Intercambio: Orbert Davis and Cuban cultural diplomacy

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photo by Zoe Davis

By Don Macica.

In October of 2012, jazz trumpeter and Chicago Jazz Philharmonic founder/leader Orbert Davis traveled to Havana, Cuba to do research for a project he was creating with Frank Chaves of the River North Dance Company. A year later, the product of this research became one of the best multi-discipline concerts of 2013: Havana Blue.

Research, however, was only part of the reason for Davis’s visit. There were both personal and musical goals as well, and they were not unrelated. Davis, an African-American, was also seeking to learn more about another branch of the African Diaspora in the Cuba as a way to better connect with his own African heritage. The musician in him, inspired by the jazz that emerged as perhaps the signature cultural contribution of Africans in North America, wanted to get to know firsthand the African-rooted music of Cuba and the people who made it.

One of the places that Davis visited on the trip was one of the country’s top performing arts schools, the Universidad de las Artes (ISA), “akin to our Julliard” as Davis puts it. Students here are trained to be classical musicians – there is little jazz instruction. Thoroughly impressed by the student’s sheer talent and quick adaptability to jazz improvisation, Davis vowed to return, which he did in December 2014, with members of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, to perform a with the students at the Havana Jazz Festival.

‘Timing is everything’, for a jazz musician, is sort of insider talk about the importance of rhythm. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Of course, it also applies in general use to more or less mean being at the right place at the right time. For Davis and his CJP cohorts, it meant being in Cuba and working closely with the students and faculty of ISA on the historic day when Presidents Obama and Castro announced their mutual intention to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba after over half a century of recrimination and hostility.

At the Havana Jazz Festival, the young students “became” the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic with the help of workshops and master classes from Davis and other CJP members including Steve Eisen, Ernie Adams, Leandro Lopez-Varady and Stewart Miller. The concert was a huge success, and almost immediately upon returning home, Davis & company went about the work of bringing the students to Chicago to help perform a new Davis composition, Scenes From Life: Cuba!, which will have its premiere on Friday, November 13 at the Auditorium Theatre.

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Leandro Lopez-Varady with ISA student Beatriz Arias – photo by Zoe Davis

One of the students, 17 year old violinist Beatriz Arias, said this when asked why she gave up her Christmas holiday to be in the project: “My motivation was to exchange with different countries, play and learn about jazz and other popular music besides classical,” adding “I didn’t learn improvising at school. It was mainly from my father who plays the tres, so he was like my school for improvisation. But I’ve never done this before. It was all an inspiration in the moment.”

It says something about both the Cuban educational system and the Cuban soul that someone so young who had never played jazz could hang and improvise with these top shelf jazz musicians and shine.

According to Orbert, it was a quality shared by all the students. He attributes this to the Cuban experience and sensibility. “We invited a pair of traditional Cuban drummers to work and later perform with the students. They began by discussing and demonstrating a rumba rhythm. It quickly turned into a jam session with the students singing and dancing. All of the kids knew the chant, they knew the song. They didn’t learn that in school. It was part of who they are at home.”

Davis goes on to praise the educational system. “We tend to think of Cuba as the third world. They’re poor, they need our help… I’ve been in music education a very long time, but there were two things there that I never experienced before. First, the teachers and administration give the students everything they need and want.” The second thing relates to the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic itself. “CJP is a third stream orchestra: 100% jazz, 100% classical. Many of our string musicians come from a strictly classical background, and there is a process of training and adaptation for them to understand jazz. What was astonishing in Cuba was that these classically trained musicians adapted to swing and improvisation so quickly. It was phenomenal what these kids were playing in just a few days. You’d never in a million years think that it was all brand new to them. They are truly third stream musicians.”

Davis will, in a sense, use these young students as teachers and vice-versa in the upcoming CJP concert. “The string section seating will alternate: American, Cuban, American, Cuban… Whatever we do will rub off on them, and whatever they do will rub off on us.”

This concert, like the 2014 trip that preceded it, will truly be an intercambio, a cultural exchange in which both parties will have much to give and receive. Orbert Davis alludes to this near the end of our conversation.

“These students are the future, and we want them to know what this new relationship is about. It’s not about when American companies get down to Cuba and make all this money. There’s some anxiety in Cuba about change, a sense of being conquered again, but this time by money. But for us, it’s about people; it’s about sharing what’s most important. The students will go home knowing this.”

Friday’s concert will be preceded by nearly a week of rehearsals, but it won’t be all work. In all, 36 Cubans are coming, including the president of the University, and there will be time to visit cultural institutions like the DuSable Museum of African American History and the National Museum of Mexican Art. They’ll also partake in that Chicago culinary institution, deep dish pizza. They will go home knowing the best of Chicago. Native Chicagoan that I am, I feel that they’ll experience the best this country has to offer. Judging from what Orbert Davis says, we’ll get to experience the best of what Cuba has to offer us.

Sounds like a good deal to me.

Scenes from Life: Cuba! Chicago Jazz Philharmonic with special guests from the Universidad de las Artes. Auditorium Theatre, Friday, November 13, 7:30pm. Tickets at auditoriumtheatre.org.

 

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

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