Jazz meets salsa: the melding of cool blues and hot spice

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

1. ``SALSA'' -- That's Spanish for ``sauce,'' especially hot sauce, better known as salsa picante. Over the last decade or so, the name salsa has transcended its culinary implications and has come to mean Latin American music -- that distinctive blend of Caribbean rhythms -- mainly from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic -- that form the Hispanic music tradition. 2. ``JAZZ'' -- Originally the syncopated, rhythmic, improvised music that grew out of North American work songs, ragtime, the blues, and European classical and popular music. Jazz has expanded to include American pop and rock, but Latin American rhythms began to pop up in jazz as far back as Jelly Roll Morton.

Now, in the 1980s, jazz and salsa are popping up everywhere -- hand in hand. Latin bands feature hot jazz soloists, and jazz bands are incorporating Latin percussionists and playing Latin arrangements. Some say that this has always gone on between the two musical cultures, others say that it all started when Dizzy Gillespie hired percussionist Chano Pozo in the 1940s, and still others say that Latin music and jazz just don't mix.

Whatever -- the beat goes on, and it goes on more strongly in New York than anywhere else, where jazz-influenced Latin bands (and vice versa) play regularly in the streets, in the clubs, at dances, and in the concert halls. While the more traditional Latin bands play for dancing uptown, lower Manhattan tends to be a meeting place for jazz and salsa. The Village Gate, a Greenwich Village jazz club with a huge, barnlike room downstairs, has been packing people in for a long time with its Monday night ``Ja zz meets Salsa'' format. Latin bands are spotlighted, with a featured jazz soloist. It's a high energy, exciting, happy scene, with a mixed but largely Hispanic crowd that jams the tables and the dance floor every week. Another club, the Blue Note, regularly presents Latin bands, from Tito Puente's Latin Jazz Ensemble to Ray Barretto's great salsa band -- one of the finest around.

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Barretto, a Hispanic percussionist who started out as a jazz musician and then switched to Latin music, is very comfortable in both idioms. Leader of one of New York's top Latin bands, he has incorporated elements of jazz into his music without sacrificing its Latin roots.

``The ability to interpret both genres -- jazz and salsa -- is very important to me,'' says Barretto.

Tito Puente, whose name is synonymous with Latin music and who has earned the title ``El Rei da la Musica Latina,'' has eagerly watched and participated in the melding of jazz and salsa over the years. Says Puente, ``Dizzy [Gillespie] did it years ago. So did Machito, and I myself at Birdland. For years I have been trying to get Latin music and jazz together. I like the marriage. Both are very rhythmic and melodic. But the one thing that jazz has over Latin music are the harmonies. In Latin music we're very limited that way. When we play for a jazz player, we try to play tunes that have a lot of chord changes. They love it. But not all traditional Latin musicians can play jazz.''

Puente's band has played often at the Village Gate, and his smaller, more jazz-oriented group has performed in many jazz clubs. But, in addition to this, Puente will happily play with his band at a wedding or a bar mitzvah, or any place at all where the people like the music.

``When I play, I draw a big non-Hispanic audience -- they dig the sounds,'' he asserts in typical jazz lingo.

But some Latinos reject the idea of mixing jazz with salsa, because they say they can't dance to it.

``People stopped dancing to jazz when bebop came in,'' says Puente. ``Latin music is mostly dance music. Sometimes people don't like any jazz mixed in be-cause it doesn't really put the dance thing over. But at the Village Gate people come to listen and dance.''

Cuban saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, who has made a name for himself as a jazz player, takes a slightly different view:

``Salsa is strictly dance music. Jazz is more listening music. I'm not too involved in the salsa world here, because really I came here -- and this is a very old dream -- to play jazz.''

And that is exactly what D'Rivera does: He plays in New York and tours America with his jazz group. But the Latin influence runs deep -- every member of his current band is of Latin origin -- Argentine, Cuban, or Brazilian -- and much of the music they play is of Latin roots or influence.

``Yeah, for me it is very hard to find players because I need people who know both worlds,'' D'Rivera observes. He's amused by the way some American audiences react to him. ``Sometimes I'll play a blues -- no Latin thing at all -- and they say, `Where the heck did you learn to play the blues?' I guess they think I can only play `Guantanamera' or a rumba or something like that.''

The '80s are certainly a time of musical eclecticism. The mixing of all kinds of music is going on more than it ever has before. When the heart is there, the results can be wonderful. And jazz and salsa, with their natural affinity, are sure to continue to mix and grow.

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