The smoke billowed from my cigar and rose to the ceiling (Picture 5), mushrooming into a cloud before being sucked away by the dull hum of a vent secured to the ceiling. My eyes followed the cloud as it rose and quickly disappeared, scanning the tiny jazz bar from top to bottom, the music popping and riding in a mix of Chicago and Cuban disciplines of the genre.
Looking on as the pianist, Robert Fonseca, worked his hands along the keys, the crowd hung on every note, bursting into applause as he eased out of his solo and back into the group dynamic. The bandleader quickly came in on saxophone, taking the reigns from Fonseca and scurrying down the rabbit hole with the plethora of notes he patched together in succession.
Jazz in America went a long way towards race relations, allowing African-Americans a platform in our country that had been previously denied. It allowed for self-expression, born out the brooding actualization of blues, it conveyed frustration, despair and light-heartedness in a single broad tune. The sounds moved into the white realm, result of its beginnings in culturally diverse New Orleans near the turn of the century. The great melting pot of sound and color, Jazz set the stage for people of all races to come together under the umbrella of music.
The bandleader tonight was a smooth-headed white Cuban, his mastery of the clarinet and saxophone easily evident. Flanked by a pianist, bass and drums, he was the only white person on stage, his obvious soul a sticking point for the sound popping from the speakers. Fonseca, to his right was the reason the small club was packed shoulder to shoulder, a small grey fedora perched on his head, a confident smile hardly leaving his lips, a finger on the key was enough to silence the crowd. The bassist and drummer, both seemingly of African descent waited for their orders, given in a measured mixture of sharps and flats. Our tour guide, Lian, had told us a bit about the state of race here in Cuba, a place where Spanish, European and African peoples mixed and came together.
Sitting in the underground club, it’s entrance a red antique English telephone booth that pointed down, I glanced over the packed room. Swaying, smiling, chatting those of all races mixed intermittently. A tall pale twenty-year-old from Portland worked game on a Mexican-American woman not far from where a white man gently graced the lips of his darker counterpart. To hear Lian talk of it, race is of nearly no concern to those from this cordoned nation, itself with a history of problems. “If you never get over it, you will dwell on it forever and be unhappy,” she says. A place that places a premium on smiles, dancing and the like; this couldn’t have summed things up more.
Langston Hughes, traveled to Cuba fairly early in his life, writing about it in a piece titled “Havana Nights and Cuban Color Lines” he noted the differences between the way we in America reacted to differences and the way it was handled here. He noticed what he called a “triple color line” during his stay, addressing the pureblooded blacks as the bottom of the totem pole, mixed above and white at the top. It was a result of the times, the social turmoil spilling over our borders and into other realms. With Americans allowed to travel south to the island, southern prejudices and problems were allowed to infiltrate the unique culture, our ugliness tarnishing their beautiful civilization.
The embargo allowed the people of Cuba to grow, independent of the problems that plagued the United States throughout the sixties, seventies and beyond. What stayed, however, was the art of Jazz; that of the great melting pot culture. Instead of being inundated with the problems from the north, the people of Cuba came together, created community, especially during the “Special Period” of the 90s. As the Soviets crumbled and pulled their support, race meant less as everyone, dark light or in between scrambled to find their next meal and survive day to day, an immense sense of community growing from the darkest days.
Leaning back in my chair I watched as the pianist rolls his chord into the chorus, syncopating in perfect harmony with the rest of the band, the loop building to a climax, dropping heavily and quickly picking back up before the drummer takes the reigns, tapping the snare in a hurried rush before working his way across drums with a flurry of hand movements, pointing a stick back at Fronseca to throw it back to the entire band. A black man with dreads bobs his head next to a blond girl with a straw hat, a mixed Cuban man with a cigar dangling from his mouth easing into a bar stool behind them. Mr. Hughes saw the land with American influence, before the absence of cultural vices that plagued our hegemonic society, they better for it.