Willie Pickens – Moody – It is Well

Jazz Music Traditions in Havana in 1950

Just as it is impossible to make a precise delineation between the 1920s and 1930s with respect to Cuban jazz, such is the case for the 1940s and 1950s. We have maintained this same point of view with respect to the history of jazz in the United States and the blueprint that correlates the 1940s to bop and the 1950s to cool and then hard bop, as there exists an unmistakable continuity between these styles and the many musicians who excelled in all of them, such as Miles Davis, Max Roach, or J. J. Johnson.

The Afro-Cuban influence

The Afro-Cuban or Latin influence also left its mark on all of these styles to a greater or lesser degree. In Havana, the Fifties were an extension or a culmination of the musical developments of the previous decade in all aspects: the conjunto boom continues, the feeling movement is consolidated, mambo arrives to stay, chachachá emerges, and the big jazz bands continue to proliferate.
Starting with mambo, Cuban arrangers develop their own styles of orchestration, and at the same time, among those who master the language of bop and cool jazz, there emerge new and important jazz soloists on all instruments.

Peculiarities of Cuban Music

In Cuban music, the most important development was perhaps the comeback of charangas thanks to the immense popularity of chachachá, with the orchestras América, Aragón, and Fajardo y sus Estrellas as the primary strongholds. Also essential is the beginning of television broadcasts in 1950; Channels 2, 4, and 6, with important musical spots, become a new source of work for Cuban musicians. Another development that changed the “infrastructure” of Cuban music, this time at the end of the decade, was the construction of new and luxurious hotels such as the Hilton (later the Habana Libre), the Riviera, the Capri, St. John’s, the Comodoro, the Copacabana, the Flamingo, the Deauville, and the new Hotel Vedado (the old one was renamed Victoria).

Further Development of Jazz in Cuba

Many of these hotels had a gaming room and a cabaret, which increased the musicians’ possibilities for work even more. Also, casinos were installed and cabarets were remodeled in old hotels such as the Nacional, the Sevilla, and the Plaza. In addition, under pressure from the musicians union, variety shows were brought back to the capital’s main movie theaters: América, Encanto, Fausto, Astral, Warner (then Radiocentro and today Yara), Radio Cine (today Jigüe), and others. Numerous orchestras found a new source of steady work; for example, in the Warner movie theater the “house” orchestra was Adolfo Guzmán’s, in Astral it was Armando Romeu’s and later Julio Gutiérrez’s.

As if this weren’t enough, small nightclubs multiplied and spread throughout the city to the outskirts, favoring the formation of combos. Despite the political and economic disorder of this decade, the political corruption of the tyranny, the guerrilla war in the mountains, the violence and bombs in the cities, and the presence of top Mob bosses from Las Vegas, music and show business prospered like never before in Cuba, and musicians found for the first time multiple possibilities for work, without having to fall back on the “guaranteed employment” that the military bands offered or having to supplement work as a musician with other types of work.

Jazz and Mafia in 1930

And while many excellent musicians went back and forth between cabarets or television and military bands, and others studied at the university to become engineers, doctors, or lawyers, many left the military bands or the university to find higher paying jobs at nightclubs or on TV. The history of music is filled with paradoxes, and in 1950s Havana, music prospered in the shadow of a tourism linked to gambling, which was controlled by Mafiosi from Las Vegas and their Cuban associates.

The situation was very similar to 1920s New Orleans where musicians improved their salaries thanks to the Storyville bordellos, or 1930s Chicago and New York where musicians found refuge in the speakeasies, those famous underground cabarets where alcoholic drinks were served in the age of Prohibition, which only served to enrich the families of La Cosa Nostra, although also to turn many jazz luminaries into legends.

Style Beyond Swing: Jazz Education

A lot has been written about the music of African origin in the Americas and in general about what the German Jeinhanz Jahn calls “neo-African cultures” of the New World—which we prefer to call African American, with the term America or the Americas designating a whole that includes the South as well as the North.

The African presence in the music of various American countries—particularly the United States, Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, and more recently Jamaica and other English-speaking Caribbean islands—has also been studied extensively and profoundly.

Fernando Ortiz

The essential “Africanness” of Cuban popular music has been shown to the point of exhaustion by Don Fernando Ortiz and his followers, and for the United States and jazz specifically there exists a voluminous bibliography on the topic. A decisive musicological contribution in our opinion is Gunther Schuller’s book Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development.

Based on this affinity and common background of Cuban music and jazz, and given the geographic proximity of Cuba and the United States and their close though sometimes conflicting relations of all kinds over the last two centuries, it is quite understandable that reciprocal musical exchanges and borrowings have created a real fusion that has come to be known as Latin jazz.

Two factors have a strong bearing on the process that would lead to this fusion: the interinfluences between one type of music and the other, which at times we might consider confluences; the parallelism in the development of both forms of expression, linked to a certain historical parallelism evident primarily in the nineteenth century, in spite of all the obvious differences in the political, economic, and social developments of the two countries.

Slavery on Cuba

Among the historical events that had a strong influence on these processes are the following: the official abolition of slavery in Cuba in 1886 and the subsequent exodus of free black Cubans to New Orleans; the Spanish-American War, in which battalions of U.S. African American soldiers participated, some of whom remained on the island; the American intervention, which lasted from 1898 to 1902; and the existence of an important community of Cuban exiles in New York and other American cities during the wars of independence. In all of these more or less migratory movements, professional and amateur musicians from one region or another took part.

Two conditions are of particular relevance and interest: the presence of Cuban musicians and musicians of Cuban origin in New Orleans during the formative years of jazz, and the visit to Havana by North American minstrel companies, which without a doubt exercised a certain influence on Cuban comic theater, an either unknown fact or one that has been silenced until now by historiography and brought to light by the musicologist Robin Moore.

The phenomenon that we have designated as parallelism implies a similar and sometimes coincidental development between two types of music and between some of their determinant social factors, and it is a phenomenon that we could also demonstrate between Cuba and countries such as Mexico and Brazil, to mention just two other cases. In the concrete case of Cuba and the United States, we have some typical examples of this parallelism, one of which is the economic and social situation of blacks after the abolition of slavery and the end of the bloody wars that both countries suffered.

United States Civil War

In the United States, on incorporating into civil life after the war, blacks found themselves excluded from better-compensated occupations. Just as in Cuba, many lived off music, a skill that they usually combined with others such as the tailor’s trade and carpentry. According to Zutty Singleton, whom Marshall Stearns cites, the New Orleans musicians worked by day as bricklayers, carpenters, cigar/cigarette makers, and plasterers; others had small businesses such as charcoal and firewood or vegetable stores, and some worked in the cotton industry or as train porters.

We also find strictly musical parallelisms. For example, many musicians of both jazz and Cuban popular music have come out of brass bands like those that were so common and still exist in New Orleans and their Cuban equivalents, the military bands, particularly those of the mulatto and black battalions that were organized by the Spanish government.

We cannot forget the parallelism between the first jazz groups and the typical danzón bands, particularly in the incorporation of instruments such as the clarinet, the cornet, and the trombone (sometimes the figle in Cuba), as well as a main percussion instrument (drums in jazz, the tympani or timbales in danzón). The typical Cuban band was ahead of its time in using the double bass as a rhythmic instrument of accompaniment; jazz bands didn’t incorporate it until the 1920s, as a substitute for the tuba, which filled the same function.6

Of special importance in this whole process is the role that New Orleans played. In this active port city, which had belonged to both France and Spain, French—and to a lesser extent Spanish—customs prevailed, with a greater tolerance for music of African origin than in the rest of the United States. This made possible the emergence of a Creole music similar to that of Haiti or Martinique, with musical influences from Haiti.

On top of all this were the aforementioned Cuban migrations that began in 1886. We still lack precise information about the presence of Cuban musicians among the first jazz musicians of New Orleans, but the number of Spanish surnames—comparable to the number of French ones—that are found among them is noteworthy. The best known are those of Manuel Pérez, Lorenzo Tio, Luis Tio, Willy Marrero, Paul Domínguez, Florencio Ramos, Alcides Núñez, Perlops Núñez, and Jimmy Palau.

Willie Pickens – a True Phenomenon of Jazz Music

“Chicago’s own Willie Pickens is a true phenomenon…. a truly humble, kind, honest andspiritual person with incredible talent, we here in Chicago are fortunate to have a beautifulsoul such as Willie Pickens to appreciate. “
  Brad Walseth – Jazz Chicago.net

“With his large & complex chords, his great splashes of color and dissonance in the right hand and his barrelhouse octaves in the left, Pickens never lets the dramatic intensity flag.”

Howard Reich – Chicago Tribune

“Pickens’ most exuberant solos all but take flight from the keyboard’s runway.”

Neil Tesser – Chicago Reader

Growing up in the midwest, Willie Pickens earned a teacher’s certificate from the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee and went on to the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, in 1958, to receive his B.S. in Music Education, before beginning his remarkable career as a jazz pianist.

Over the years, his sterling academic credentials have enabled him to share his gifts with many young players, both as a performer and teacher. Upon graduating from school, he moved to Chicago and began his career on a national hitrecord — Eddie Harris’ 1961 Exodus.  After that big hit,  Willie’s live appearances were almost all limited to the midwest for the next two decades, while his career as an educator flourished. From 1966 to 1986, he appeared on recordings headlined by Bunky Green, E. Parker McDougal, Vernel Fournier.

He also performed with Sammy Davis Jr., at Orchestra Hall, and with Quincy Jones, Roberta Flack, and Minnie Ripperton at the Mill Run Theatre In 1990, Willie was invited to join the mighty Elvin Jones Jazz Machine. His first appearance with this legendary band took place later that year at the Bottom Line in New York and also featured Wynton Marsalis.

Willie’s commitment to the Jazz Machine over the next several years meant retirement from full-time teaching in the public schools, but enabled him to serve as a linchpin for the group, appearing in Japan, Europe, and Canada, as well as in many U.S. cities. At  77, Willie continues to be one of Chicago’s most in-demand pianists for visiting artists.

He has performed several times at the famed Chicago Jazz Festival, to rave reviews, and hasbeen the featured pianist on impresario Joe Segal’s Jazz Cruises, where he has shared the stage with Clark Terry, Louie Bellson, and Red Holloway, among others.

He has also performed with fellow pianist Marian McPartland, both in concert and on her well-loved NPR show,  Piano Jazz. 2001 saw the release of their album of duets Ain’t Misbehavin’ on the Concord label.  His performance is straight-ahead, and utterly stable — with dense chords, percussive attack, and flying solos — echoing the artistry of McCoy Tyner. Lately, he’s matured as both a soloist and bandleader, letting the space between the notes speak.

While he’s not as showy as many of the younger folks, he always puts on a great show.