Great Jazz Bands of the 1930s in Cuba

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.

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.

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.