The Havana International Jazz Festival first took place in 1979. Over the years it has become one of the most important dates in jazz–lovers’ diaries.

During the Havana International Jazz Festival, fans flock to major concerts at the Amadeo Roldan, Nacional and Mella Theaters, but it’s the intimate events in Havana’s clubs that really get the juices flowing.



The most extraordinary leaps of musical telepathy seem to occur in smoky, rum–soaked Vedado hangouts like La Zorra y el Cuervo and the Jazz Café.

Jazz in Cuba dates back further than most people realize. Slavery was abolished on the island in 1886 and many freed black Cubans immigrated to New Orleans, whilst the American intervention of 1898 in the Cuban independence wars heralded the start of a prolonged US presence in Cuba.

Conditions were thus perfect for mutual musical exchange. The musicians that had moved to New Orleans took with them the rhythms and style that were already considered Cuban and incorporated them into the nascent jazz form, as did musicians returning to the States from Cuban holidays.

The high point of this musical evolution was the spark which ignited between Cuban drummer Luciano (Chano) Pozo – who was eventually shot in a bar in Harlem – and American jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

Their sound was the first appearance of what later came to be known as “Latin jazz” – and that was just the beginning. Now Cuban musicians are foremost amongst the world’s jazz performers.


Prior to the Revolution popular musicians were largely self–taught; from the early sixties onwards most members of popular bands have been music school graduates to whom virtuoso performances are almost second nature.

Over the years the lineup at the Havana International Jazz Festival has included Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Haden, Roy Hargrove, Steve Coleman, Richie Cole, Max Roach, Carmen McRae, Leon Thomas, Tete Montoliu, Airto Moreira, Tania María, Dave Valentin, Michel Legrand and Ivan Lins.

The celebrated British saxophonist, Ronnie Scott, promoted Cuban jazz from his famous Frith Street club throughout his professional life. However it is Cuban musicians who have been the driving force behind the Festival.

If you’re in Havana in December, do a circuit of the Vedado clubs and you’ll more than likely spot an international jazz great appearing incognito at the bar, hidden behind a cocktail.

And keep a sharp lookout for a black giant with a sleepy gaze, leisurely performing musical miracles at the piano – it will be five–time Grammy winner Chucho Valdés.

As the organizer of the Havana International Jazz Festival he, more than anyone else, knows that if it ain’t got that swing, it ain’t Havana.

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