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Marsalis' Lincoln Center Orchestra in Cuba: More Politics Than Music?

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By Greg Thomas

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra's (JLCO) residency in Cuba last week at the invitation of the Cuban Institute of Music was significant for reasons historical, cultural and political. This was JLCO's first time in that country since forming in 1992. But Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) and music director of the orchestra, has long engaged the big band in confronting and embracing the Afro-Cuban, as both its own cultural dynamic and as an integral part of the African-American improvisational tradition called jazz.

That cultural confrontation and embrace is a statement in a long discourse not controlled by words and policies, but by feelings and modes of seeing, valuing and relating—of swinging—among personalities willing to commingle no matter what's going on politically. Rhythms speak a language of their own, and though the rhythmic orientation and overall musical systems of Afro-Cubans and black Americans had and have many distinctions, the two groups found a fertile ground for discussion and interplay on Canal St. in New Orleans in the 19th century.

As Ned Sublette puts it in his recent essay, “The Latin and the Jazz": “The birth of jazz was tectonic: two great musical plates were crunching up against each other. The epicenter where that musical earthquake occurred was New Orleans ... Havana's little-sister city, which in the last third of the eighteenth century took on the structure of a city under Spanish rule. ... For more than 190 years, New Orleans was in constant communication with its grand trading partner Havana, tethered to it by The Loop Current in the Gulf of Mexico ..."

This history has been overlooked since President John F. Kennedy's embargo in 1962. Willful forgetfulness settled into the official accounts, but cultural history has quietly remembered nonetheless. As Frank Stewart—JALC's senior staff photographer and, in 1977, the first North American photographer allowed into Cuba since the Cuban Revolution—says, “In terms of ideology, it's like a thousand miles [between Cuba and the United States], but in location it's only 90 miles. What we're trying to do is bridge that gap artistically. This is about the arts getting together, and not so much about politics; the power of culture to overcome negativity."

But some, such as saxophone-clarinet virtuoso Paquito D'Rivera, born in Havana in 1948, ain't with that. Paquito left his homeland 30 years ago, never to return. In a letter posted to The Real Cuba blog, he disagreed with his friends at JLCO about their trip to Cuba:

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