These days the only time you hear about Miami is in a political context on those rare occasions “the Orange Barron” visits from the “Crazy House” to cajole his loyal Cuban Republican supporters.
Over the years, Miami has become a melting pot for a host of countries whose cultural traditions and music have become a fabric of the city. Politics aside, the vibrant city of Miami is a hotbed for musical genres ranging from Cuban to Columbian, Venezuelan and Reggae to jazz, blues and soul.
To some it came as a surprise that WDNA (88.9 FM) “the serious jazz radio station” was just embarking on its first jazz festival. The two-day (Friday and Saturday, February 24-25) series they named the “Miami Downtown Jazz Festival” created such a swinging presence, discussions are in progress for next year.
“We pride ourselves in presenting serious jazz,” said Howard Duperty, sales and marketing manager, WDNA. “Any day of the week, you have options for jazz. We were at a point where we needed the music to go along with our good weather. We are confident this festival will be on the international jazz map.”
The outdoor festival had one interesting twist that sets it apart from the many outdoor festivals held throughout the country. Both days of the concerts featuring incredible jazz musicians were free at the seven venues. The final evening concert held at the Bayfront Park Amphitheater charged an admission.
That concert included an all-star lineup, with the Brazilian guitarist Chico Pinheiro and his quartet and the soprano saxophonist, flutist and composer Jane Bunnett and Maqueque, her amazing all-female Cuban ensemble, who sold out New York City’s Birdland last year.
Bunnett and Maqueque (the energy of a young girl’s spirit) is an intoxicating ensemble that adds a bright simmering spark to the term Afro-Cuban jazz. The young ladies were extremely adept on trumpet, violin, drums, bass and piano, as well as group vocals. Dancing in the aisles was automatic. They are a group that gets better with each performance, regardless of the venue or country.
The festival’s finale included the flutist Hubert Laws and his quintet and the clarinetist and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and his quintet, with special guest violinist Frederico Britos and flutist Nestor Torres.
Laws intercepted the genres of classical and jazz with compositions such as “Land of Passion” and “What a Night,” playing both the flute and piccolo. His undeniable tone and compelling ensemble were in hard-bop mode on Oscar Brown’s composition, “Dat Dere.”
In his rendition of the classical composition by Igor Stravinsky, “Rites of Spring,” the band started in a classical context that became cloaked in jazz interludes.
Laws is one of the few classical musicians who has mastered jazz, pop and rhythm-and-blues genres, moving effortlessly from one repertory to another.
D’Rivera joked about the current political atmosphere, stating, “I better speak in English because anything can happen.” Playing saxophone, he moved into a classical conversation with flutist Torres that quickly escalated into a hot swinging Latin samba with the band rolling on all cylinders. They also went into a bolero swing in the bebop tradition.
The Miami Arts Charter Jazz Band kicked opened the festival with a reeling version of Lee Morgan’s “Gigolo.” “We wanted to open with a composition that would set the tone for the festival,” said the principal and music director, Alfredo de la Rosa. “Not to mention I am a trumpet player and Lee Morgan was my idol.”
Destiny Dames, who plays timbales, was one of the shining stars in the band. As a senior at Miami Arts Charter School (grades 6-12), Dames is off to study at Mississippi Music School in the fall. “This was my first jazz show,” Dames stated. “I liked playing onstage. It was a great experience, but I was a little nervous when we started.”
It was a warm and sunny day in Miami and the percussionist Sammy Figueroa with his spirited ensemble turned up the heat with highly intensified Latin rhythms.
On the other side of town in Old Miami at one of the few indoor venues, the Olympia Theater Lobby, the young pianist Emmitt Cohen with trio bassist Russell Hall and drummer Charles Drew were playing to a standing room only crowd. Their repertoire ran from standards to hard bop with lively chord variations. “We still have some rough edges but lots of communication,” said Hall. “We are doing some Monk, Willie ‘the Lion’ Smith and Barry Harris.”
One of my favorite jazz vocalists during the 1980s was the velvet tenor Kevin Mahogany, but he has been off the circuit for a while. His setting was perfect outdoors in the city part at night, backed by the South Florida Jazz Orchestra. Mahogany was on it, claiming standards such as “One for My Baby and One More for the Road,” My Secret Love” and Marvin Gaye’s hit, “My Pride and Joy.”
The orchestra was fierce and Mahogany, like back in the day, didn’t miss a note. His scatting skills on “Yard Bird Suite” proved to be intact. For me Mahogany took his cue from the legend Joe Williams, who rarely moved a lot but was effortless in his presentation.
The outdoor Tina Hills Pavilion featured a host of heavy hitters, including the violinist Nicole Yarling and her Quartet. Joe Williams first introduced the young violinist to a New York City audience at the Beacon Theater in the early 1980s. She has grown into an established artist and still calls Miami her home. She has added vocals to her repertoire.
“We are living in a time when people are talking but no one is listening,” noted Yarling. With that statement, she broke into the old familiar civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” which she turned into a blues number.
Other songs included “Motherless Child” and “Be My Husband” (Nina Simone). “The drum beat is the music DNA of soul and blues,” she said.
The trumpeter, composer and arranger Brian Lynch does not need an introduction for his many recorded Latin perspectives of jazz. On this outing, he interpreted Woodie Shaw’s compositions from a Latin perspective.
The SPAM All-Stars proved to be the killer group of the festival, a large ensemble that celebrates the genres of funk, reggae, jazz, salsa and African rhythms. The songs included hardcore funk originals, red-hot Spanish salsa lyrics and Yoruba chants.
It was an all-purpose throw down band that made dancing compulsory as opposed to a second thought. Like the 1980s band Tower of Power or Tito Rodriquez, the congas, drums, trombones, electric bass, flute, timbales, trumpets and turntablist engulfed its audience with a penetrating hot Miami sound.
Although the group has been in existence for the past 21 years, recorded seven CDs and touring worldwide, they still have not made their way to the Big Apple. Hopefully, that will change.
Also during the same weekend as the WDNA-FM festival, the Melton Mustafa Jazz Festival took place at the Black Archives Historic Lyric Theater. Mustafa was celebrating his 20th year of promoting live jazz. One of this year’s outstanding guests was the Broward College Jazz Band, under the direction of arranger, composer and recording artists Jason Hainsworth.
The band dedicated a portion of its repertoire to the music of the late pianist and composer Mulgrew Miller, as well as Horace Silver, including his now standard the “Jody Grind.” The band was a rousing locomotive, jumping with excitement and a brass section that maintained an edgy presence.
Workshops, master classes and “Art, Authors, Live Jazz & Film Night” were also a part of Mustafa’s annual jazz festival.
The music and cultural experience is hot and heavy in Miami, similar to its weather. It is a good place to be next year. Check the websites for dates.