Gumbo and Plátanos: The Latino Influence on the World of Jazz
New Orleans’ Mardi Gras is an annual celebration known worldwide for its breathtaking street parades. This year, more than 60 colorful parades will run through several areas of the city, beginning February 15th leading up to Fat Tuesday on March 4th. New Orleans Saints’ defensive coach Rob Ryan will make a special appearance, as well as Rock-n-Roll hall of famer Fats Domino and singer Carrie Underwood. Acclaimed filmmaker Quentin Tarantino and actors Norman Reedus, Hugh Laurie and Ian Somerhalder will also be on hand. Attendees partake in long-standing Mardi Gras traditions: wearing elaborate masks, eating king cake and watching the flambeaux carrying torches. As always, glorious live jazz music will take center stage.
No matter what the time of year, I cannot get enough of the charming Big Easy. New Orleans offers a diverse culture, warm and friendly residents, historically preserved neighborhoods, and delicious Creole cuisine, like crawfish étouffée, jambalaya, and red beans and rice. But more than anything else, it’s the jazz that keeps me coming back for more! Jazz is much more than music — it’s a transformative feeling. Some songs free your mind and awaken your spirit, others make your fingers snap and hips sway.
NOLA is considered the birthplace of jazz, and rightfully so. To this day, bold and uplifting sounds flavor the air like zesty Cajun seasoning. Frenchmen Street boasts some of my favorite joints: Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, d.b.a., Blue Nile and The Spotted Cat Music Club. Naturally, this jazz lover couldn’t possibly miss the famed Preservation Hall on St. Peter Street, packed with visitors and locals alike.
Latin American music began to influence NOLA’s earliest jazz style during the turn of the 20th century when jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton claimed the rhythmic “Spanish Tinge” was an element essential to jazz. Since then, Latinos have made major contributions to jazz across the globe, creating important subgenres, such as bossa nova and Afro-Cuban, and working with famous notables, including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and many others.
One of the earliest tracks I can remember hearing on the radio, and falling head over heels for, was Dizzy Gillespie’s lovely recording of “Manteca” with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo on congas. The standard “Caravan” is another wonderful song that’s part of my jazz collection, performed by Duke Ellington’s coveted band featuring Puerto Rican trombonist Juan Tizol. A must-have for all jazz enthusiasts is the magnificent album Getz/Gilberto, with Stan Getz and Brazilians João Gilberto and Antônio Carlos Jobim. If you’re looking to please the crowd, simply play Tito Puente’s “Ran Kan Kan” and watch what happens. And a party just isn’t a party without Mongo Santamaría’s soulful “Watermelon Man,” composed by the illustrious Herbie Hancock himself.
Through the years, and much to my delight, alliances between Latino and American jazz masters have continued to emerge and blossom. The expert blend of sounds, tempos, complexities and distinct grooves has given the world musical compositions to enjoy forevermore. Santamaria composed the hypnotizing “Afro Blue” that John Coltrane recorded. Arturo Sandoval performed with Gillespie and Dave Grusin, Mario Bauzá with Cab Calloway, and Machito and his Orchestra with Charlie Parker. The incomparable Miles Davis jammed with Chick Corea and Sammy Figueroa, while Bebo Valdés played with Nat King Cole.
The list of harmonious collaborations goes on and on, and Latino musicians, singers, composers and producers have been at the forefront of orchestrating brilliant jazz masterpieces. When you consider well-established artists who have left their mark on the world — Poncho Sanchez, Paquito D’Rivera, Ray Barretto, Vinicius de Moraes and a myriad of others — it’s easy to see that not only have they elevated the world of jazz, they have elevated the prominent role of Latinos in jazz. And that is music to my ears.
“A trumpet, two trombones, reed, congas, drums, piano and vocalist. That’s what a Latin jazz orchestra should be.” — Eddie Palmieri
To savor the spicy taste of jazz, book an Amtrak train to New Orleans on one of three southern routes.