Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, American stars such as Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole performed to wide acclaim in Havana’s legendary nightlife scene. American trumpet star Dizzy Gillespie similarly forged a profound connection with Cuba, partnering with visionaries such as Chano Pozo, Machito and Mario Bauza to invent an Afro-Cuban jazz that’s still resonating and evolving around the world.
The jazz of both countries, after all, is rooted in the cultural practices of Africa, which links Cuba and the United States through a language that transcends politics: music.
So when the presidents of the two countries announced their diplomatic achievement, Valdes and Davis instantly understood the significance of the occasion. Each remembers exactly where he was, and how he felt, when the news reached him.
“I was in Spain when I heard it — I heard it over CNN,” says Valdes, speaking through an interpreter.
“I was happy. I was contented that everything is going to get normalized now, and just very satisfied. Marvelous things are going to come of that. … That’s what we hope. But we will have to wait and see what those great things are.
“I think everyone has been waiting for this announcement all of their lives, really.”
Valdes was in Spain when the news broke because he moved there from Cuba five years ago to be closer to his father, the towering Cuban pianist-composer Bebo Valdes, he says. Bebo Valdes died in 2013, at age 94, several years after penning the stunning score to the Oscar-nominated film “Chico & Rita.” Chucho Valdes rightly ranks this music as “pure genius” and considers himself fortunate that “Bebo’s music has been my school ever since my infancy,” he says.
So when Chucho Valdes plays, we are hearing Cuban musical traditions that stretch back generations.
It was Davis, however, who was far closer to the action when Raul Castro made the big news in Cuba, for the trumpeter was in Havana coaching students for a performance with members of his Chicago Jazz Philharmonic.
“When that announcement was made, these students are cheering, the percussion section jumps into a rumba,” Davis told me in January, shortly after he returned home.
Throughout the rehearsals and the performance, Davis was bowled over by what his Cuban charges achieved.
“When presented with every challenge in jazz, the students rose to the challenge,” he says. “Especially the two monsters, which are swing and improvisation. They nailed it.
“And I know it’s because of the rhythmic nature of Cuban music.”
Their accomplishment seems all the greater because Davis’ Cuban students study only classical music in school, not jazz. They hone their jazz skills on their own, listening to records, improvising wherever they can and soaking up information when American greats such as Davis and Wynton Marsalis come to visit.
Davis will build on what he started in Havana when the Cuban students arrive here Nov. 8 to begin preparing for their Auditorium Theatre concert with the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. Between rehearsals, Davis and the students will participate in forums at the University of Chicago, Chicago State University and Northwestern University; and they’ll visit Chicago landmarks, such as Millennium Park and Navy Pier.
“It’s going to be a little time warp for them, especially to see modern cars for the first time, to see the Willis Tower, which is three or four times taller than the tallest building in Cuba,” says Davis, whose organization is providing the students with video recorders, so they can document their journey.
“We want two things,” says Davis, whose Cuban project was launched with a $50,000 grant from the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation.
“We want the students to return to Cuba as new leaders of our relationship. I think they will understand what this relationship is about more than anyone because of the work that we’ve done.
“The second thing is: We want to show them the true nature of America. Not the political pundits and the talking heads.”
But we listeners also will absorb a great deal about Cuba from the Davis and Valdes concerts, for Cuban music is a force unto itself. During my reporting trips to Havana, in 1998 and 2002, I was struck by the exalted level of playing I encountered. Nowhere in the world have I heard jazz performed at a higher technical or creative level.
As Valdes says, the diplomatic thaw “is good for everyone. We’re going to learn more about U.S. music, and U.S. musicians are going to learn more about Cuban music.”
Just imagine the musical breakthroughs that might occur once these two musical cultures can intermingle as freely as they did long ago.
By: Howard Reich