By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
Like so much in Cuba, Havanas Amadeo Roldán Conservatory seems a study in former glory and present decay. In the lobby sits a bust of Chicos great-great-uncle, Dr. Juan Ramón OFarrill, once the citys mayor and the schools founder. Its funny I didnt know about this, Arturo notes. But I guess Im doing now the same thing he was doing.
Roughly 100 students, some holding instruments, file into a cavernous auditorium. How many of you improvise? Arturo asks. Not many raise their hands, but several take the stage and flash their chops admirably. Finally, Arturo coaxes 15-year-old Tama Zulveta, who wears a pink sweater and fuzzy headband, into playing a bass solo. But the empowerment soon runs deeper, and toward something that might seem radical to his American colleagues. He leads them in a chant: Jazz no es norteamericano, es panamericano!
Thursday night, the orchestra plays its first formal jazz-festival concert at the Teatro Nacional. The crowd is a little sparse, owing to late schedule changes. Yet the show is stirring, working through several of Chicos classics, and one of Arturos compositions. Though distinct, Arturos 40 Acres and a Burro extends an often overlooked aspect of Chicos musical legacythe humor embedded in his music. But this trip is first and foremost about Chicos works. During Manteca Suite, Chicos expansion of a tune made famous by Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo, Arturo puts his whole body into his fathers arrangement, his arms stretched wide in the final brass exhalation.
The performance grows more masterful and emotional with a closing rendition of Afro Cuban Jazz Suite. Its an astounding piece, introduced with stark, slightly dissonant horn hits, followed by a tender melody set atop an ambling bolero rhythm. As it walks through various styles, it toys with the clave beneath a mambo, winks at Stravinskys harmonies, and touches on 12-tone serialization. It manages to sound both personal and grandiose without ever losing its flow.
My father spent a lot of time bent over a table putting dots on paper, Arturo said later that night at a reception. And he taught me to appreciate those who bring those dots to life.
Musicians revere those dots in turn. Chico was a stone genius, on the level of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, says trombonist Sam Burtis, who was a member of the earliest iteration of Chicos final orchestra. Hes really one of the masters of American composition and Cuban music in any genre. And hes different from all the rest.
The next day, during a stop at Varadero Beachonce the getaway for wealthy Cubans, now dotted with hotels catering to foreignersArturo stops to admire the view. My father didnt express his feelings much, he says. But I remember him weeping openly at the memory of this beach. He reflects on his reasons for going on this trip, and on the criticism he has receivedsome pointed and personalfor having gone.
Saxophonist and clarinetist Paquito DRivera, who left Cuba for the United States in 1980, had authored a widely circulated email before the Jazz at Lincoln Center trip. You should know by now that every single activity there is related and connected to a political goal, DRivera wrote, and relevant names like Wynton Marsalis will be used, no doubts about it, for propaganda matters, to help legitimize the 50-year-plus-old dictatorship. Subsequently, he contacted Arturo directly, insinuating that his trip to Havana would forever tarnish Chicos legacy; for DRivera, these are unshakable points, and yet not connected to the music itself. He joined the Lincoln Center orchestra in Mexico, right after their Havana residency, and he is a guest soloist on Arturos new CD.
Arturo squints into the sun and explains that, late in his life, after his fathers career had revived, Chico was ready to go back and play his music. He wanted to return. But then his health took a really bad turn, Arturo says. It became impossible. So Im completing that trip for him. But this isnt just a personal matter, he explains. Im not interested in making light of the fact that Cuban politics is rife with corruption and political imprisonment. Im also not delicate about communicating that America is a nation built on tremendous bloodshed and continuous imperialism. I dont think those are things that should be run from or ignored. Theyre just historical facts. Anybody whos half-awake in the world will understand the brutality of both sides. Music courses through and above all that. We need to connect, not disconnect.
On Sunday afternoon, his final day in Cuba, Arturo is in Havanas Mella Theater, working on the piece hed composed especially for this trip, Fathers and Sons: From Havana to New York and Back. Cuban trumpeter Alejandro Delgado is practicing the opening section with Adam OFarrill. Two Cuban saxophonists and two trombonists from the conservatory take the stage; 18-year-old trumpeter Kalí Rodríguez shows up, too. More young musicians! Arturo shouts from the stage.