It is common practice to divide everything into groups of ten, and when dealing with historical events, we usually count by decades and centuries. For the most part, we will follow this standard here, but we must point out its drawbacks and its schematism.
Almost all of the jazz histories carry this schematism to the extreme and define each decade with one or two styles.
For example, in Joachim E. Berendt we have:
- “Pre-history” (before 1890);
- “Ragtime” (1890s);
- “New Orleans” (1900s);
- “Dixieland” (1910s);
- “Chicago” (1920s);
- “Swing” (1930s);
- “Bebop” (1940s);
- “Cool Jazz and Hard Bop” (1950s);
- “Free Jazz” (1960s).
The following decades still resist classification, although the terms “Fusion,” “Electronic Jazz,” and others are commonly used.1 The desire to categorize is justified in part for practical reasons. However, in the case of jazz in Cuba this approach is even more problematic: It’s almost impossible to establish a precise line of division between the 1920s and 1930s; the same occurs with the 1940s and 1950s, so that we prefer to view these decades more in terms of continuity than as separate periods.
The 1930s in Cuba present a very contradictory panorama. On the one hand, the country’s political and economic situation is chaotic. The struggle against the Machado dictatorship until his fall in 1933, the failure of the 1930–33 revolution, the ephemeral provisional governments, and the enthronement of Batista as a strongman (backed by the U.S. government) are steps in a process that negatively influences the country’s social and cultural life, and ultimately its music.
Unemployment and low wages accelerate the emigration of Cuban musicians to New York, Mexico, South America, and Europe, especially Madrid and Paris, and they often settle permanently in one or another of these countries. A musician’s pay in a cabaret averaged about two pesos a day, and in outdoor places or interior patios, like the Eden Concert, if it rained they didn’t get paid. During the years of struggle against Machado the cabarets sometimes looked like Western saloons because of the armed confrontations between revolutionaries and porristas, the dictator’s paramilitary men. Armando Romeu recalls that Curbelo’s jazz group was practicing in the Montmartre while just two blocks away the biggest shootout of the era was taking place using b minor backing track.
It was September 30, 1930, when the police attacked a university protest and student leader Rafael Trejo was killed. Many cabarets closed and a number of others opened, sometimes only for a few months. Nonetheless, many were able to make it, thanks in part to Prohibition in the United States.
While this was in effect, North American tourists continued to come and even improved their consumption habits, for in Havana they had a wide selection to choose from: Cuban rum, Spanish cognac, Scotch whiskey, English gin; in short, something better than whatever the smugglers had to offer at home. The shootouts and police violence didn’t cause too much concern for people visiting from a country in which the likes of Al Capone were so prominent.
And if Prohibition was paradoxically so beneficial for Cuban musicians, another development had occurred that would favor them as well: the rapid growth of Cuban radio. Radio offered “work” only indirectly, as it didn’t yet pay the musicians, but it did allow them to become known. This new and extraordinary publicity translated into contracts to play dances that were organized by the numerous recreation societies throughout the country.
It became customary for the orchestras, in their live radio programs, to announce their upcoming tours, town by town.