Forget about statistics. The best way to estimate the arrival of tourists to Havana is the long line to enter La Zorra y el Cuervo.
The equation? The longer it is, the bigger the crowd. That doesn’t fail.
In the morning you can see small groups snooping around the week’s billboard of this theme club located on La Rampa, dedicated in body and soul to Cuban jazz for more than 20 years.
Along that promenade from the 1950s that comes to an end by the sea, passersby can walk, without turning into a vandal, over a Lam, a Portocarrero, a Martínez Pedro, a Bermúdez or an Amelia Peláez. They are reproductions in granite mosaics on the sidewalks of 23rd Avenue, an artery that combines bars and ministries with no prejudices.
At night, close to 10, the line is a poor imitation of Babel; from the nearby Latin Americans to the faraway Koreans or Australians, to the inevitable Americans, Canadians and Europeans.
Kim, a shortsighted Korean from Seoul wearing glasses, muttering in English that it’s his first time in Cuba, but the anxiety in his eyes calls into question Asians’ prodigal equanimity. He’s crazy about getting to know the jazz made on the island.
Melanie, a Californian, says in perfect Spanish: “I wouldn’t miss a night here for anything in the world.”
And you know Cuban jazz? “Man, how can I not know it? It’s as if you asked someone if they knew the Bible,” Arturo, a Spaniard from Malaga, who the previous day wasn’t able to enter the club because he was wearing shorts.
At 10 p.m., in a rare punctuality on an island of lax schedules, the almost hieratic members of the line go down the stairs of the basement and enter through the springy door.
Then the semidarkness and the music come into play. They laugh, chat, greet each other, clap, move their feet and even jump in their seats to stretch their legs with a few steps when the Cuban percussion makes their blood boil.
They have even danced with U.S. Victor Goines, a star from the Jazz Band at Lincoln Center, who that night at times has abandoned his sparing gestures to invite the public to follow the choleric beauty of his saxophone.
Sound and space
The music is compact in this some 100-square-meter basement. It can be imagined as a sound placenta that, despite being invisible, envelopes and could even be palpated.
“The floors are very hard, the walls have no covering, the ceiling is plastic. I make an effort so the groups can have a more acoustic sound, more natural, to avoid so much shrillness,” says Inti Martínez, the bar’s sound engineer, also a veteran with 20 years in the place.
Managing the sound in this mouse hole is an entire art. The bands tend to be increasingly more electronic. “There have been times in which we have worked with two kilos of power,” Martínez specifies.
The crux is to avoid a sound chaos, when the club’s sound is mixed at the same time with that of the reference and the one that comes out of the instruments on an almost Lilliputian stage.
At this point, the locale, which the directives of the Blue Note don’t look down on, but rather consider it an honorable similar, still doesn’t have an optimum recording system to directly edit jam sessions with its own label.
Music and cocktails
In the tribe’s nighttime triumphant euphoria, the mojitos prepared by Eliecer Carbajo play a well-deserved part, without affecting the music.
Skillful with the bottles and glasses almost like a circus artist, this bartender knew nothing about jazz until 21 years ago he came to work in this bar.
“Everything I know I learned here,” he says while preparing a blen, blen, a cocktail invented by him based on orange juice, Havana Club Reserva rum and mint liqueur.
The drink was invented in honor of Chano Pozo, the Cuban percussionist who contributed the racy congas to Gillespie’s band – and, by extension, to the genre in the United States – and who was shot dead in 1948 in a Harlem barbershop because of a drug-related matter.
The blen, blen isn’t the only one. The imagination associated to the genre provides more ideas. Among others, Havana Jazz, Jazz and Soul, Sexo Jazz, and Claudia, named after one of the pieces of the great Chucho Valdés.
“For me jazz is one of the most beautiful music genres, because the musician tries to exteriorize all his improvising energy and to rise to the occasion,” according to Carbajo. “There are even those who say that all the jazz people are musicians, but not all the musicians can be jazz people,” which, according to this bartender of flashy hands, can be taken to the ethylic key: “All the wine cellars don’t contain champagne, but all the champagnes belong in wine cellars.”
In La Zorra y el Cuervo the alcoholic beverages are an added value. Here, a few cocktails included in the cover are sufficient for most of the clients. They spend the four hours of the show with them.
“The bar is not the center, the center is the music,” Waldo Cárdenas, the club’s artistic director, extolls.
With Cárdenas one can piece together the history of this club. Born in 1957 in the style of the New York underground niches, La Zorra y el Cuervo was one more in the reveling Havana of that time, a city of millionaires and martyrs.
Although there were sporadic jam sessions in the basement on 23rd Avenue, its owners had conceived it for less sophisticated purposes.
In the 1960s, already with the bearded men in power, the locale served as a cover for Los Chicos del Jazz’ jam sessions, an informal band through which saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, bassist Nicolás Reinoso and percussionist Amadito Valdés passed, in addition to composer and arranger Rembert Egües, among others.
Although during the 1960s and ‘70s jazz was contained by a certain official grudge, in the late 1990s the island had become one of the genre’s powers worldwide, even though the permissive 1980s brought renovating airs, like the Jazz Plaza Festival, the splendor of the Irakere superband and an emergence of groups formed with talents coming out of the conservatories and art schools.
Parade of stars
The new generations of musicians was so overwhelming that in 1997 the JoJazz contest was created in La Zorra y el Cuervo.
That platform for talent scouts has nurtured the Colibrí record label with names that now fill the club as well as diverse stages, in and outside the country, with the same ease and diverse geography.
It is a long list. Some names sparkle. Yasek Manzano, Michel Herrera, Jorge Luis Pacheco, Roberto Fonseca, Yissy García and Dayramir González, among others who sustain themselves on the terra firma of the acclaimed: the dynasty of the Valdés – Chucho, Oscar and Lázaro -, Gonzalito Rubalcaba, El Greco, Fidel Morales, the López-Nussa – another family with heraldry -, or bands like Mezcla and Opus 13, which have gone through the stage of La Zorra y el Cuervo, together with George Benson, Wynton Marsalis, Ron Carter, Ronnie Scott, Arturo O’Farrill Jr., and a long etcetera of notable foreigners.
“Many are legends and consider this place a temple,” the artistic producer says proudly.
To enhance the quality of the offer, he uses statistics from TripAdvisor. A bit over 70 percent of the clients rate it as excellent and 20 percent as very good, despite some of them, like Ken Lee, who goes beyond setbacks and writes on the tourist portal things like: “Great energy. The sweat falls over one’s face (the space is very hot even with the air conditioning). But if you really like pure jazz, this is the place to be.”
Another of this Havana exclusivity’s advantage, says the businessman, is that it never closes.
“We work seven by seven. Clients don’t have to ask when we open. We open every night and every night there’s jazz,” concludes Cárdenas, perhaps thinking that the music can compete with eternity. It always was and always will be.