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.

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