Saturday 6 May 2017

Thoughts in Progress

The first time I heard it I did not hear it at all. I was not prepared for it. I was too young and my parents did not warn me (I am going to blame my parents, especially my dad; I need to blame someone and parents always come in handy). It was not included in my folks’ small record collection. That is, if a bunch of random LPs bundled together in a corner of a minute one-bed flat can be called collection. If truth be told, years later, when I became a fan of it, I was surprised at its absence from our house. After all, my parents, especially my father, were music lovers. My dad was (is, still) a musician, composer and arranger. If someone was capable of appreciating it, it should have been him. Records by Roberto Faz, Orquesta Riverside and La Original de Manzanillo were amongst the few gems that were played at very special occasions on the old, blue record-player (a relic from pre-revolutionary days). These were big bands that had a lot in common with the Glenn Millers and Buddy Riches of this world. Yet, it did not feature at all chez moi. I do not think that it was unknown to them. I just think that they did not get “it”.

Most of the music played at home when I was a child, was of the dance variety. Later on, when my auntie brought home the first cassette player we ever had it was my cousin (big sister, really) who took over DJ-ing duties. However, we still did not tend to listen to Anglophone music very often.

"It", jazz, was surplus to requirements since its demographic was non-existent in our household at the time.

I went to the kind of college (high school for US readers) which defies conventions about Cuban education’s supposed equality. Though uniform-clad, we all knew where we belonged and which tribe was ours. I was in the scruffy, working-class, rock-faithful one. However, I had one good friend in the “Trova” (New Song) gang. Once I happened to be at his house. We were both playing tapes to each other. And there it was: the piercing sound of a trumpet, if not out of tune, out of everything I conceived at the time as “being in tune”. Seeing the frown on my face, my friend asked me: you don’t like Dizzy? Not wanting to be rude, I shrugged my shoulders. Inside, though, I swore never to return.

There is a certain built-in philistinism in the life of a teenager. It is easier, however, to notice it in others than in yourself. Aged fifteen, I listened to Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins at my mate’s and found their sound foreign and alien.

1989. I had just turned eighteen in November and was in my first year at university. What was I doing here at midnight, in the lounge where my cousin and her mum slept on foldable beds? What was that sound, low and mellow, coming out of the old, battered Russian radio? Was that the same piercing sound of the trumpet I had rejected fours year before? What had happened?

Let us rewind to the month of February of the same year. Let us go back to the corner of 23rd Avenue and L Street, one of the most popular corners in Havana. There I was, scruffily dressed as usual, in my rocker’s get-up: skintight jeans, oversized shirt and canberras (steel toe-capped Russian boots). I had no plans that night. My jazz-enthusiast friend from college happened to pass by. He was on his way to the Havana Jazz Festival. He had a spare ticket. Would I care to join him? I said no. He would not take no for an answer. After all these years, I think he saw something in me that night. Perhaps the face of the willing convert who refuses to believe he will be inevitably converted. He insisted. My replies became more elliptical and my reasons weaker.

Together we set off, Casa de la Cultura de Plaza-bound.

I would like to say that a full moon flooded the stage and that in the quiet of the night the sound of a saxophone triggered off my epiphany. The truth is rather more prosaic. It was very noisy when we got to the venue. We went inside, which was outside (the concert was outdoors) but then I went back inside.

I went back inside my own mind.

You see, jazz in Cuba did not have a tribe in those years. Correction, it had its own specific tribe, but it did not function like others. Rockers, salsa-lovers, trovas, pop-enthusiasts; they were distinctive. We wore uniforms; we wore our allegiance on our sleeves. Sometimes literally. Jazz, on the other hand, belonged to old people. That is how we saw it, us youn’ uns.

That night I, the refusenik, sat down. I had my speech ready. I imagined that as soon as the concert ended the words would spill out, of their own accord, without any push or shove from me: I only came because of you. No, I didn’t like it. I don’t like jazz. I don’t like jazz. I don’t like jazz.

And then he came on stage and played the trumpet. He, being Arturo Sandoval, Cuba’s foremost trumpeter.

I cried that night. Moreover, I cried, sitting next to my friend, amongst people I did not know. I cried, conscious that as a man I ought not to. That’s what they always said: men don’t cry. Well, I bloody well did. That was the effect Arturo Sandoval had on me that night: uncontrollable tears.  But also joy. I had found yet another layer of my humanity. A metaphysical one perhaps; its abstract nature not fully decipherable prima facie. Whatever had caused that emotion, I had to get more of it.

That is how I found myself in November 1989, in the darkness of our small flat, listening to a radio DJ, more used to playing classical music than compositions by Gershwin and Coltrane. Every Wednesday night between midnight at 1am I would silently come to our lounge, move the radio to our dinner table and switch the kitchen light on. That was the start of my love affair with jazz. That was the gateway to Ella, Billie and Nina. Through CMBF, the aforementioned station, I learnt the difference between bebop and smooth jazz.

Years later, as an adult, and while trying to rationalise my strong, lachrymose reaction to Sandoval’s trumpet-playing all those years before, I came up with a theory for my conversion. My love of rock was partly responsible for my newfound passion. The musical patterns, or lack of them thereof, of a Yes or Pink Floyd track were not dissimilar to the unorthodox approach taken by the likes of Thelonius Monk or Ornette Coleman. At the heart of it, jazz musicians tried to break or bend the rules. My initial mistake, at my friend’s, was trying to understand a phenomenon I deemed “absurd” at the time. It is only when we stop trying that we become more open to music genres we do not comprehend.

In simple terms: my defences were lowered that February night in Havana at the jazz gig. Then, again, since then I have lowered my defences on purpose whenever I am confronted by the new. A couple of years ago it happened, when I saw Bill Laurance and Snarky Puppy at Jazz FM’s Love Supreme Festival. Not knowing what to expect, I prepared myself to welcome the unknown. The result was the sort of experience some people might call religious.

Jazz bares me. In its syncopated/discontinuous, uniform/wandering notes, lies a truth that calls to a part of me. It is there in Roberto Fonseca’s eclecticism and Aziza Mustafa Zadeh’s vocal range. It is there in Sarah Vaughan’s unforgettable voice and Alice Coltrane’s Vedic-influenced, mystical harp. I didn’t find jazz. Jazz found me.

© 2017

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 10th May at 6pm (GMT)


  1. Love it! In the 80's I worked in a jazz club here in Portland, Oregon. I'd always thought I didn't like jazz because it sounded like it was just scattered musical notes. I couldn't pay attention or get into the rhythm of it. But after just a few days of working there, I could hardly wait to get to work. I've loved jazz since then and can't imagine my life with out it.

  2. I believe that with age comes musical appreciation. As children we are given cute little rhymes that tell a simple story. Teenagers are drawn to primitive beats with drums and bass. They are discovering their sexuality and that fuels it. Then we become adults and are exposed to more types of music. If we listen with open minds and hearts we find we enjoy a lot of them. And we are wise enough to not limit ourselves.

  3. I need to spend more time listening to jazz. I haven't paid it enough attention.

  4. Jazz found you, but only because (however reluctantly) you had the open ears, heart and mind to appreciate it.

  5. It is said there is a time and a place for all types/styles of music. Nice try, CiL, and well written -- but, I remain among those unconverted. The key for me is found in sound. Essentially, I run toward the sounds from strings and flee from the sounds of brass.

  6. Opening one's mind and exposure at an opportune moment...Nice post!

  7. I love the way you describe jazz finding you.

  8. I had a similar experience with cricket - came from a family of cricket-lovers but was convinced it was so tedious I'd rather chew my arm off than watch it. So decided to find out more about it (aged about 14, so I knew everything) to prove just how tedious it was. And then came Gary Sobers and Clive Lloyd ...

  9. It took me a while to appreciate jazz but, once there, there was no looking back. Sadly, I don't hear much of it these days so I made the most of the video clip you inserted with this post. Thanks, Cuban.

  10. Love the passion in this piece. Music was certainly my first love and I find my love for it is constantly changing - though of course some staples stay the same (much like food!).

  11. Sometimes all it takes, no matter how we refuse, is a good perk of the ear.

  12. I think you sum it up when you infer that trying too hard to understand jazz is what stops many people appreciating it. I went to an excellent jazz concert last weekend....

  13. Although I don't consider myself a fan of jazz, per se, I do like the soothing jazz music! Great post, dear friend, thank you so much for sharing.

  14. Incredible story. Personally, while I dig jazz and occasionally go on a binge here and there, my love has always been and probably always will be rock. The variety comes in waves, normally Classic or Hard, but I stay pretty consistent there.

  15. I love the way you tell a story. I am woefully lacking in my knowledge of jazz, but every so often I have to switch on the jazz station to escape from all the plastic noise that passes for music nowadays.

  16. Hi ACIL - being the dull music lover I am (sad, but true) I totally relate because over the years my tastes have dramatically changed and I so enjoy music now ... and do want to weep ... brilliant post -thoroughly enjoyed it .. cheers Hilary

  17. I think I also went through that stage in my childhood when I would hear jazz music every day because of my father.
    Brought back memories reading this. :)

  18. I listen to jazz purely as essential background noise for some of my more tedious job duties and only when the other college radio program is playing a genre of music I don't like. I've come to like most kinds of jazz but I really detest big band jazz. Listening to big band jazz is like listening to a marching band. Also detest scat. As soon as a song comes on featuring scat, I change the dial.

    I Are Writer!



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