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JDP Archives: In Conversation with Dita Sullivan

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Celebrating Jazz at the Crossroads and The Dance of Ellegua at Minton’s in Harlem

For the past two Tuesdays, I’ve been stopping by at Minton’s in Harlem for Jazz at the Crossroads – The Dance of Eleggua, which runs from May 13th to August 26th. The evening got off to a promising start with the drummer, composer Francisco Mora-Catlett’s AfroHORN, who draws inspiration from the late, great Sun Ra and the author, Henry Dumas. 

AfroHorn is described as “A musical metaphor for the middle passage, a nexus, and the site of negotiation, a place that unites the diaspora through the shared experience of in-between-ness.”

The next installment titled El Gallo Mistico marked the debut of a project led by the Cuban master percussionist Román Diaz and the pianist David Virelles.

Between sets, I spoke with Dita Sullivan, one of the most adventurous curators on the planet. I made Dita’s acquaintance at the Jazz Standard, during her groundbreaking New Dimensions in Latin Jazz series, which presents the new wave of Latin American “jazzistas.” Here’s what she had to say about Jazz at the Crossroads. 

IN CONVERSATION WITH PRESENTER, DITA SULLIVAN

Tomas Pena: Congratulations on Jazz at the Crossroads – The Dance of Eleggua. It must be thrilling to present such an innovative series at this historic venue — also, Congratulations to Minton’s for giving you the freedom to show the incredible lineup.

Dita Sullivan: Well, I’m responding in part to Minton’s itself, in this new incarnation, as conceived by Richard Parsons, the owner, and by Alexander Smalls, the executive chef, and co-creator. Alexander – an artist in his own right, a former opera singer, and a great culinary innovator who has spent time in West Africa, cooking and exploring the culture. Out of that journey, he created a new cuisine that expresses the impact of the African diaspora on the world – from Asia to the Americas. So in the programming, I had to step up to the plate – pun intended – and bring music that matched the sophistication and complexity of the food.

It’s a miracle to can curate a music festival at Minton’s, not only because it’s a legendary club – the place where bebop was born – but also because of the way it has been restored. It’s an oasis of elegance: like jazz heaven, or maybe a movie about jazz. The room has the most perfect acoustics I’ve encountered. Initially, I was asked to curate a “Latin Night,” much like my programming of the New Dimensions in Latin Jazz series. Still, as I contemplated the club’s history, and Harlem (I lived there from 2000 to 2004), I wanted to acknowledge the intercourse between American and Latin culture, because it’s where and how Latin jazz was born – during the Harlem Renaissance.

The title is intriguing, mysterious. Obviously there is more to it than meets the eye.

Yes, you’re right. Thinking about the impact of intersections of those cultures suggested the Yoruban deity Eleggua, a child-like trickster who is the guardian of all crossroads and doorways; he rules the portal where past and future meet. Then I remembered that the club is on a corner – and I knew that I was on the right track.

Eleggua is a crucial figure in the cosmology of pan-African culture in the New World. Think of blues guitarist Robert Johnson at the crossroads; he didn’t sell his soul to the devil – he met Eleggua. Also, Eleggua is the embodiment of the multiple doorways into the African-Caribbean-New Orleans-Chicago-New York musical diaspora that is a trajectory of jazz, diasporas within each other, leading into each other with Harlem at the pinnacle.

My mission in presenting Latin jazz has been to show those experiences are connected by a current: one still not sufficiently acknowledged in jazz history. The current of Afro-Caribbean-Latin music that came out of the Creole culture of the Caribbean nexus that flowered in New Orleans. Latin jazz is not a mere tributary of jazz, but the river itself, the very source of jazz.

Thinking about that brought me, by a commodious vicus of recirculation, to the Eleggua-like forces that initiated me into the music. Mario Rivera, the Dominican multi-reed player-trumpeter-percussionist and “the musicians’ musician.” And Mario Bauzá, the Cuban clarinetist-saxophonist-trumpeter-composer, and bandleader, creator of the first Afro-Cuban jazz band. I realized the two Marios were Eleggua figures, to me and the world. Mario Bauzá as the architect of Latin jazz – he is to the music what Frank Lloyd Wright is to buildings – and Mario Rivera as a prophet of the next generation. The festival is inspired by and in honor of them.

How did you meet the two Marios?

It was all quite by chance. I had just come back to New York from living in Louisiana, and my cousin Bob, a musician, took me to the Village Gate for Salsa Meets Jazz. On that first night, I saw Mario Rivera, playing, and in that instant, my entire life changed direction. I got to know him by going to the Tuesday night Latin music shows at the midtown jazz loft, Soundscape, run by Verna Gillis, where the Gonzales brothers, Andy and Jerry, brought the music.

Rivera’s band, the Salsa Refugees, was one of two “house” bands at Soundscape. The other was, Manny Oquendo’s Conjunto Libre. 

Every era has its venues – the venues make the era. Bebop might not have been born without those Monday nights at Minton’s in the ’40s. The midtown locations of the jazz clubs The Royal Roost and Birdland so close to the Palladium, where the great mambo orchestras played, facilitated interchange between American and Latin musicians in the ’40s and ’50s. Slugs on the Lower East Side where so much alternative free jazz blossomed in the ’60s. The Village Gate and Soundscape were the homes of Latin music meeting jazz in the 1980s and also the only places where the American and Latino audiences mixed. At the time, New York was segregated. The greatest thing was the music, salsa, and jazz. It was like a forbidden world. “Hispanophobia” defined the mainstream attitude toward Latin culture. I know from writing about it. I had to crawl across the glass at the Village Voice every time I wanted to write about a significant figure in Latin music because the editor had never heard of them.

I couldn’t have transitioned into that secret world without the Monday’s at the Gate and Tuesdays at Soundscape, and the countless nights-that-went-into-dawn at Mario Rivera’s apartment. His home was a jam session and place of study: a doorway into a world not only of intoxicatingly beautiful music but of Afro-Hispanic-Caribbean culture. Under his guidance, I went through that doorway. I became a writer on music, a documentarian, and eventually a producer of live music.

I’m told there were instruments strewn about the apartment and he played them all. Fact or fiction?

True, there were saxophones on stands, from soprano to baritone, flutes, trumpets, traps, tambora’s, a piano. He played them all. Splendidly. But if you asked him how many instruments he played, he would say, “I’m still learning.” 

How did you meet Mario Bauzá? 

I met him when I was writing an article about Rafael Cortijo, right after he died. I was one of the only English-language writers covering Latin music. Also, I was writing for the Village Voice, which led to an invitation to Cuba for a music festival. When I got there, I discovered, to my surprise, that Bauzá and his work were mostly unknown to the musicians in his native country. After returning, I went to see him, to learn more about him. He was the most charming person I’ve ever met and one of the most fascinating. He had done everything, and he knew everything, and he talked about all of it with great eloquence.

That became my school – going back and forth between the two Marios, between trips to the Caribbean. Mario Bauzá loved to go out and took me everywhere with him. Mario Rivera had the opposite personality – he rarely left home unless it was for work; everyone came to him. In one night at his apartment, you could be with Tania Maria and Hilton Ruiz and Giovanni Hidalgo and any of several American jazz musicians, and Dominican guys playing atabales – the indigenous drums of Hispaniola. The combinations and overlaps were endless.

What the Marios had in common, aside from being great musicians, as they were both polymaths and fearless innovators. They loved traditional music, modern jazz, and the avant-garde and used it all in their work. I wanted this festival to honor them by representing the diverse palate of what they did – and what they liked.

That explains the lineup.

A conventional way to do an homage is to have a big concert where the artist’s music is played. I wanted to offer shows about them in all their complexity. 

This week’s show is a new work, El Gallo Mistico, a celebration of the anniversary of Cuba’s birth as a republic (May 20, 1902), created specifically for the festival by the master percussionist Román Diaz. It’s an interplay between the potent ritual drumming, and dance of the Yoruba, Congo, and Caribali cultures with the brilliant improvisational jazz piano of David Virelles. El Gallo Mistico (The Sacred Rooster) represents the exciting synergy between tradition and the avant-garde that has characterized the “Negrista” and AfroCubanismo movements of the 1920s and ’30s in Cuban culture. 

Tonight we had an unprecedented occurrence in the history of New York jazz. The presence of Africa, with all its potent magic, when Román Diaz invoked, with chants and drums, the Ireme, the masked, hooded sacred dancer of the Abakua religion. This ritual is the very source of jazz, the state of ecstatic possession, the direct communication with the deities of the West African pantheon that must never be forgotten.

Words don’t do the performance justice. It felt like an authentic Cuban rumba and North American jam session rolled into one. Also, it was a joyous performance with elements of Cuban folkloric music, progressive jazz, spoken word, dance, chants, and vocals by the masterful Román Diaz.

Yes – it is revolutionary – to have this thrilling Afro-Cuban ritual and music joined with the concept of progressive jazz as expressed by David Virelles on piano. Great Cuban musicians understand the avant-garde, and the folkloric are part of an eternal spiral. The concept is symbolized by the Culebra, the serpent with its tail in its mouth. El Gallo Mistico is a continuation of those modernist movements in Cuba of the 1920s and ’30s – the work of Guillen, Palaez, Cabrera, Garcia Caturla and Roldan – which embraced all the arts and extended to Paris and New York. Amadeo Roldán, one leader in that movement, and one of the greatest Cuban composers, had the debut performance of a percussion-driven symphonic piece, La Rembambaramba, here in New York in 1929.

What’s next?

I have an outstanding representative of traditional music, direct from Cuba – the folkloric vocalist and shekere player Eladio “Don Pancho” Terry, performing in an ensemble with his two sons – the saxophonist Yosvany and the bassist Yunior, and one of my favorite pianists, Osmany Paredes.

Don Pancho is a character. He’s an elder statesman, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he moves. Also, his sons Yosvany and Yunior are musicians, composers, and bandleaders. Osmany Paredes is the icing on the cake.

I had the privilege of presenting Don Pancho in 2010. It was an amazing concert that showed the continuity of roots music flowing into the new. He will be followed in June by the always-innovative post-bop trumpeter/composer Jack Walrath – who came out of the Mingus band. Jack was invited to symbolize Dizzy with whom Mario Bauzá collaborated by getting him a spot in Chick Webb’s group and bringing him the Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo. Then in July, the Grammy-winning trumpeter Brian Lynch is coming. He represents Mario Bauzá himself as a trumpet player – I know him from when he was with Hector Lavoe’s band, back in the ’80s – but he’s best known for his work with Art Blakey, and his seminal collaborations with Eddie Palmieri.

Mario Bauzá loved songs, and vocalists – he discovered Ella Fitzgerald and brought her to Chick Webb. As a bandleader, he built his orchestra around vocalists, first Machito, and then Graciela. I was wondering how to present that dimension of his work, when I had the good fortune to find a marvelous young vocalist, also from Cuba, Melvis Santa. I’m giving her a debut and a residency at the festival.

I got a taste of the lovely Melvis Santa when she appeared with El Gallo Mistico. I’m looking forward to her performance on June 17th.

Bauzá’s work was all about joining Latin music and jazz – he was not only the trumpet player for Chick Webb but the musical director as well, so to represent the drums and the cross-fertilization, I have the Cuban drummer Emilio Valdés in a project with the jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield. One of Mario’s favorite musicians and collaborators was the great Argentinean jazz pianist, Jorge Dalto. He is represented here by his paisan, a brilliant pianist and composer, and Grammy winner Fernando Otero.

Mario Rivera’s reeds are represented, initially by AfroHORN’s Sam Newsome on soprano and Alex Harding on baritone saxophone, and also at the end by alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry; AfroHORN and El Gallo Mistico represent Rivera’s groundbreaking work combining folklore with jazz in his Merengue Jazz project.

I invited two dynamic young jazz pianists to participate with their ensembles: George Burton – to represent the jazz piano of Don Kirkpatrick, who was Chick Webb’s pianist and arranger during Mario’s tenure, and the divine Fletcher Henderson, with whom Mario also worked – and David Virelles, from Santiago de Cuba, to represent the great René Hernandez, from the Afro-Cubans.

Mario Rivera loved Brazilian music – he listened to something from Brazil almost every day – so it must have been his spirit that inspired Ulisses Rocha, one of the best jazz guitarists of Brazil – to contact me to let me know that on his trip from Sao Paolo to Paris he could make a stopover in New York and perform in the festival in August.

Is there anything you would like to add? 

I love it when musicians ask me, “Is it okay if I do something new? – my answer is always, “are you kidding? – Of course! – Four tubas and a cello – whatever you want – but at the same time, it’s a sad commentary on the state of jazz that the question needs to be asked. If an artist is good, he/she should be supported. Isn’t that the whole point? Everyone involved in jazz is always complaining about how there’s not enough of an audience, and how they need funding like jazz is a disease that needs a cure. But I don’t see the festivals offering enough variety or artists chosen for their quality and courageous innovations. Too often, it’s the same name brands, doing the same thing repeatedly. My carte blanche approach to an artist I believe in is my antidote to all the fake, forced couplings – they could hardly be called collaborations – based on status, to generate publicity. That mentality is degrading the spirit of jazz.

What I’ve been doing with New Dimensions in Latin Jazz is opening the door onto a renaissance of jazz that’s being created by musicians and composers from Latin America; a movement in the city consistently ignored, to the point of suppression. What happens with the Latin American artists is they are marginalized by the jazz establishment and treated like stepchildren, allowed into the jazz venues sporadically, like it’s a huge favor, but not acknowledged as the movement they are. Then they are colonized/hijacked by American jazz musicians to provide background and credibility for so-called “Latin projects.” Still, ultimately, it blocks them from doing their work. I always say, “It must be a great thing to be Cuban because so many people have an ‘Afro-Cuban project,’ but we hardly see Cubans making their music.” It’s ironic, no? It’s a tragedy, for the artists, and for the audience who, oddly, is much hipper than the people running the jazz festivals and most clubs. After the set, I passed by a table of five or six people you might see at an upscale jazz venue. They were talking about how fascinating it was to see something so different and original. They got it. And Minton’s gets it – that’s why I believe that it will become the starship for the next era of jazz.

Jazz at the Crossroads is giving Latin American musicians and composers the platform and the exposure they deserve. Good luck with the series!

2020 Update: New Dimensions in Latin Jazz and Jazz at the Crossroads presents Román Díaz & Midnight Rumba at the Zinc Bar on alternate Thursdays, featuring the master drummer Román Díaz & his nine-piece percussion & vocal ensemble perform the living magic of the Afro-Caribbean experience.“The best story in New York jazz right now (and among the music’s longest-running tales) is the deepening and broadening of Afro-Latin influence and expression within jazz’s ranks. These connections are not only with Cuba—but they also flow from and back to Puerto Rico, Panama, the Dominican Republic, South America, and beyond—but they owe especially to Cuba and with an ever-finer integration of the various strands of tradition from regions within Cuba itself.”Larry Blumenfeld, BLOUIN

 

 

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