Musical Circulations

Musical circulations between Cuba, Mexico and New Orleans: danzón and jazz

In contrast to understandings of the Spanish Tinge that follow Jelly Roll Morton's description of Afro-Caribbean rhythmic cells used in bass parts, new research argues that the Latin influence on early jazz is more than just spice added to an already-cooked musical mixture. Robin Moore, a scholar of Cuban music, and Alejandro Madrid, a scholar of Mexican music, recently collaborated on a project tracing the history of the danzón in Veracruz, Mexico, Habana, Cuba, and New Orleans. Moore and Madrid argue for a hemispheric, not a U.S.-centered frame for understanding the development of early jazz. Importantly, they focus not only on rhythm, but on the question of how "polyphonic weave" style improvisation, largely considered absent from its predecessor ragtime, became so fundamental to traditional jazz.

They see a possible answer in the Mexican and Cuban orquestas típicas that made such a splash when they performed again and again in late-19th century New Orleans. Specifically, the Mexican Eighth Cavalry Band under the direction of Captain Encarnación Payán performed several times in New Orleans, creating significant buzz surrounding "Mexican music," including Mexican danza and Cuban danzón. After a successful run of performances at the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in 1884, sheet music sales of danzón skyrocketed, and the band returned to perform several times in the next 14 years.

Improvisation is a well-documented element of danzón. Terms such as floreos (embellishments) and especulaciones (flights of fancy) describe improvised moments where each instrument goes its own way. Some published scores of the repertoire even include, as early as 1862, open-ended two-measure vamp sections that served to support improvisation for as long as performers desired.

An early danzón recording from 1906, 11 years before the first known jazz recording, exhibits the "polyphonic weave"-style improvisation that it currently so identified with early jazz. The recording, "La Patti Negra" by Orquesta Valenzuela, begins with only minor variations from the melody in the repeated A segment. During the third and four repetitions of A, however, the low horns and the cornet re-enter with flashier collective improvisations that contrast significantly from the first iterations of the melody.

It is early danzón recordings like this that have led critics such as Cristobal Ayala to ask "Isn't it possible that dixieland bands copied Cuban [danzón] orchestras? That their music was the initial point of departure, from which jazz soon developed into its many varied modalities and styles?" In other words, what if the Spanish in the gumbo of jazz isn't just an added spice, but an essential ingredient in the roux.