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Jazz Caliente: George Gershwin's fascination with Cuban music

George Gershwin 1898-1937
Bain News Service
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Public Domain
George Gershwin (1898-1937), presumably looking toward Cuba

Known as one of the most significant composers of American music, George Gershwin excelled in popular songs, Broadway musicals and even classical compositions. 

In February of 1932, George treated himself to a two-week vacation in Cuba. When he came back to the U.S., he wrote a short piece of music inspired by the rhythms he heard on the island.

Gershwin referred to his Cuban trip as "two hysterical weeks ... where no sleep was had." While he was sleepless, he soaked up the distinctive Afro-Cuban sounds around him in Havana. He worked those sounds into a piece initially called "Rumba," then renamed "Cuban Overture."

Cuban percussion instruments:  bongos, claves, guiro and maracas
Cuban percussion instruments: bongos, claves, guiro and maracas

Gershwin brought home some Cuban percussion instruments to feature in the overture: maracas, bongos, claves and a guiro. On the written score, he indicated that the musicians playing those instruments should be placed right in front of the conductor's stand, so that the audience could see them.

"Cuban Overture" premiered in New York on Aug. 16, 1932, as part of an all-Gershwin program by the New York Philharmonic, and it ended up in the score for the 1951 Academy Award-winning film https://youtu.be/IhChMAzFP9c" target="_blank">"An American in Paris."

This week on Jazz Caliente, we'll hear two examples of Gershwin's music getting the Latin jazz treatment, courtesy of drum master Carlos "Patato" Valdes ("I Got Rhythm") and pianist Chucho Valdes ("But Not For Me").

Here's a delightfully energetic performance of Gershwin's "Cuban Overture" by the Teresa Carreño Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, Joshua Dos Santos conducting.

Jazz Caliente airs at 5 p.m. Saturdays. The show is hosted by Robin Lloyd and produced by KNKX Public Radio.

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