Afro-Cuban Jazz: History & Artists

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson let's explore one of the earliest forms of Latin jazz: Afro-Cuban jazz. We'll take a look at the history of this rhythm, the most commonly used instruments and some of the famous artists of this style.

What is Afro-Cuban Jazz?

Jazz has been an important musical genre ever since it was developed. Latin American rhythms had a deep influence in early jazz and gave origin to a famous style called Afro-Cuban jazz.

Afro-Cuban jazz is a musical style that developed in the 1940's and 50's based on jazz harmonies, African and Cuban rhythms and different techniques of improvisation. It's considered the first style of Latin jazz.

Afro-Cuban jazz uses a combination of traditional jazz and percussion instruments, commonly found in other Caribbean styles. These often include timbales, bongos, congas, piano, trumpet, trombone, bass guitar, saxophone and clarinet.

Origins of Afro-Cuban Jazz

The origins of Afro-Cuban jazz date from the early 20th century. The abolition of slavery in Cuba in 1886 gave origin to a large migration from the island into New Orleans. A process of cultural exchange began that led to a mixture of musical instruments and styles. During those days, a ferry used to run from New Orleans to Havana, so many bands from one place would regularly go to play in the other.

The constant movement of people and ideas influenced early American jazz music and soon Latin rhythms were incorporated. In Cuba, the Habanera was a popular style in the local dance halls and Buddy Bolden (a native from New Orleans who is considered the first jazz musician) took notes from this rhythm and created an arrangement called the 'big four', which served as the base for Afro-Cuban jazz.

Mario Bauzá

American Jazz and Cuban rhythms continued to be combined and developed together. Cuban composer Mario Bauzá is considered the pioneer of the Afro-Cuban jazz genre.

In the early 40's, Bauzá became the director of the band Machito and the Afro-Cubans. In 1943, they composed the famous song ''Tangá'', based on a series of musical improvisations. This song is considered by many musicians and historians as the first single of Afro-Cuban jazz.

Band members Machito and Graciela
machito and graciela

This was a time of racial segregation in the United States, and Mario Bauzá was asked by many club owners to remove the word 'Afro-Cuban' from the name of the band. He always refused. They were Afro-Cubans, that's what they represented, and if the place wasn't okay with that, they wouldn't play there.

In the 50's, Afro-Cuban jazz continued to evolve and Mambo became part of the musical scene. Mambo is another rhythm with Afro-Caribbean roots and jazz elements. It became very popular in New York, giving Latin jazz a huge boost.

Famous Artists of Afro-Cuban Jazz

Many musicians became very popular during this time.

Mario Bauzá introduced Cuban percussionist Luciano Chano Pozo to jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. They had a very successful presentation in Carnegie Hall in New York. The new duo worked together to produce many songs, including the iconic Afro-Cuban jazz track ''Manteca''.

Dizzy Gillespie playing in 1955
Dizzy Gillespie

Tito Puente was a Puerto-Rican musician, known as 'The King of Latin Music'. He is famous for creating dance-oriented, Mambo songs as well as Latin jazz compositions. He had a lot of recognition during the 50's, but his music has transcended time and become classics.

Tito Puente playing with other musicians
Tito Puente playing with other musicians

Israel Cachao Lopez was a Cuban composer and bassist who became famous for his Mambo and 'Descarga' songs (improvised Cuban jam sessions). He is regarded as one of the best bassists of all time. He received various Grammy Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Israel Cachao Lopez
Israel Cachao Lopez

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