Heaven in Havana: Jazz Festival Highlights 1998

December may be winter time but in Havana, Cuba
it was warm and sultry with the sounds of the 18th International Jazz Festival. Actually, for me, the festival started on the plane as I shared 'airport limbo' time and a flight with Roy Hargrove and his musicians and Danilo Perez and his group. Everyone I met was talking about who had come into town, who might show up and where to go and hear the various artists. Performances were set up in 5 different spaces around the Vedado neighborhood of Havana over a five day period. The first 2 nights included amazing descarga (jam) sessions at the Hotel Riviera, where the visiting musicians were staying.

If you missed one group one night, you could probably catch them at another venue one or two of the other nights of the festival. Here is a list of all the artists at the 18th International Jazz Festival:

Roy Hargrove & Group(US) Chano Dominguez Trio(SP)
David Sanchez(PR) No Square Trio(SUI)
Danilo Perez Trio(PAN) Ximo Tebar Group(SP)
Jane Bunnette(CAN) Espacio Abierto(CU)
Chucho Valdes & Quartet(CU) Klimax (CU)
Chucho Valdes & Irakere(CU) Miguel Bermejo(CU)
Havana Ensemble(CU) Michel Camilo(US)
Los Primos(CU) Dorantes Group(SP)
Jack De Johnette(US) Lazaro Morua(CU)
Frank Emilio Flynn(CU) Bobby Carcasses(CU)
Hugh Fraser(CAN) Diakara (CU)
Manerbio Jazz Ensamble(IT) Ernan Lopez-Nussa Group(CU)
Thierry Eliez(US) Lillina Garcia(CU)
Roberto Alain Fonesca(CU) Mario Romeu(CU)
Max Roach(US) Maraca y Otro Vision(CU)
Steve Turre Group(US) Oscar Valdes & Inside Fly(CU)
We opted for the Casa de la Cultura for the opening night. Hopes of finding a program for the festival were quickly squelched. There was one in the whole place so I sat and copied down what the festival was going to feature. Later that night, I was told that the Hospitality Room at the Hotel Riviera might have some program copies, and sure enough, some xeroxed copies, with revisions in pen, were available. I hung on to this the rest of the festival. However, as I soon found out, 'he/she who is scheduled does not always play when or where scheduled'.

The Casa de la Cultura was set up for an outdoor concert. Bright murals for backdrops and equally bright lighting set the stage. What could be more enticing than good music, listening outdoors, and a warm breeze? Central seating was for those who could afford to pay more. Bleachers set in a U-shape were placed around the central seating area. A room inside the building was where musicians waited to perform. Security was not real tight, so passing back to visit the performers was no problem. The sound, for the most part, was good. Opening that evenings set was an Italian group Manerbio. Their trumpet player did a great solo, with circular breathing that had one wondering if he wasn't truly attached to his instrument from birth! Bobby Carcasses, founder of the Havana Jazz Festival, entered the stage with his impressive group of musicians. He played a bit of trumpet but really let it out with his scat singing. He was joined by William Torres, who he said was Cuban (but I have my doubts) and the two traded some hot scat riffs back and forth. Read an interview with Bobby Carcasses. Havana Ensemble was scheduled to play, but were canceled. No matter. We walked over to the Hotel Riviera and happened in on Jesus Valdes, son of Chucho Valdes, jamming on piano with a small ensemble. Soon, Roy Hargrove (trumpet) and then Cesar Lopez (sax) joined the descarga. Oh, the party was far from over. We stumbled out sometime around 3AM.

Friday was an amazing night at the Casa de la Cultura. Orlando 'Maraca' Valle y su Ortro Vision opened up the evening with some tunes from his latest CD, 'Sonando' and some new tunes that will be on a forthcoming CD out of France. Their tune 'Rumbata' stole the set, with tremendous vocals by Donaldo 'Congo' Flores and a new vocalist. Their final piece turned into an amazing descarga with guests Horacio 'El Negro' Hernandez (trap), Changuito (timbales - look for an interview with him in the near future) and Giovanni Hidalgo (conga) all on percussion! Though an area in front of the stage had been cleared for press to take photos, it was soon filled by anyone who wanted a closer look at the handy work of these three master percussionists.(Actually, there was one truly obnoxious TV camera man who constantly got right in the middle of the musicians and under their feet, with no regard for the audience or performers.) This was the first time in 8 years that 'El Negro' had returned to Cuba. David Sanchez (sax) of Puerto Rico had just arrived that day and added to the party on stage. Sonero Felix Valoy joined in with some great inspiraciones and Don Pancho Terry was on board with his masterful chekere playing. The audience was going wild and did not want them to leave the stage.

Steve Turre and ensemble came on next, where Turre hooked the audience with his now famous conch shell playing. Up next was Roy Hargrove and his awesome collection of jazz musicians. Again 'Los Tres', (Changuito, Giovanni Hidalgo and El Negro), with David Sanchez stepped up for another phenominal descarga with Roy Hargrove and crew. Though these groups concluded sometime around 1 or 2 AM, the party was not over.

Once again, we headed for the Riviera. Jesus 'Puntilla' Fuentes and his group 'Jazz Project' were wailing away. Fuentes also plays with Pablo Menéndez' Mezcla (look for an interview with Pablo this year). Hanging out in the lobby was a great way to meet and chat with both the visiting festival muscians and 'at home' talent as well.

An 'unknown sickness' caught up with me on Saturday, and I spent the day and night in bed trying to get my head up off the pillow. I completely lost a day and night. But I did discover that of the 2 TV stations in Havana, one has 2 long feature movies on Saturday night. Sort of made up for not being well enough to go to the Festival.

Sunday, I was fine. Off to Callejon de Hamel in Centro Havana for the weekly afternoon rumba. We arrived way too late to be anywhere close to the musicians. The alleyway, with beautiful murals, was packed full of on-lookers, both tourist and Cubanos. Clave y Guaguanco played, but this Sunday, there were many guest drummers. Roberto Viscaino (Chucho Valdes Quartet), 'Los Tres' (Changuito, Giovanni Hidalgo and El Negro), and El Pele (Maraca) all played a bit for the rumba. Many of the festival musicians joined in as specatators at this happening rumba. It was a musical Sunday that was often talked about among various groups of musicians I visited with during the rest of my stay in Havana.

After the rumba, we headed up the Malecon to the Hotel Riviera. We ran into Jane Bunnett and Larry Kramer on their way to a party at the Canadian Embassy. So, with an invitation in hand, we headed out to the Playa neighborhood. Here, Pancho Quinto, famed cajon and bata maestro, and Lazaro Rizos, cantante, were sitting by the poolside and jumped up to greet us. Jane, Larry, Pancho, Lazaro and a whole group played more rumba and then jazz and were joined by members of Los Primos, the jazz swing group of 18-20 year olds directed by Rafael Quiñones. Front and center was Jazek Manzana on trumpet, soon to finsh school and has many groups and labels all wanting a piece of this amazing young talent. It was his third jazz festival, last year having been presented with a trumpet from Roy Hargrove.

Sunday night was a visit to the Jazz Plaza, inside the Press Club (UPEC), with an outdoor stage and seating. We were up on the staircase, looking down, as there were no more seats. We arrived to catch the end of Bobby Carcesses and his son Robertico (Columna B) playing. Next up was Oscar Valdes' ensemble Inside Fly. Oscarito is a hot trap player, with Alfredo on bass, Coto on piano and Jazek Manzana on trumpet. They played 'Caravan' and a few tunes with strong solos all around.

Los Primos, the young musicians, were next and did some great swing tunes. Again, strong solos as well as ensemble playing. Older couples got up to dance 'son' style to their swing tunes.

Next, we headed to La Zorra y El Cuervo, the jazz club in Havana. You walk down to a small L-shaped room circling the bar. You can sit right in front of the stage and there is no problem hearing. Smoke quickly filled the room but strong air conditioners did away with some of the smoke. First up was the Italian group Manerbio. Next, was the grandson of Chano Pozo. He played on 5 congas and a friend played a set of bata drums. He was joined by a trap and bass player.

The elusive Havana Ensemble was to play next. I believe it was 2AM. They had been canceled another night but were well worth the wait. Headed by Irakere member Cesar Lopez (sax), this ensemble wailed tune after tune, until 4AM! Mario 'El Indio' Hernandez and young Jazek Manazana, both on trumpet, with crashing percussion, piano and bass rounded out this premiere ensemble. I met a promoter interested in bringing them to the U.S. I will definitely be in touch to make sure they make it out to the West Coast.

To close out the festival on Monday, Chucho Valdes, president of the Festival, had his 'invitatados' or guests perform with him at the Teatro Nacional. This 2 tiered theater had comfortable seating but the usual sound problems of any large theatre.

First up was Chucho on piano with David Sanchez (sax). Sanchez left the stage and Orlando 'Maraca' Valle (flute) joined Chucho. Diego Rodrigues (sax & flute, with Roy Hargrove's group) came on next for a brilliant duet with Chucho. Roy Hargrove (trumpet) was the next guest to play. Then, an extra piano was added and Chucho and piano great Michel Camilo played together, at times the two blending as one voice. The audience was definitely in awe of these two maestros.

The evening was only starting to heat up. Chucho and his quartet were next, with Roberto Viscaino (congas), Raul Piñeda (traps), & Alain Rodriquez (bass). By the second tune, David Sanchez joined in, then Roy Hargrove. Raul and Viscaino took some great percussion solos. The quartet exited and Chucho and Irakere took center stage.Before they played, Chucho was honored with a diploma from the Instituto Nacional for his work. Irakere started up and various ex members of Irakere joined in, with the audience caught up in all the excitement.

80-year-old drum master Max Roach walked on to stage to a standing ovation. In English he expressed how honored he was to be at the festival. He walked over to the trap set and played a 25 minute solo in his well-known style. When he was done, the whole theatre cheered. Chucho and his quartet then joined him and they took off and finished a great set.

Well, then the descarga really took off. John Benitez, bass player with Roy Hargrove came on stage, then Roy Hargrove, David Sanchez, Jack DeJohnette and for a while, Chucho and Camilo played on the same piano. Then Larry Willis (with Roy) took over on the piano, while more of the brass players came on stage. The final tune was music shooting all over the theatre, like a shower of stars on a summer night. It was quite an end to an incredible five days of jazz. By habit, we headed over to the Riviera again, only to find there was no jam session. We said a few good-byes to the tired musicians and friends and headed out into the warm morning air of Havana.

Unfortunately, there won't be a Jazz Festival in 1999. December 2000 is the next time scheduled- keep that open in your calendar and experience a little bit of heaven in Havana!

Next up: More hightlights from the music scene in Havana!

Article & photos © 1999 by Julia Sewell