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.
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.