Wynton Marsalis brings music, message to Cuba
By PAUL HAVEN
Associated Press Writer
HAVANA -- American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis took hundreds of
star-struck young Cubans on a musical history lesson Friday that showed
the deep connections shared by U.S. and Cuban music - even if the Cold
War enemies are separated by a half century of animosity.
Marsalis and his New York-based Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra are in
Cuba for a series of groundbreaking concerts alongside Cuban legends
like pianist Chucho Valdes and Orlando Valle "Maraca" that have packed
the house at Havana's 1,500-seat Mella Theater all week.
The visit has come as relations between Cuba and the United States
remain frosty - despite early hopes among some that President Barack
Obama would improve ties and perhaps even end America's 48-year trade
embargo on the island.
Marsalis has tried to stay out of the thicket of politics on his visit,
saying in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday that he is in
Cuba for the music and the people.
"The fact that the political situation between Cuba and the United
States of America is bad gives (the trip) an added story line. But we
live underneath that story line," Marsalis said, sitting in the back of
a chauffeured car on his way to Havana's renowned National Arts School.
Marsalis, 48, said he feels that he and his band members do have a part
to play in fostering better understanding between the two peoples, but
it is an emotional and cultural role that connects on a human - not
political - level.
"We are playing a role right now. We are coming here, we are being
embraced, and we are embracing," he said, before musing about music's
underlying place in any epic struggle.
"Did the spirituals have a role in the Afro-American (slaves) becoming
free? Yeah, they did, but people, when they were singing them, did they
say, 'Let us sing spirituals so we can be free?' No! ... Art's function
is to lift the consciousness and the hearts and minds of people."
While the orchestra's nightly concerts have been the talk of the town,
and their music has played almost nonstop on state-run radio, another
focus of the trip has been educational.
Marsalis and other band members have held workshops, school visits and
jam sessions with young musicians, and are planning an event Saturday to
introduce jazz to children as young as 6.
Marsalis' teaching style is warm and infectiously enthusiastic, and the
band members seem as enthralled by the young musicians as the children
are by being in the presence of American stars.
Marsalis, a New Orleans native from a famously musical family, is one of
the best known jazz musicians alive today. He signed his first record
deal as a teenager in 1980, and later won a Pulitzer Prize for "Blood on
the Fields," a musical composition on slavery and freedom.
He has been feted at the White House, and he played for Obama and others
at a private inaugural celebration on the day the president took office.
The trip by the Lincoln Center jazz troupe is the first of two important
visits to Cuba by American artists this year: The American Ballet
Theater has scheduled a visit for November to honor Cuban ballet legend
When Marsalis rolled up at the National Arts School on Friday, hundreds
of children in brown and white uniforms lined the driveway, while
students and faculty cheered from the rooftops. The institution is a
sort of high school for Cuba's most promising musicians, and it sits
next to the Superior Art Institute, where the best of the best will go
when they graduate.
"Welcome, welcome, Wynton Marsalis!" the children screamed, many holding
up mobile phone cameras.
"That's beautiful," Marsalis replied, rolling down the car window. "I
can't wait to get out there and check this out."
Once on stage, Marsalis spoke of the link between Cuban habanera rhythms
and turn-of-the-century New Orleans ragtime music, which was a precursor
to modern jazz.
Marsalis led his band on a 90-minute musical history lesson, playing
Duke Ellington's "C-Jam Blues," Charlie Parker's rendition of
"Cherokee," Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia" and other hits by
greats such as Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis.
The band members let Cuban students - some as young as 15 - play with
them, patting them on the back, shaking their heads approvingly and
applauding their solos.
"I've never had an opportunity like this. It was the greatest day of my
life," said Laurenzo Molina, an 18-year-old trumpet player whose soulful
playing seemed to impress Marsalis and the other American musicians.
Ismael Vinas, a 16-year-old trumpet player who watched from the
audience, said he dreamed that one day he would be able to travel to New
York to see Marsalis in concert. When asked what role he thought the
orchestra's visit would have in bridging the gap between the two
countries, Vinas smiled.
"Music is music, and politics is politics," he said. "The two have
nothing to do with one another."