I frequently return to the blurry line between salsa and Latin Jazz – it’s an issue that seems to impact the Latin Jazz world everyday; I’ve been thinking about this subject more deeply recently. Last week, Marc Myers wrote a wonderful piece on his JazzWax blog about Eddie Palmieri’s Azucar Pa’ Ti, certainly a classic album that every musician (regardless of genre) should hear. He described the album with detail and clarity, outlining some of the high points of an important recording. At the same time, he described Azucar Pa’ Ti as a “historic Latin Jazz recording,” a title which simply didn’t sit right with me. While Palmieri and his group La Perfecta infuses an improvisatory emphasis into the performance, the music on Azucar Pa’ Ti is unmistakably aimed at a dance audience. Myers points out the album’s influence upon the booming salsa scene, but still places the recording in the Latin Jazz world. I found the blurry line between salsa and Latin Jazz staring me in the face and I spent a good deal of time considering the implications.
Several questions swirled around in my head, but the biggest issue that I considered was simply – why? I found myself struggling with a need to classify the differences between Latin Jazz and salsa, but I couldn’t always explain it. Azucar Pa’ Ti is a classic recording; salsa musicians and Latin Jazz musicians alike should hear it. Does placing it in one of these two worlds make a difference or change that fact? Great music will always be great music, so its name doesn’t always make a difference. Names do help us deal with music in our society though and they tell us a bit about the musical content. After much deliberation, I decided that a classification is important, and I considered a few reasons for my decision. I’ve got three of those reasons below, take a look below and enter into the blurry line.
Artistic Intentions and Listener Expectations
An artist that creates Latin Jazz brings a distinct set of artistic aesthetics and historical influences into their work. In this context, a musician makes a more personal statement aimed at illustrating their artistic concept. Each artist may bring a distinctly different personality into the mix, making the overall expression more interesting. They utilize song forms established by traditional jazz musicians through their work in bebop, hard bop, modal jazz, and more. In some cases, they might express themselves through established standards and well-known pieces, deferring to historical influences. Other musicians might build new structures based upon their experience with jazz and Latin styles. The whole idea of expressing personality requires them to take risks on a regular basis and constantly change their perspective based upon lessons of risk. They understand that in many cases, their audience wants to sit and listen to the music. Latin Jazz artists build an audience based upon the depth of their artistic vision and the clarity of their personal expression.
Salsa artists shape their music around a completely different set of expectations and build a separate experience. These musicians understand that their work functions in the realm of popular music and its main role is making people dance. The pack their arrangements with tension and release aimed at making the maximum impact upon their audience. The groove reins supreme, and the more obvious the pulse, the better for the dancers. These musicians play upon clearly defined forms, and subtlety goes underappreciated in most salsa contexts. Some salsa artists choose to make meaningful statements with their music, imbedding their lyrics with meaningful social commentary. Other artists simply choose to highlight the music’s party aspects and dance the night away. Regardless of the artist’s lyrical approach, the music demands a high level of musicianship, a strict discipline to the groove, and a keen ear for commercial appeal. These artists connect with their audience through catchy musical material, a danceable groove, and strong lyrical content.
On the same token, audience members find music based on specific listening demands, and they want to find the music that they desire. An audience member that wants to dance needs to find some serious salsa, and they need to experience all aspects of that music. These listeners probably wouldn’t enjoy a Latin Jazz concert; the sit-down setting would seem stifling while the search for self-expression might seem indulgent and boring. A Latin Jazz fan would appreciate an artist’s search for personal expression and enjoy moments of risk and musical daring. They probably enjoy a more focused setting that allows them to hear the music completely and appreciate the details of the performance. Some audience members might enjoy both musical experiences, but they most likely want to know what they might encounter on a certain night. Everyone wants to find their desired experience and unfortunately, that’s not always easy in today’s musical world. The massive amount of choice that we encounter makes certainly unclear; the more that we can be specific about the differences between salsa and Latin Jazz, the more likely musicians will find their audiences and people will find their favored listening choices.
Bypassing Secondhand Status
Latin Jazz certainly experiences second hand status in the greater jazz community, a stigma that has unfortunately followed the genre for most of its existence. The media and greater society placed traditional jazz musicians as the “serious” artists, regulating Latin Jazz artists to party music. Partly due to a lack of understanding about Latin Jazz and partly based upon racial discrimination, the general public has avoided Latin Jazz support over the years. At the same time, the music industry always happily paints Latin music, regardless of jazz content, as exciting dance music, guaranteed to raise the heat. Musicians experienced in the genre always seem to give the Latin realm its due, but other artists don’t always follow that trend. Many jazz musicians focus all of their time upon Coltrane, Miles, Monk, and Coleman, but they largely ignore Puente, O’Farrill, Santos, and Sheller. A misinformed belief that Latin Jazz is a “simpler” or “less complex” music leads musicians to the conclusion that they can’t create a significant artistic statement within the genre. While some of these situations have improved over the years, the stigma remains, and the jazz community consistently underestimates the artistic depth of Latin Jazz.
A greater understanding of the difference between Latin Jazz and salsa would help change some attitudes about the artistry behind Latin Jazz. Jazz does require a more complex understanding of harmony and a high level of technical dexterity, making the less demanding world of popular music an easy road for many jazz musicians. Since salsa sits firmly in the popular music world, many jazz musicians underestimate the value of studying its contents. Although this seems like a mistake due to the inherent challenges in salsa, many jazz musicians overlook it due to its place in the commercial music world. Since a good deal of these musicians confuse salsa with Latin Jazz, they pass over the Latin Jazz world with the same attitude. A clarification of the differences between the two genres would certainly help several jazz musicians to build a greater appreciation for Latin Jazz. With a higher respect in the jazz community, the music industry would certainly follow suit and more seriously market Latin Jazz as an important music. The future of the music really depends upon this type of shift, and an understanding of the differences between Latin Jazz and salsa would help.
Giving The Cultural Diversity Of Latin Jazz A Fair Shake
Salsa began as a Nuyorican interpretation of Cuban rhythms and continues that way to the present day; Latin Jazz has followed a different path. New York artists combined elements of Cuban son, danzon, and rumba, giving us a unique dance experience that the music industry later coined as “salsa.” When this trend hit its stride in the 1960s and 1970s, the use of Cuban structures became ingrained into the music’s fabric. Artists have occasionally touched upon pieces of Puerto Rican bomba and plena, Colombian cumbia, and Brazilian samba, but they never moved too far outside Cuban rhythms. Latin Jazz was born among New York’s mambo big bands, and as a result, it initially focused upon Cuban rhythms. While Cuban styles remained a major piece of Latin Jazz, the genre soon spread its wings into other cultural traditions. Jazz musicians fell in love with Brazilian music, creating numerous albums full of jazz sambas and bossa novas. As a greater cultural awareness grew around jazz, musicians brought extensive Peruvian rhythms, Colombian styles, Argentinean genres, and more into the Latin Jazz world. At this point, the cultural spectrum of Latin Jazz looks very different than salsa.
When people confuse Latin Jazz and salsa, they overwrite Latin Jazz with the churning Cuban rhythms of salsa. While they will certainly find Cuban dance rhythms in the Latin Jazz world, it won’t be the end of the story. Musicians such as Papo Vazquez, William Cepeda, and Miguel Zenon have reached high levels of artistry through the inclusion of Puerto Rican styles. Gabriel Alegria, Eric Kurimski, and Edward Perez all regularly make use of Peruvian rhythms, touching upon another side of the Latin Jazz world. Jovino Santos Neto, Claudio Roditi, and Trio Da Paz have continued a connection between jazz and Brazilian music, reaching beyond bossa nova. Argentinean music shares many musical bonds with jazz, and artists such as Pablo Aslan, Sofia Rei Koutsovitis, Emilio Solla, and Sofia Tosello explore them regularly. The Latin Jazz world is a broad and culturally diverse place that stretches far beyond the rhythmic content of salsa. When a listener stops with the Cuban rhythms of salsa, they will find some great music, but they’ll miss an incredible amount of inspiring artistic works.
The blurry line between Latin Jazz and salsa present a major discussion – one that certainly doesn’t end here. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic – does it matter? Why? Leave a comment below and share your ideas, there’s certainly plenty of room for conversation. I’ve decided to continue this exploration with a reoccurring series entitled The Blurry Line. I’ll explore the issue from many angles; so hold on, the discussion has just begun!
Check Out These Related Posts:
The Blurry Line Between Latin Jazz And Salsa
Distinguishing Between Latin Jazz And Salsa
Reality Check For Latin Jazz Musicians, Part 3
Community Conversation: Looking At Latin Jazz & Salsa