HAVANA — A country known for groundbreaking jazz is getting a visit from one of America's leading trumpeters, who spent the weekend jamming with Cuban legends ahead of a concert series that will put musicians from the two Cold War enemies on stage together.
The visit by Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra kicks off a season of unprecedented cultural exchanges, with the American Ballet Theater scheduled to perform in Havana next month in honor of Cuban ballet legend Alicia Alonso.
Several Cuban musicians have also traveled to the United States in recent months, taking advantage of a more relaxed visa policy under President Barack Obama.
Marsalis, seated next to Cuban jazz great Chucho Valdes and Buena Vista Social Club diva Omara Portuondo at a news conference on Monday, said it was a thrill to be in Havana for the concerts. While Marsalis has been in Cuba before, it was the first trip by New York's Lincoln Center jazz group.
“It's a great honor for us as musicians to come here to Havana because of the long tradition and the great musicians who have come from here,” Marsalis said.
Marsalis, 48, spent the weekend playing with Cuban musicians at an impromptu jam session and also recording music with Valdes and Portuondo. The concerts run from Tuesday through Saturday and there will also be master classes for promising young Cuban musicians.
Marsalis said it would be a particular pleasure to share the stage with Valdes, whom he grew up listening to as a boy in a supremely musical New Orleans family.
“When I was 12 years old, my father came to me in New Orleans … with an album with Chucho on it and he said, 'Man, this is what cats are playing in Cuba’,” Marsalis said, adding that his father would “ooh” and “ahhh” as they listened to the album together. “When I had the opportunity to record with Omara and Chucho, I started to get full of emotion, ’cause I thought of my father playing Chucho's music for me.”
Marsalis wouldn't directly answer any political questions, preferring to stick to jazz topics. When asked whether his visit could bridge the half-century political divide between the United States and Cuba, he gave the example of two musicians trying to play in rhythm.
“All night they are arguing about where is the beat, saying, ‘You are rushing. You are dragging. Pick it up. You are not listening.’ They love each other but [the arguing] is constant,” Marsalis said. “That's what our swing is about – about working it out, because the music is going on the whole time.”
He added: “In our music, swing means come together and stay together, even if you don't want to.”
A jazz legend, Marsalis received his first trumpet as a Christmas present at age 6. He was a teenager in 1980 when he signed his first record deal with Columbia Records. In 1997, he became the first jazz musician to win a Pulitzer Prize, for Blood on the Fields, combining jazz and the spoken word in an oratorio on slavery and freedom.
The Marsalis family includes patriarch Ellis, a pianist and educator, and his four sons: trumpeter Wynton, saxophonist Branford, trombonist Delfeayo and percussionist Jason.
Valdes said Marsalis' visit was an important moment for Cuba and its music.
“It's the first time we've had a visit from a band of this quality with such important musicians,” he said. “It is a historic event.”