When I think back to the Cuban Jazz festival in Havana this last February, the first visual image that comes to mind, for some strange reason, is that of Pete King lying on a sun-bed by the pool at the Hotel Riviera. I don’t think I’d ever seen Pete King with so few clothes on before. I don’t think I’d ever seen Pete King in daylight before. My chief memory of Pete King is of a chunky man hovering near the entrance of Ronnie Scott’s club as if he ran the place – which he does – any time from midnight onwards, being amazingly courteous to visitors and strangers, and grasping his friends by the wrist in a vice-like grip and saying: ‘Oh God - the riff raff’s arrived – chuck him out.’ At which point he tends to smile, thank goodness, and offer you a drink.
He goes home from the Club shortly before breakfast, I imagine, and heads for bed. Yet here he was, in the morning, stretched out in the Cuban sun, clad in nothing but a pair of trunks and some jewellery with second and minute hands on it. And as I paused to admire the sight, his hand reached out and grasped my wrist in a vice-like grip, and he said: ‘Isn’t it great? Isn’t Cuba a wonderful place? Aren’t they lovely people?’
It wasn’t just being in the sunshine that had turned him from a grizzly bear into an old softy. It was the feeling of pride and, I should imagine, relief, because as far as I can make out, the Cuban Jazz Festival had been slowly dying before Pete King and Ronnie Scott came along. They have both been frequent visitors to Havana in recent years, primarily to fix up groups to come to Ronnie’s club in Frith Street – as any recent visitor to Ronnie’s will know, the Club has been having a love affair with Cuban jazz, and musicians such as Arturo Sandoval and Irakere have become familiar sights there. No wonder, either – their rhythmic élan and their musical virtuosity make them hard to resist, and the fact that they can play jazz as well as anyone tends to help as well.
Anyway, Pete and Ronnie noticed that the yearly Cuban Jazz Festival was ailing, and offered to put some muscle behind it, and the offer was accepted. It wasn’t quite as simple as that, of course; there were hundreds of miles of red tape, and endless meetings, and Ronnie Scott had to open his office in Havana, and for all I know, Fidel Castro had to listen to Ronnie’s old records, but eventually everything was signed, and a neon sign went up in Havana reading: “RONNIE SCOTT SALUTES THE CUBAN JAZZ FESTIVAL”, which makes a change from “SOCIALISM OR DEATH!”, and finally, Pete King lay by the pool in the Hotel Riviera and started to let the nerves unwind.
The Hotel Riviera is on the Havana sea-front, so you might think it odd that Pete King was not lying on the beach. The reason for this is that there is no beach – all you get on the Havana sea-front is rocks, and waves which even on a calm day leap twenty feet in the air, appear briefly over the sea wall, and then subside. In rough days the sea comes right over the sea wall and on to the Malecon, the sea-front drive, driving all the traffic over to the other side of the road. This being Cuba, where fuel is short, there isn’t much traffic except for bicycles, and that explains why you can see bicyclists in Havana cycling along on a hot, cloudless day with their umbrellas up. The sea is about to fall on top of them.
No, the odd thing was what Pete King was doing at the Hotel Riviera, when he was actually staying at the Hotel Presidente, which was a good twenty minutes walk away in downtown Havana, or perhaps rundown Havana. The Presidente was an older, more gracious hotel than our Miami-type block at the Riviera, and that was where the musicians were all staying. When you got into the lift at the Presidente, you were likely to find yourself sharing it with Andy Sheppard or Martin Drew, whereas at the Riviera you were more likely to rub shoulders with tourists from Mexico or Brazil, who had no idea there was a jazz festival going on. There were a few fans from England staying over at the Presidente, along with the musicians, and they made us green with envy by reporting that every night there were jam sessions round the pool, with Cuban and British musicians mingling, or simply sitting in with the hotel band which everyone said was as good as anything in the Festival itself – alas, my wife and I had taken our five year old son with us, and the Cubans aren’t really geared up to baby-sitting.
But we had plenty of music. Every night for a week or two there was a choice of concerts at two quite different venues. One was the Casa de Cultura, or house of culture, a solemn title which conjures up some Stalinist fortress full of earnest art. Not in Havana. Behind the Casa de Cultura there was a large courtyard with temporary staging and seating, and there nearly a thousand people squashed in nightly to sit in shirt-sleeves till midnight (in balmy February), most of them holding little beakers of rum on their laps, and two of us holding beakers of rum and a five year old boy. I have to say somewhere along the line that Cuban rum, which I had never tried wittingly before, is wonderful. It had never occurred to me that rum could be good enough to drink neat. We are used to the sugary Jamaican product, or the light and rather characterless pale rums, but this was a golden brew which set you softly alight without actually damaging you. It is also commonly drunk in a Cuban cocktail called “un mojito”, which involves lemons or limes, fizzy water, sugar and crushed mint leaves. Somewhere in Cuba there is a mint farm which is making a fortune out of the bars of Cuba…
Now, I am not going to give you a run-down on the running order of each show each night, because most of the names will mean nothing to you, and because I have been so bored in my life by reading so many blow-by-blow accounts of festivals I hadn’t been to (you know the sort of thing- “the fifth group on was the so-and-so trio, which, despite some mike troubles, got quite a groove going etc etc etc”) that I swore I would never do it myself, and besides, my notes are covered with rum and the ink has run, and furthermore if I gave you a band-by-band account, I wouldn’t be telling you the truth which is that the most interesting thing about the whole festival was the difference between the European bands and the Cuban bands, and their reception.
It is only now I am writing this that I realise the significance of the title, Cuban Jazz Festival. It sounds like a festival of jazz which happens to be held in Cuba. After all the Brecon Jazz Festival is not a festival of Brecon jazz. There is no such thing as Brecon jazz. The Montreux Jazz Festival is a festival which happens to be held in Montreux and could just as easily be held in Lausanne or Vevey. But the Cuban Jazz festival is a festival of Cuban jazz, and there is such a thing as Cuban jazz. We have a very Eurocentric view of jazz, and anything that happens on the periphery is seen as peripheral, so the Cuban effect on jazz is always described as something exotic which can be added as a flavouring, like a bit of tabasco sauce, or crushed mint leaves. Chuck in a bongo, add a couple of congas, call it a rumba and you have the Cuban effect, just as you used to have the bossa nova effect, or Jelly Roll Morton had the Spanish Tinge.
But in Cuba it doesn’t seem like that at all. In Cuba, when you are actually there and surrounded by the music all day and all night, it is Cuban jazz which is the real thing and our jazz which is something intensely foreign. Our jazz seems, I think, to them to be something which has had something taken out of it. I was there the night that Ronnie Scott first took the stage, and you could immediately sense a puzzlement in the audience. What Senor Scott was playing was very nice and clever, but there was something wrong with it. And I who have listened to Ronnie Scott’s playing as much as to anyone over the years, and often admired the sinewy strength of it, and its dextrous invention, and gritty rhythmic qualities, I suddenly started hearing it through Cuban ears and it sounded pale and wan. It came from another, rather more sunless climate, where people did not feel so strongly and did not drink enough rum.
It hurts me to say this as it sounds like a slur on Ronnie and the band, but it’s not; it’s an attempt to pin down a divergence of culture. Now, jazz people are used to having divergences. They take them with them wherever they go. I heard British jazz fans in Cuba muttering in corners, saying: ‘It’s not what I call jazz’, and ‘You can take those damned electronic things away for a start’, and it wasn’t the Cuban groups they were talking about, it was the British groups. Jazz people love divisions and slagging off the opposition. But this was different. It was a whole culture, the Cuban culture, saying to us in the nicest possible way that maybe they’ve got it right and we’ve got it wrong.
Put it another way. When we read about a Cuban at Ronnie’s, we think: Ah ha, one of those nice, exotic, slightly odd bands which isn’t really playing jazz, but a Latin version of jazz… But if we think that, then it stands to reason that they think that about our bands, with a few different adjectives brought in. And that’s why, on the whole the British musicians who impressed the most were the more flamboyant ones – Mornington Lockett in Ronnie’s group and Dave O’Higgins in the Jim Mullen band (nice little group, I thought). And that’s why the foreign musicians who went down best of all were those who wore their hearts on their sleeves, notably Chico Freeman and Irene Reid, but even more notably Roy Ayres. I had never heard Roy Ayres before, but I succumbed immediately not just his musicianship but to his showmanship, and so by God did the Cubans. They loved all that answering and hollering stuff – he’d sing a phrase and cup his ear, you’d sing it back – and they loved singing along with him, and they loved clapping along with him. In an earlier era, Louis Jordan must have had something of the same impact.
Perhaps it’s also a case of African roots. It had never occurred to me before, but on a recent Radio 2 programme on the art of tango, somebody made the point that there is nothing African about the tango. Argentina is basically Spanish and Italian, and the tango is all from Naples and Andalucia, and a bit of gypsy and maybe a bit of Moorish, but nothing black, for better or worse. Cuban music is heavily, obviously, African in origin, and it may be that the African roots of Cuban music reach out to the African roots of black American artists in a way that bypasses us poor old Europeans.
Certainly when we went to the other venue in Havana for a salsa concert, it seemed that way. The other venue was the Karl Marx Theatre, way out in the suburbs, but it hadn’t always been dedicated to old Karl – it had started life as a big 1930s cinema, maybe the Havana Odeon. On stage there were a succession of salsa bands including one fronted by a man wearing a white jacket longer than any jacket worn since the late Duke Ellington vanished and another one fronted by Elio Reve, a veteran of the scene. I had seen his group once before, in Bristol, on the floating Thekla, and had danced happily to his music then, which is extraordinary, because I hate dancing. But the rhythm of Cuban music makes you dance – and they make you dance differently. Modern dancing in Europe is very staccato, jerky ad angular, as sharp and aggressive as the music or strobe lights that prompt it. Dancing to Cuban music is quite different – it’s fluid, and melting, and much softer, and even in the old Havana Odeon, where the old cinema seating is still in situ, it wasn’t very long before the capacity crowd was on its feet. They didn’t rush down the front, they didn’t even, most of them, get out in the aisles or gangways, they just stood in their little patch of carpet and danced like palm trees in the wind. I only once before felt so at home in the middle of an alien culture and that was when, ten years ago, my wife and I went to a B B King concert in New Orleans, where we were the only white faces in the audience.
The Americans have for years been conducting a savage and senseless trade embargo against Cuba, and you don’t have to be in Cuba for very long before you answer Pete King’s questions in the affirmative (yes, it’s a lovely place, yes, they are wonderful people) and start feeling a groundswell of fury at the Americans. Ironic, then, that they have taken jazz from the Americans and made something so rich out of it. In the Museum of the Revolution in Havana there are photos of Cubans who lived long before Castro, early champions of the Cuban cause of freedom (against the Spanish in those days). In the Music Museum there was a show of photos by David Redfern of jazz heroes, Ellington, Cannonball Adderley, Art Farmer and so on, and in a funny sort of way the jazz faces had the same sort of elder statesman feel about them as the old Cuban freedom champions. There is one set of Americans that the Cubans can look back to with affection and respect, then, which is something the Americans have done precious little to earn from the Cubans over the years. I hope Americans come to their sense soon and admit Cuba to the real world. They’ll discover Cuban jazz, among other things. They don’t know what they’ve been missing.