Symptomatology of Mexican Jazz in the XXI Century

Symptomatology of Mexican Jazz in the XXI Century

by Alain Derbez

copyright © 2002 Alain Derbez

It was a great experience to go the Guelph Jazz Festival. Our poetical concert was good as well as, on the following day, my lecture on Mexican jazz. Here it is for you to read. Salud. Alain

(as read in the Guelph Jazz Coloquium on September the fifth, 2002)

Let us find the constants in the history of jazz in Mexico. A history that has been more than the anecdote or the curious fact, more than the Latin Tinge or Scott Joplin's Mexican Ragtime or Albert Nicholas's Mexican teacher or Charlie Mingus dying in Cuernavaca (where Gil Evans died, where Dexter Gordon lived almost until his death, where Malcolm Lowry wrote a novel that would inspire British Graham Collier's jazz work "The Day of the Death") . . . Charlie Mingus, I repeat, dying in Cuernavaca on the same day when a lot of whales died in the Baja California's shore.

A history that goes farther than Carlos Santana, Mexican rock guitar player, mentions as the only Mexican jazz player in Joachim Berendt's Book of Jazz, or Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez playing with Pat Metheny, or a pliano master called Mario Patron, conducting his own group successfully in a Newport Jazz Festival in the '50s, or Juan Garcaa Esquivel's orchestras sound, or Chico O'Farrill living in Mexico, or some Canadian guitar players actually making a living playing jazz in little cities like Xalapa or San Miguel Allende and Dave Mc Murdo, Canadian trombonist, conducting workshops in Mexico City, or a band in the '20s called The Belen Jazz Band, playing in the prison where they were kept with their audience, or a Mexican sax player, Henry West, playing every tuesday in a Mexico City's theather with Don Cherry on trumpet and shenai and a Mexican woman, Ana Ruiz on piano, introducing free jazz for a whole year in the early '70s in our country . . .

A history that could have started, anecdotally with a national military band that was sent by the Mexican government to the 19th Century city of New Orleans with a one way ticket for all the musicians (that was the Cotton Fair in 1884). Some of these "soldiers" had to stay there and work and never went back, some of them taught music to young guys that would turn, with the years, jazz protagonists; a history, also, that could begin in the '20s of the Twenty, the years in which the word "jazz" was either a label of Mexican cigarettes, the nickname of a Mexican actress also called in Hollywood "The Spitfire" (Lupe Velez), the word that named the genre that a dancer recreated with great success in my country, Josephine Baker, and, of course, a word that was used to name the music played in those days by "danzoneras," orchestras and marimba ensembles in different places all around the country (southern states like Yucatan, Tabasco and Veracruz -- the three in the Gulf of Mexico -- central zones like Mexico City or Guadalajara, or northern states like Chihuahua, Baja California and Nuevo Leon).

The word "jazz" was used to identify the music played in the theatres with the silent movies, "jazz" was what people who owned that modern invention called radio could listen to, "jazz" was, as you can tell by reading Agustin Lara's memories, what was played for exercise, love and amusement in the big popular dancing halls, what inspired the work of artists like the Mexican pianter Miguel Covarrubias -- illustrator in 1926 of W.C.Handy's book, A Treasure of the Blues -- and jazz was, with electricity, radio, automobiles, energy, motive and theme for the generation of poets called "Los Estridentistas" (Stridentists), people like Kin-Ta-Ni-Ya, Liszt Arzubide, Maples Arce, etc., influenced by the Italian Futuristic Movement (Maples Arce, born in Xalapa, should be twice as famous in Canada, at least for his last names: Arce is the name in Spanish of the maple tree).

"Jazz" was what George Gershwin -- you can read it in the newspapers from those years -- composed and went to play down in Mexico (David Alfaro Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist, painted his portrait); and "jazz" was what the first Secretary of Public Education, the philosopher Jose Vasconcelos, forbade (you can also read it in his memories: "I prohibited jazz as I" -- he wrote -- "prohibited bullfights, because both of them are savage demonstrations"). "Jazz" was what some academic musicians in those years wanted to suppress in Mexico City, to celebrate Beethoven's aniversary, because it was -- they explained to the authorities -- as offensive as the automobile horns.

In those days Mexican Jazz original music scores were published in big cities newspapers and magazines and, in the same pages, it was possible to read opinions expressed by popular musicians like Miguel lerdo de Tejada and important cultural figures like the poet Luis G.Urbina: "Jazz" -- they said - "is this music made with the feet for the feet" . . . Jazz in Mexico.

Let us then, find the constants in a Century of Jazz in Mexico, of Mexico in Jazz.

1) All along its history, Mexican jazz has not really interested those who have written about jazz in Mexico (nor has it interested those who write about music in general or thowe who write about jazz elsewhere). We have had more jazz (even original jazz) than written documents about it. This is, sadly, evident.

2) When somebody writes about Mexican jazz in newspaper or magazines that not very often give some space to this theme, the tone used -- of course we can find exceptions since the '20s -- with, sometimes certain literary eccentricities, does not exceed the superficial topic, the commonplaces.

3) Mexican jazz musicians -- once again we can mention exceptions that confirm the rule -- do not pay much attention to written documents (somebody has asserted that musicians have little interest in information in general). This interest can awake if somebody speaks "well" about their way of playing, then there is a recognition to what the "specialist" has written and "his authority," but, on the contrary, if the words were not so laudatory, then the jazz player disqualifies the writer immediately. We can ask: which is the expected performance of the jazz critic in such a scene?

4) All along this secular history, Mexican jazz players and composers have had to fight against prejudice and commonplaces (jazz is music for and made by savages; jazz has to be played by black musicians, if not, it is not jazz; jazz is the music of a whorehouse; jazz is music of drug addicts, of imperialists, of insane fellows, of old men; Mexican jazz does not exist and has not existed; jazz died with George Gershwin's death, with Paul Whiteman's death, with Louis Armstrong's death, Glenn Miller, Duke, Bird, Trane, Diz, Miles, Chico O'Farrill or the Mexican conductors Luis Arcaraz and Juan Garcia Esquivel, Mario Patron's death, Chilo Moran (trumpet), the group Sacbe's death, or any other name that you can have in your mind now; Mexican jazz, to be Mexican, requires the Mexican Jazz Player disguised as a Revolutionary, a Chicano, an Indian, a conqueror, a guerrilla subcommandante; Mexican jazz to be Mexican must syncopate songs like La Cucaracha, Besame mucho, La rielera, El jarabe loco, La bamba and must turn "Take Five" into a jarabe or a huapango, "All Blues" a bolero and "When the Saints Go Marching In" a valona, a son, a corrido or something that can be played by norteno conjuntos and mariachis, etc.

5) Mexican jazz players have had to struggle against a lot of foes to propose something really creative: against the lack of specialized places in every big city where to play, against mayor and minor authorities, against impresarios, union leaders, cultural functionaries, politics, neighbours, themselves, other musicians that play academic and popular and industrial musica, paternalista promoters that bless or damn with arbitrary magic rods, spokesmen of "malinchismos" and patrioterisms, chauvinisms, and some other "isms", like opportunism and, also, anacronismo (anachronicity) of the official music study plans that can still consider Stravinsky a sinner. To all those enemies you can add unimaginable bad salaries and something called "hueso" -- the literary translation is bone and the word is used since the '20s to define that gig, that job, in where you can earn some money playing anything but the music you really want to do.

6) Continuity is not a constant if we talk about the phonographic productions in Mexican jazz. When the recordings exist -- as it has happened, against all odds, since the end of the '80s in independent labels and author releases -- distribution and promotion are, in real and comparative terms, ridiculous. With television and written press it has been the same: there is not a following line (programs and projects that are announced one day with great rattle, are, months later, attacked by bureaucracy and die of exhaustation and budget weakness either because they do not enter anymore in the commercial interest of private nets or because of the particularities of the cultural policy. Let us not forget that in any economical crisis --and the second name of Mexico can still be crisis -- for the government conductors (once again, with some exceptions), cultural work is the first item to be dismissed and not missed.

All these constants -- and some more -- collabortate to create a scenario in which the offer of our music in the daily billboard is always seen as "exceptional." The creators are always and have been always installed in the cosmetic predicament of the "second debut," the constant "second debut."

If this is the symptomatology of Mexican jazz in the XXIst Century, is there anybody who could dare an objective diagnosis now than once again some jazz festivals, some concerts, some daily reports and coverage in some newspapers, some personal attitudes and behaviors, can make us thing -- once again -- that there is a place for hope?

Yes, there is a creative renaissance among the young musicians, finally there is a Public musical institution (the Escuela Superior de Musica in Mexico City) that has accepted jazz as a career; jazz (traditional and avant garde) has its audience, different audiences. Jazz in Mexico has been a presence for the whole century, it has enriched different fields of art, different languages: movies, drama, painting, literature, dance, other academic, popular and commercial music.

What is there to be done in the absence of a supportive infrastructure?

What has been going on?

At least let us gain the memory, write it. Jazz in Mexico is thicker, richer than my book (El jazz en Mexico, datos para una historia). Let us find out. Maybe in the next edition, the reader could find some anachonistic epigraphs like the following:

  • Jazz in Mexico is an evanescent territory where any prognosis is difficult and where any diagnosis can turn to be, in a jiffy, a commonplace.

  • Jazz in Mexico is that place where you cand find one of your feet in nostalgia and half of your body in survival.

  • Jazz in Mexico is a cultural phenomena that has been present in a lot of different cultural fields all along the XXth Century. In it everything announced as jazz is jazz unless it demonstrates the contrary (and/or the contrary)

  • Jazz in Mexico is a weapon loaded with future.

  • Jazz in Mexico lives, survives, lives, survives, lives. . . .


Alain Derbez, poet, author, journalist, broadcaster, lives in Vera Cruz. This article, based on the introduction to his book El jazz en Mexico, datos para una historia (published by the Fondo de Cultura Economica in 2001), was presented as a paper at the Guelph Jazz Festival, 2002


C o m m e n t s

gershwin and siqueiros 1 of 3
gadv September 23, 02

Anybody knows where this oleo(1.60x2.50) is? Siqueiros painted Gershwin´s portrait playing in 1936 (Raquel Tibol, important art critic and specialist, knows the facts). It was painted when the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros was in USA with his experimental workshop. Is it still in the Metropolitan Museum in N.York? In the warehouse? Where´s Gershwin playing? In the Carnegie Hall? Did Gerwshin support the Society of Friends of the Communist Party in U.S.?

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