It’s not easy to be a jazz musician – or anything but a classical musician – in Cuba. It’s like the former Soviet Union, where jazz was forbidden and banned. Stalin sent Russia’s Louis Armstrong, Eddie Rosner, to the gulag (Soviet jazz fans called Satchmo the American Eddie Rosner). It’s hard enough to even get a decent instrument if you’re a young Cuban musician; and since you have to learn classical music exclusively, try to make Bach sound good on a crappy old Petrof piano. Orlando Valle, aka Maraca, the fabulous Cuban flute player, once told me that he had to spend ten years playing only Bach and Mozart, which only increased his love and fascination with the forbidden fruit known as jazz. Castro closed down the casinos and nightclubs where popular musicians earned their keep. Bebo Valdes, patriarch of a Cuban piano dynasty, left his job as pianist and music director of the swank Tropicana nightclub in Havana, moving to Sweden, where for years he was forgotten, earning a living as a cocktail pianist in a hotel. Beny More, the great Cuban singer, left for Mexico. Ibrahim Ferrer, vocalist with the Buena Vista Social Club, was shining shoes to get by before Ry Cooder and Nick Gold put the band together in the mid-1990’s.
Although many Cuban musicians such as Celia Cruz and mambo king Israel “Cachao” Lopez left la isla for the U.S. early on, it became more and more difficult for musicians to emigrate to the U.S. as Cuban leaders tightened the noose on dissidents and musicians parting from the classical norm. Two of the highest-profile musicians who defected were clarinetist/saxophonist Paquito d’Rivera and trumpet player Arturo Sandoval, who was persecuted for listening to listening to jazz on the Voice of America Jazz Hour, hosted by the great Willis Conover.
Which brings us to a great interview I heard the other day with Arturo Sandoval on PRI’s excellent program The World, hosted by Marco Werman. Sandoval was a young trumpet player who idolized Dizzy Gillespie when they first met in 1977. Dizzy, more than almost any other American jazz musician, embraced the new Cuban music of Chano Pozo, Chico O’Farrill, and Machito that hit New York City in the early 1940’s. The new musical hybrid was called “Cubop.” Sandoval was on tour with Dizzy in 1990 when Dizzy (and a business card from former Vice President Dan Quayle that he had saved from an Air Force One flight) helped Sandoval and his family defect. I wasn’t a big fan of Quayle back in the day when he was in office with the first Bush administration, but this story made me warm up to him.
It was such a wonderful feature that I sought permission from The World to re-run it here in its entirety. My thanks to both Marco Werman and to James Beard, the editor of PRI.ORG for granting me permission. With Cuba so much in the news, it is a timely and feel-good tale about how music brings us all together, this time with the love affair between American and Cuban musicians.
Here is the feature page on The World‘s website. And a video of the two trumpet players playing “Night in Tunisia.” What a perfect match! [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xncznvkB7S8[/youtube]