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How the Puerto Ricans saved Afro-Cuban Jazz

Joe Conzo, Jr.

“If it wasn’t for the Puerto Rican community of Spanish Harlem, of the South Bronx, Afro Cuban music would never have survived in this country, and expanded to the heights that it has.”—Bobby Sanabria from the film “From Mambo to Hip Hop”

Cuban musicians came to New York in the 1940s and 1950s to play jazz, and they gave their African-influenced rhythms to the jazz world.  By the late 1950s and into the 1960s, however, the flow of these musicians slowed to a trickle and then stopped.  Revolution, political upheaval and tensions between the Cuban and US governments made it difficult, if not impossible, for them to leave the island.

The Puerto Ricans, who from the 1930s on had settled in the South Bronx, in Brooklyn, and in Spanish Harlem had a good working relationship with the Cubans, because they shared some ancestry, history and culture.  Notable Latin Jazz musicians like Tito Puente and Ray Barretto were of Puerto Rican descent.  The generation of New York-born Puerto Ricans, who came to call themselves Nuyoricans, also had close ties with the black community, particularly where music was concerned.

“A Nuyorican is a person from Puerto Rican descendants whose parents are from Puerto Rico, grows up in South Brooklyn, Spanish Harlem, El Barrio or the South Bronx, and grows up listening to Jazz, Afro-Cuban music, Funk, R&B, Rock, and has a Jewish sense of humor.”—Bobby Sanabria interview Fox News Latino 2012

The Nuyoricans picked up Afro Cuban music and mixed it with jazz and blues, then later with urban pop and dance music.  They made these mixtures into a uniquely American sound.

“It is Afro Cuban music, their rhythms, etc. But in New York, the way we play it in New York is a whole different animal. This music gets here and all of a sudden, boom, it advances even to a more rapid rate. Afro Cuban jazz is a New York creation. So, therefore, it’s just as American as apple pie, or Jimi Hendrix, or Aerosmith.” --Bobby Sanabria, PBS series Latin Music USA

Listen for Nuyorican musicians Steve Kroon and Tito Puente on this week's Jazz Caliente, Thursday at 2pm on KPLU's Mid Day Jazz!

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.