Cuban Jazz Festival Expands Beyond Havana, Increases American Involvement

Gabrielle Saplana
Roberto Fonseca

Blue Note Entertainment signs on as a sponsor for the two-city festival.

Bassist Christian McBride, Grammy-winning collective Snarky Puppy and pianist Randy Weston are among the American players on the bill for Cuba’s International Jazz Festival, set for December 15-18. For the first time, the festival will take place in both Havana and Santiago de Cuba.

The presence of Americans is hardly new at the annual festival, formally known as the Festival International Jazz Plaza. In fact, the festival served as the most fertile and consistent point of exchange for Cuban and American musicians for three decades. Over years of U.S.-Cuban political estrangement, the festival was the door to Havana for artists including Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach, as well as for U.S. jazz lovers.

What is new for 2016 -- marking two years since President Obama and Raul Castro announced the return of diplomatic relations between the two countries -- is an increased American presence behind the scenes. Notably, Blue Note Entertainment group will sponsor the festival for the first time. International Music Network's Scott Southard, who has been one of the pioneers in presenting Cuban musicians in the United States, signed on as international booker for the festival. Southard is working in collaboration with Daniel Florestano of Barcelona’s Montuno Productions, managers of Buena Vista Social Club and other Cuban acts.

As always, the festival is overseen by Cuba's Ministry of Culture and the Cuban Music Institute, as well as the National Center for Popular Music.

Pianist Chucho Valdés, 75, the Havana festival’s former longtime leader, is back as honorary director this year in Havana. Roberto Fonseca, a pianist of a younger generation who has made his mark on international stages, has been named honorary director of the Santiago edition. 

Abel Marcel, Dayramir Gonzalez and Arnaldo Lescay are among the emerging Cuban artists scheduled to perform at the two-city festival.