"Spanish Tinge"—the Cuban Influence in Early Jazz
Although true clave-based Afro-Cuban jazz did not appear until the mid-twentieth century, the Cuban influence was present at the birth of jazz. African American music began incorporating Afro-Cuban musical motifs in the nineteenth century, when the habanera gained international popularity. The habanera was the first written music to be rhythmically based on an African motif. The habanera rhythm (also known as congo, tango-congo, or tango.) can be thought of as a combination of tresillo and the backbeat.
Musicians from Havana and New Orleans would take the twice-daily ferry between both cities to perform and not surprisingly, the habanera quickly took root in the musically fertile Crescent City. John Storm Roberts states that the musical genre habanera, "reached the U.S. 20 years before the first rag was published" (1999: 12). Scott Joplin's "Solace" (1909) is considered a habanera.
For the more than quarter-century in which the cakewalk, ragtime, and proto-jazz were forming and developing, the habanera was a consistent part of African American popular music. Early New Orleans jazz bands had habaneras in their repertoire and the tresillo/habanera figure was a rhythmic staple of jazz at the turn of the 20th century. Comparing the music of New Orleans with the music of Cuba, Wynton Marsalis observes that tresillo is the New Orleans "clave". Although technically, the pattern is only half a clave, Marsalis makes the important point that the single-celled figure is the guide-pattern of New Orleans music.
"St. Louis Blues" (1914) by W.C. Handy has a habanera/tresillo bass line. Handy noted a reaction to the habanera rhythm included in Will H. Tyler's "Maori": "I observed that there was a sudden, proud and graceful reaction to the rhythm...White dancers, as I had observed them, took the number in stride. I began to suspect that there was something Negroid in that beat." After noting a similar reaction to the same rhythm in "La Paloma", Handy included this rhythm in his "St. Louis Blues," the instrumental copy of "Memphis Blues," the chorus of "Beale Street Blues," and other compositions."
Jelly Roll Morton considered the tresillo/habanera (which he called the Spanish tinge) to be an essential ingredient of jazz. The habanera rhythm and tresillo can be heard in his left hand on songs like "The Crave" (1910, recorded 1938).
Now in one of my earliest tunes, “New Orleans Blues,” you can notice the Spanish tinge. In fact, if you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz—Morton (1938: Library of Congress Recording).
Although the exact origins of jazz syncopation may never be known, there’s evidence that the habanera/tresillo was there at its conception. Buddy Bolden, the first known jazz musician, is credited with creating the big four, a habanera-based pattern. The big four (below) was the first syncopated bass drum pattern to deviate from the standard on-the-beat march. As the example below shows, the second half of the big four pattern is the habanera rhythm.
It is probably safe to say that by and large the simpler African rhythmic patterns survived in jazz . . . because they could be adapted more readily to European rhythmic conceptions. Some survived, others were discarded as the Europeanization progressed. It may also account for the fact that patterns such as . . . remained one of the most useful and common syncopated patterns in jazz—Schuller (1968; 19).
The Cuban influence is evident in many pre-1940s jazz tunes, but rhythmically, they are all based on single-celled motifs such as tresillo, and do not contain an overt two-celled, clave-based structure. Caravan, written by Juan Tizol and first performed in 1936, is an example of an early pre-Latin jazz composition. It is not clave-based. On the other hand, jazzy renditions of Don Azpiazú's "The Peanut Vendor" ("El manicero") by Louis Armstrong (1930), Duke Ellington (1931), and Stan Kenton (1948), are all firmly in-clave since the 2-3 guajeo provides the primary counterpoint to the melody throughout the entire song.
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