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Havana Jam was a three-day music festival that took place at the Karl Marx Theater, in Havana, Cuba, on 2–4 March 1979. It was sponsored by Bruce Lundvall, the president of Columbia Records, Jerry Masucci, the president of Fania Records, and the Cuban Ministry of Culture.
The festival included, on the American side, Weather Report, the CBS Jazz All-Stars, the Trio of Doom, Fania All-Stars, Stephen Stills, Billy Swan, Bonnie Bramlett, Mike Finnigan, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge and Billy Joel. The Cuban acts included Irakere, Pacho Alonso, Zaida Arrate, Elena Burke, Orquesta de Santiago de Cuba, Conjunto Yaguarimú, Frank Emilio, Juan Pablo Torres, Los Papines, Tata Güines, Cuban Percussion Ensemble, Sara González, Pablo Milanés, Manguaré, and Orquesta Aragón.
In 1977, US President Jimmy Carter and Cuban President Fidel Castro started to loosen the political tension between the two countries and opened Interest Sections both in Havana and Washington. It was the first time in almost two decades after Castro’s rise to power that there was a real interest in establishing a normalization of diplomatic relations and the lifting of the United States embargo against Cuba.
With a real crisis in the music industry in the United States and the start of the salsa boom, in April 1978, CBS Records director, Bruce Lundvall, saw an open door to probe Cuban music and together with a group of the company’s music enthusiasts made a four-day trip to Havana, where they were overwhelmed by the sound of Cuban music, but especially by Afro-Cuban jazz band Irakere, one of Cuba’s most highly regarded and virtuoso musical acts.
After months of talks, Lundvall managed to sign Irakere and in July the group traveled to New York to perform an unannounced guest set at the famed Newport Jazz Festival-New York. Rave reviews led to an invitation from the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.
A few months later, Irakere won their first Grammy with the album Irarere, recorded at their Carnegie Hall performance, and Lundvall wanted to try his luck with other Cuban bands too. So, in the Fall of 1978, he joined forces with Fania Records director Jerry Masucci and convinced the Cuban cultural authorities to organize a three-day festival in Havana with the participation of Cuban and American musicians. The event would be recorded and televised for the enjoyment of both the Cuban and American people.
So they all agreed to set a date for the festival, spontaneously entitled Havana Jam. March 2 through 4, 1979, were the days earmarked for this historical step toward establishing a cultural exchange between the two enemy nations. In order to carry out the Herculean task of planning, Lundvall brought aboard Jock McLean and Phil Sandhaus, of Columbia's artists development department. Both veterans of major concert promotion, they knew the festival needed professional production of the highest caliber, and enlisted Showco (a Dallas-based concert production company) and Studio Instrument Rentals for the task.
At this point in time, Lundvall was diligently “feeling out” select members of the Columbia artist roster, all of whom were honored to accept the invitation to perform in Cuba. By early February the talent was confirmed. Representing the U.S. would be Billy Joel, Stephen Stills, Weather Report, Kris Kristofferson with Rita Coolidge, the Fania All-Stars and the CBS Jazz All-Stars. The latter group was conceptualized by Lundvall and scheduled to feature more than 20 top jazz artists on the label.
With the festival within grasp, other CBS Records personnel were summoned into the picture-rehearsals were set up for the CBS Jazz All-Stars, travel accommodations were made, equipment was rented, a wide cross-section of media was invited, and both recording and videotaping plans were confirmed.
Record producers Bert deCoteaux and Mike Berniker flew down with a crew from the CBS Recording Studios along with a support team and mobile 24-track console from Record Plant. McLean, Sandhaus, Freston and various other people were already busy working in Havana's Karl Marx Auditorium when the musicians landed at the José Martí airport on March 1.
Havana Jam was an invitation-only event, with mostly cultural personalities and members of the Communist Party and their children in attendance, though some students from different art and music schools were also invited.
The festival was hardly mentioned on the Cuban press, and thirty years later not many Cubans know it ever existed.
Friday, 2 March 1979
With the hall filled to capacity, Weather Report opened the show, offering an assortment of sound effects before launching into their set. The audience repeatedly rose to its feet during the program, setting the festival's prevailing mood of “music over politics”. Backstage, Weather Report's members (Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius and Peter Erskine) were later congratulated by an assortment of Cuban musicians and fans, most of whom were familiar with the group's repertoire through the aid of Florida radio, mostly AM stations such as WQAM, WGBS, WKWF and WLCY.
Weather Report was followed by two traditional Cuban ensembles of differing styles. The first, Conjunto Yaguarimú, featured vocalists Zaida Arrate and Pacho Alonso, who interpreted “dated” Cuban music. The second group, Orquesta Aragón, played some of the most dynamic music of the festival, utilizing its charanga sound of violins, cello, flute and rhythm section.
The concert was running very late, and people began to leave the hall because of a midnight public transportation curfew. Hence, when the Fania All-Stars took the stage the house was half empty, yet the excitement of this ensemble-featuring practically every top name in salsa still captured the spirit of the audience. The ensemble included top salsa artists of the likes of Rubén Blades, Johnny Pacheco, Pete Rodríguez, Héctor Lavoe, Larry Harlow, Santos Colón, Luigi Texidor, Pupi Legarreta, Papo Lucca, Roberto Roena, Adalberto Santiago, Sal Cuevas, Wilfrido Vargas, and other Latin superstars.
Saturday, 3 March 1979
Leading off Saturday evening’s entertainment was the first grouping of the CBS Jazz All-Stars, composed of Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Jimmy Heath, Arthur Blythe, Woody Shaw, Hubert Laws, Bobby Hutcherson, Willie Bobo, Cedar Walton, Percy Heath and Tony Williams. The group performed several tunes by Walton and Jimmy Heath that had the crowd on its feet after every solo.
The stage was then turned over to the “once-in-a-life-time” Trio of Doom, including luminaries John McLaughlin, Jaco Pastorius and Tony Williams. The highly amplified trio captivated the audience with its unique sound. As a finale, a third ensemble came onstage: Blythe, Jimmy Heath, Laws, Bobo, Richard Tee, Rodney Franklin, Eric Gale, John Lee and Gerry Brown. Although their set was limited to two selections, the assemblage was also well received.
What followed was the highlight of the festival, the 25-member Cuban Percussion Ensemble. The entourage featured some of the biggest names in modern Cuban drumming, such as Tata Güines, Los Papines, Guillermo Barreto and Changuito, backed by pianist Frank Emilio and his quartet.
After a masterful percussion set, Cuba was treated to its first taste of rock 'n' roll by Stephen Stills. He performed a high-energy set that featured a top-notch band that included Bonnie Bramlett and Mike Finnegan. Stills gave a sampling of his various hits throughout the years, and then jumped into the audience with his remote control guitar and sang a salute to the audience entitled Cuba Al Fin.
Irakere closed the show, spurred on by the high energy audience in the theater. Featuring leader keyboardist Chucho Valdés, Irakere pulled out all stops. The group was then joined by Rodney Franklin, Richard Tee, John McLaughlin, Willie Bobo, Stan Getz, Jaco Pastorius and others in an all-out jam session, bringing the evening's proceedings to an abrupt halt at 3 A.M.
Sunday, 4 March 1979
Appearing next on the bill were Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, backed by an excellent band composed of Billy Swan and other top musicians. Kristofferson performed first, singing many of his hit songs which were recognized by the audience. The tunes were interspersed with Kris's well-meaning stabs at speaking Spanish. The house was rocking as Rita Coolidge took the stage and the Cubans all sang along to Coolidge's AM-radio hits. This audience could have been one of any American audience, not what one would expect in modern, staid Karl Marx Theater.
The evening was propelled one step further when Sara González, who is gifted with one of the most powerful and emotional voices in the world, sang several numbers accompanied by Pablo Milanés y Grupo Manguaré.
Then came the festival's finale, Billy Joel, who demonstrated that rock 'n' roll is truly one of the most exciting and spontaneous of all musical idioms. Billy immediately electrified the hall and pandemonium broke loose as people screamed “Bil-lee Yo-el” and rushed the stage. Everyone agreed that this was one of Billy's best sets ever, filled with originality and fire.
Havana Jam was a musical triumph from start to finish and will also be reserved through the many stories told by those fortunate enough to attend.
In 1979, Columbia released two double albums of the festival performances, Havana Jam and Havana Jam 2. The Fania All-Stars's set was released later that year as Havana Jam on Fania. The Trio of Doom performance was released in 2007 as Trio of Doom.
- http://billyjoel.es/WordPress/?m=197903 (in Spanish)