Catro did not greet us, not even an acknowledgment, at anytime during our visit. not so much as a note of welcome, official or otherwise. i know he liked jazz, at least the Afro-Cuban variety. (Latin-jazz? see my blog on that subject. NARAS take note.)
sadly, i did not travel with Dizzy Gillespie to the home of the late congero Chano Pozo, or to any other abodes such as those of members of the Cuban Ensemble known as Irakere. the CubaTour busses did get to the Hemmingway House, or so i was told.
FIRST NIGHT @ THE TROPICANA aka MIDNIGHT @ THE OASIS
in all fairness to CubaTour, they were on the case. not only did they do the tourístas proud during the day but they delivered an evening of entertainment the 1940s and ’50s visitors to Havana would likely have enjoyed: dinner, dancing and a dazzling floor show under the palms at the pool of the world famous Tropicana Night Club. think “Guys & Dolls” Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown the Salvation Army Lady. boleros, mambos, conjuntos, montunos, swirling gowns, descargas, multi-colored puffed sleeves, guarachas, strings, brass, charangas, danzónas. all ribbon-ed (sic) with the underpinning of Afro-Cuban rhythms and percussion sections made up of congas, bongos, clavé sticks, timbales, batás, checkeres, cabasses, maracas (i brought back a touristy pair; see photos below), cowbells, and some shaky things i’d never seen before.
(there was a buzz that Fidel might show up. judging from the length of his pervious speeches i think we dodged a bullet.)
it was after the cruise passengers returned to the Daphne that the real business began. at a small table under an umbrella at the rear of the swimming pool sat Dizzy Gillespie, David Armram, Ray Mantilla, Stan Getz, a dark-eyed bolero vocalist whose beauty shone through her Army Officer fatigues –Stan looked dangerously close to making a move which might have landed him in prison, or worse– and a couple of cultural attachés in North American mufti. and some of us reporters.
the drinks of choice were colorful exotic rum elixirs and cervesa frio. cigars were proffered as well. naturally. the musicians were blocking out the final night’s concert blast which was to be presented at the Teatro Mella. visions of Castro finally showing up which danced in our heads, and on our lips, appeared more likely as the Teatro audience was to be an officials-invitation-only affair. (more on that in Chapter 4.)
the reporters at the table, who were just trying to stay awake, gave way to Morphious. LA Times succumbed first; then Radio Free Jazz; even Getz departed, apparently a cappella, leaving Dizzy, David, Mantilla, the Cuban diplomats, the NY Times, and me. oh yes. that Cuban singer also hung out. i half-heartedly tried my hand at bilingual flirting, my broken Spanglish versus her feigned broken English. turns out she spoke fluent English as well as French, Italian, German and i’m presuming Russian and Mandarin Chinese. all i got was a card announcing her latest LP (see photos), which i bought for 5 persos each at the usurious exchange rate of $1 per peso, U.S. doneros only, if you please. i’m not sure if it was legal, but with a sense of history, i bought as many grupo classico LPs as i could. (reviews and photos succeeding chapters) NYT Guy loved boleros so i promised i’d record some for him. (in retrospect i don’t think he was permitted to buy anything on his own.)
unless they were speaking in tongues i could detect nothing of political significance. our mere presence bespoke volumes to that end. their body language gave nothing away. if truth be told, i did nod off for a minute. that devil Cuban rum. it all unfolded later the next day. it was already nearly sun-up the next day.
EARS (and now EYES) ONLY
i clung close to my new best friend the New York Times confidante, who, as you may refer to at the close of Chapter 2, told me to hang behind. something was a-brewin’ and my reporter’s snoopy big nose was itching; it needed scratching.
that said, everything going forward is first-hand, except where noted, and may be posted here for the first time. there was a time when the expression, “if i told you then i’d have to kill you,” applied.
i spoke at a special presentation to Paquito d’Rivera, ex Irakere, at the National Arts Club in Manhattan. no one in attendance, not Paquito and his wife Brenda Feliciano. or madre & hermana d’Rivera knew of the forthcoming episode, ah, i see i have your attention. read on.
AT LAST! A RIDE IN A ’57 CHEVY
as the last CubaTour bus pulled away from the dock that morning, NY Times Guy and your intrepid blogster set off on our excellent adventure. we walked to the main road and hailed a “cab,” two no-no’s. the car in question was your classic rock’n'roll ’57 Chevy, two-toned turquoise and white in remarkable running condition. it was a stick so i didn’t even think of breaking yet another law by asking the female driver if i could drive. NYT Guy was fluent in Spanish so i don’t know if i would have been understood. he asked the lady cabbie in Spanish to take us to –are you ready?– Communist Party Headquarters which was in the heart of Downtown Havana. i understood enough Spanish to get that. he broke yet another law by offering her U.S. dollars for the ride, which she politely refused. smart gal.
HQ was a small windowless cinderblock bunker probably bulletproof surrounded by flapping red flags. after proper introductions and examination of our credentials — seems we were expected– we were ushered into an inner office with bare walls save for the photo of Castro where we were greeted by a female functionary in the Chinese military garb favored by Fidel himself: khaki, high-colored couture with ribbons at the breast.
THE DEAL UNFOLDS
incredulously NYT Guy and our host began matter-of-factly discussing things as though they had done the prelims and we were there to ink the deal. as they spoke in Spanish i began to get the gist of things: NYT Guy and me were to remain in Cuba to write (him and me) and photograph (me) for the Times in New York a “Goings-On-About-Cuba” series which was to use jazz as a lynchpin, of course. hearsay scuttlebutt was that this was part of a larger plan to reopen a Cuban-American dialog, at least culturally, to be tried in the press, at it were. now you understand why death threats and Men In Black were the next step. (a moment please. was that knock on the door?!)
as i was being sworn to secrecy i quickly thought that i had nothing to go home to. the divorce (see Chapter 1) was being finalized in Haiti; and my papers and magazines would love such a piece. but it would be a Times exclusive. i asked innocently and nonchalantly the only question which popped into my head, “how do we get home when the time comes?” after translation our host gave us the you’ve-got-us-there shrug. ”dunno” was the look on her face. ”we haven’t gotten that far,” was the assumption. with the Pulitzer disppearing in a cloud over my head, both NYT Guy and i quickly huddled and came back with a “thank you, we’ll let you know” response.
and out into the street we flew never to return to that bunker. NYT Guy sent his regrets later by courier, i presume after conferring with his bosses. as things turned out and the U.S. Administration and the attendant political climate changed we made the right decision.
now the fun begins.
- text & photos © arnold jay smith
LINKS OF INTEREST
2012 Jazz Journalists Association Awards: www.jjajazzawards.org. details next post.
Newport Jazz Festival 2012: www.newportjazzfest.net