Today we’re pleased to share a playlist and commentary by Jason Borge, author of the new book Tropical Riffs: Latin America and the Politics of Jazz. In the book, Borge traces how jazz helped forge modern identities and national imaginaries in Latin America during the mid-twentieth century. Borge is Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Texas, Austin.
Tropical Riffs is not meant to be a survey or formal analysis of Latin jazz or Latin American jazz per se. Rather, it is a cultural and intellectual history of jazz’s singular impact in the region from the 1920s until the 1980s, with a focus on Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Mexico. My book’s central aim is to explain why jazz—or what passed for jazz—resonated so deeply and for so long with such a wide range of Latin American fans, critics, intellectuals, and musicians. It is inevitable that Tropical Riffs would deal with individual artists and recordings, given the region’s prominent though somewhat misunderstood place in the complex transnational circuitry of jazz and 20th century popular music generally. The following playlist gives a sampling of the performers and performances that speak to the main issues covered in the book’s five chapters.
Chapter 1: La civilizada selva: Latin America and the Jazz Age
Adolfo Aviles Jazz Band, “Blue Skies” (Odeon Nacional, 1927)
Ovaldo Viana e Orquestra Romeu Silva, “O Teu Sapateado” (from the film O Jovem Tataravô, dir. Luiz de Barros, 1936)
Like many other Latin American orchestras of the time, the Adolfo Aviles Jazz Band was basically a multi-purpose dance band, adept at interpreting different musical styles to accompany different dances foxtrots and tangos. “Blue Skies” is a popular Tin Pan Alley tune of the 1920s recorded by, among others, Josephine Baker, a huge star in Latin America in the late 1920s. For many, Baker symbolized the Jazz Age not only in terms of her stylized nègre spectacle and performative derring-do but also by bringing a sense of cosmopolitan danger to local audiences. Baker’s fame only increased after she toured several South American cities in 1929. In “O Teu Sapateado,” Ovaldo Viana and the Orquestra Romeu Silva perform in front of a screen filled with images of Baker. Romeu, by the way, was quite familiar with both jazz and Baker, having played with Baker in the early 1930s as well as the clarinetist and soprano saxophonist Booker Pittman, who began his decades-long tenure in Brazil and Argentina as a part of Silva’s orchestra.
Chapter 2: Dark Pursuits: Argentina, Race, and Jazz
Oscar Alemán, “Blues del Adios” [Bye Bye Blues] (Odeon Argentina, 1942)
Gato Barbieri, from Jazz is Alive and Well in New York (documentary, 1973)
Astor Piazzolla with Conjunto Electrónico, “Libertango” (French television: Les rendez-vous du dimanche, March 20, 1977)
In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, nowhere in Latin America did the passion for jazz rage stronger than in Argentina. Part of the same Parisian milieu as Silva and Baker in the 1930s, the Afro-Argentine guitarist Oscar Alemán was, after Django Reinhardt, probably the most prominent swing guitarist in Europe. Alemán was also a consummate showman and a highly adaptable singer who returned to Buenos Aires as a conquering, semi-authentic, jazz icon—which for most porteño critics and fans normally meant being Black and estadounidense. Gato Barbieri and Astor Piazzolla, like Alemán, achieved fame abroad while wrestling with charged and ambivalent conceptions of jazz (and tango) back home. Barbieri apprenticed as a free jazz player with Don Cherry, then reinvented himself in the late 1960s as a mestizo revolutionary drawing from an assortment of Andean, Brazilian, and other musical sources, as this clip from a French documentary shows. Piazzolla, meanwhile, focused on “swingifying” tango in stints in Europe, the US, and in Argentina. This recording of “Libertango” shows him in his short-lived fusion format, at a time when he was eager to update himself in ways that would resonate with international audiences in the 1970s and 1980s.
Chapter 3: The Anxiety of Americanization: Jazz, Samba, and Bossa Nova
Orquesta Típica Pixinguinha-Donga, “Gavião Calçudo” (Parlophone, 1929)
Carlos Lyra, “Influência do Jazz,” from Depois do Carnaval: O Sambalanço de Carlos Lyra (Philips, 1963)
Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz, “The Girl from Ipanema” (The Hollywood Palace, ABC TV, 1964)
The history of Brazilian popular music of the early to mid-20th century is haunted by the spectre of perceived cultural impurities, often considered synonymous with americanização [Americanization] and jazz in particular. Such fears first came to the fore in the late 1920s with the publication of a series of articles decrying the audible jazz influence of the Orquesta Típica Pixinguinha-Donga, particularly in the Parlophone recordings of the samba-maxixe “Gavião Calçudo” (included here) and Pixinguinha [Alfredo da Rocha Viana Jr.]’s famous composition “Carinhoso.” The anxiety of americanização simmered for several decades, coming to a boil again in the early 1960s with the rise of bossa nova. Tellingly, one of the movement’s early hits—Carlos Lyra’s “Influência do Jazz”—gave explicit if ambivalent expression to samba’s supposed contamination at the hands of jazz. By contrast, US jazz artists like Stan Getz were only too eager to capitalize on bossa’s jazz “problem,” often upstaging the bossanovistas in the process, as this television clip reveals.
Chapter 4: The Hazards of Hybridity: Afro-Cuban Jazz, Mambo, and Revolution
Dizzy Gillespie and His Orchestra, with Chano Pozo, “Manteca” (RCA Victor, 1947)
Pérez Prado and His Orchestra on The Spike Jones Show, May 1, 1954
Irakere, Live in Concert, March 23, 1979, Capitol Theatre (Passaic, NJ)
When Dizzy Gillespie and the Cuban-born percussionist Luciano “Chano” Pozo made music together shortly after the end of the Second World War, New York City became ground zero both for bebop and “Cubop,” or Afro-Cuban jazz. Most jazz critics and historians now generally acknowledge that the Gillespie-Machito-Pozo sessions (such as this recording of Pozo’s composition “Manteca”) signalled the birth of what today is known as Latin jazz. Meanwhile, another jazz-informed, circum-Caribbean hybrid was being born in the nightclubs of Havana and the soundstages of Mexico City. Epitomized (if not created) by the bandleader Dámaso Pérez Prado, mambo was often reduced to caricature in US film and television appearances of the 1950s. In the 1960s, while critics and industry insiders in the United States struggled to come to terms with Afro-Caribbean contributions to transnational popular music, Cuban revolutionary orthodoxy made “jazz” a bad word, in spite of the jazz-like music that continued to be performed on the island. The jazz prohibition would be blown wide open in the 1970s with the rise of the Cuban jazz-fusion supergroup Irakere.
Chapter 5: Liberation, Disenchantment, and the Afterlives of Jazz
Bix Beiderbecke, “Jazz Me Blues” (Matrix, 1927), one of many jazz recordings mentioned in Rayuela (Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar
Dave Brubeck, “Nostalgia de Mexico,” from Bravo! Brubeck! (Columbia, 1967)
Tino Contreras, “Santo,” from Misa en jazz (Musart, 1966)
Even after the international popularity of jazz went into slow decline beginning in the 1950s, the music, aggressively promoted abroad by the US State Department, continued to captivate Latin American audiences. This was especially true of writers and intellectuals like the Argentine Julio Cortázar, whose landmark novel Rayuela [Hopscotch, 1963] is chock-full of references to jazz and blues, from Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong to Bix Beiderbecke (included here) and Art Tatum. There were countless musical tributes and quotations as well. In 1966, the Mexican jazz drummer and composer Tino Contreras recorded “Santo,” an unusual homage to Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” and part of Contreras’s conceptually ambitious project, Misa en Jazz [Jazz Mass]. As if to return the favor, Brubeck, one of the main jazz ambassadors of the 1960s and 1970s (along with Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and others), recorded Bravo! Brubeck! live in Mexico in 1967.