Jazz got its start in turn-of-the-20th-century New Orleans, a cosmopolitan port city with a large African-influenced black population and a proximity to the sounds of the Caribbean and Mexico. So it is fitting that Island artists have long felt a kinship with jazz.
In the early 1900s, Puerto Rican trombonist Juan Tizol became a jazz pioneer, co-authoring such classic pieces as Caravan and Perdido with the legendary Duke Ellington. As jazz traveled from New Orleans to Chicago to New York, it continually evolved, influencing and being influenced along the way. In New York, the mambo orchestras of Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez influenced the jazz musicians living and playing in the city. In the 1960s, Latin music and Puerto Rican musicians -- Ray Barreto, Willie Bobo, the brothers Charlie and Eddie Palmieri, among others – incorporated jazz into their own repertoires. These pioneers began a fusion of the syncopated rhythms of jazz with the Afro-Latin rhythms of the Caribbean that continues to this day.
Recent generations of Puerto Rican musicians have become internationally known in the world of Latin jazz. Saxophonist David Sánchez, trombonist William Cepeda, percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo, and flutists Dave Valentin and Néstor Torres have blended their Puerto Rican roots with jazz styles to produce unique and highly successful interpretations of Latin jazz. Most of these artists have several CDs to their credit, and their distinctive sounds can be found in virtually every music store on the Island.
They and many other musicians have been showcased at the annual Puerto Rico Heineken JazzFest, being held this year from June 1-4 at the comfortable, open-air Tito Puente Amphitheater in the Hato Rey district of San Juan. Begun in 1991 as a free event in Old San Juan, the Puerto Rico Heineken JazzFest has grown to become the premier jazz festival in the Caribbean. Some 15,000 aficionas attend four evenings of concerts that feature a lively international mix of traditional straight-up, Afro-Caribbean, and eclectic jazz. Each festival highlights an honoree: these have included Paquito D’Rivera, Tito Puente, Ray Barreto and Gal Costa. Performers have ranged from the traditional Diane Schuur to the Afro-Cuban Humberto Ramírez to the eclectic Spyro Gyra. Professors and students from Boston’s Berklee College of Music perform and give workshops for up-and-coming local talent, and funds from sales of Puerto Rico Heineken JazzFest CDs go towards scholarships for deserving students.
If you can’t be here for the JazzFest, don’t worry: live jazz adds to the Island’s rich musical mix just about every week of the year, from clubs in Old San Juan to elegant hotel lobbies to starlit parks. For all jazz all the time, it’s the relaxed setting of Carli Café Concierto in Old San Juan. Carli Muñoz, a famous pianist and the venue’s proprietor, was first bitten by the jazz bug in the early ‘60s. Aside from a few detours with the Beach Boys (an 11-year stint) and his rock group “The Living End,” Carli’s number-one passion has always been jazz, and he has worked with such celebrated artists as George Benson and Les McCann. Open for more than seven years, Carli Café Concierto offers a savory international menu to go with the jazz.
For more current offerings, check the local newspapers or your hotel’s concierge.