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 that 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.