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Jazz and Latin Jazz in Miami

Jazz Festival

Jacksonville Jazz Festival, nighttime photo. Source: 


By: Kayleigh Wilson

     Latin Jazz is a very distinct and unique genre of music because it combines these two fantastic styles for an explosive fusion. Both Latin and Jazz have large followings and substantial talent on each side. What is so interesting about it is that these two genres are fusions within themselves being mixed with as many as Cuban, African, Puerto Rican, Caribbean, American, and Blues rhythms. There is a spontaneity that keeps it fresh by enlivening musicians and audiences. It is a blend of worldly beats that really makes people want to get up and dance.

     The question on everyone’s minds is, what is the birth of Latin Jazz? Well, the big secret is that it’s simply unknown. In one theory scholars believe jazzbands were playing in clubs around Cuba then incorporating those sounds and instruments. Another more popular theory reports that it emerged from the flood of immigrants into New York City. What we do know is that once both Latin and Jazz were established styles they attracted many talented musicians to New York, “the epicenter of the Afro-Cuban jazz explosion.”[1] It was bustling with every musical style on the spectrum which made for an incredibly diverse scene. No doubt, this intermingling led to jam bands playing mambo, bossa nova, son, danza, and blending these rhythms with that of the leading jazz movement of the time creating an entirely new sound. If the sound weren’t enough, this new style introduced a variety of popular Latin percussion instruments otherwise unused by American jazz bands: bongos, cornets, congas, and timbales. This array of options created inspiration around every corner, club, and studio.

      New York may have been the ultimate space for Latin Jazz, but that’s not to say that other cities didn’t have a city worth speaking about. Since it is only 80 miles from Havana, Cuba, Florida became many travelers and immigrants first introduction to the United States. Before Latin and Caribbean musicians traveled north seeking fame, they spent time in Florida playing local shows or touring around the state earning money for their ticket up north. Others flocked to Miami just for the fun. Jazz drummer Panama Francis called it “the playground of America, before Bugsy Siegel got the idea for Las Vegas.” [2]

            One of the interesting aspects of Miami was that popular musicians would come visit, sometimes returning, and others would end up staying and living the local club life. It was, and remains, a social and musical hodge-podge of talent playing together, influencing one another. Famous acts like Dizzy Gillespie, Arturo Sandoval and Cab Calloway visited jazz clubs all around Florida, but took a distinct liking to Miami area. It already had a Latin presence that made it enjoyable for popular artists and local acts to collaborate and improvise on any given night.

     Back in the 1930’s when jazz bands were being hired more often and certain establishments were becoming more open minded in terms of race and ethnicity, it was still a continuous struggle for black and Latino groups to book gigs. At this time, racial tensions were extremely high, which proved to be very difficult for most jazz bands. Many of the hotels and other clubs would only let white musicians play, which was truly unfortunate because they were missing out on the best talent. Miami businesses really shut themselves off from their local and national acts due to segregation and racism. This led local talent and touring bands to play in other cities around Florida, away from fancy beach towns. Bands like Smiling Billy Stewart, C.S. Belton Florida Symphony, and George Kelly Cavaliers were just a few that had to play right outside the big cities due to racial laws. In his autobiography Francis sums up the feeling of the local jazz talent of the time, “I would of never left Miami if I had been able to play because there was so many clubs around there. Why would I want to go to NY? I wanted to play music, and so I went to NY. If Florida had of been opened up they could have had a major jazz scene, the talent would of stayed there. They hurt themselves by segregation.”[3]


[1]Raul Fernandez, Latin Jazz: The Perfect Combination/La Combinacion Perfecta (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002), 44.

[2] David Albert Francis, Panama’s Story: My History as a Jazz Drummer (Xlibris, 2013), 3.

[3] Ibid., 17.