On January 22 the world watched as the pope homilized in Cuba, but for maestro Frank Emilio Flynn and his friends, the truly historic event was happening on this side of the strait. That night the influential 77-year-old Cuban pianist, whose rhapsodical playing reflects a lifelong passion for American jazz, gave his first-ever U.S. concert. Flynn, who is blind, led an all-star group of eight musicians called Los Amigos through an elegant two-hour set of old-style Cuban ballroom music -- romantic danzones, cha-cha-chas, and urbane sones -- arranged around the improvisational solos that characterize Latin jazz.
"When you hear Frank Emilio play, you're hearing Art Tatum and the history of Cuban music rolled into one," says Rob Gibson, director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program at the New York City cultural complex, where Flynn and Los Amigos performed. (Mambo innovator Cachao, singer Celia Cruz, Afro-Cuban jazzman Chico O'Farrill, and pianist and Irakere founder Chucho Valdes have previously appeared there.) "The purpose of these concerts is to show the influence of Cuban music on jazz, and vice versa," continues Gibson. "This program is about a relationship between two countries."
Over the past year, musicians from Cuba have performed in major U.S. cities in numbers unseen since before the revolution. (In Miami exile politics have kept them at bay so far, although last month organizers of the MIDEM Latin American music conference announced that Cubans will be invited to perform here during the event this coming fall.) Most often these concerts, in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco, have allowed American audiences to experience the latest musical developments from Cuba. Los Amigos' performance, on the other hand, provided the sold-out crowd with a solid bridge to the past.
It seemed only fitting that the audience at Lincoln Center included timbalero Tito Puente and salsa pioneer Johnny Pacheco, two Cuban-music lovers who have been largely responsible for keeping the island sound alive in the United States over the past four decades.
"This music is like sand running through our hands," explains Flynn, who is best known as a major player of filin -- the Cuban jazz ballad style developed in the Forties -- and who has most often performed in Havana piano bars in recent decades. "The intention is for people who aren't familiar with it to get to know it, and to allow those who haven't heard it for a long time to relive it."
Ergo the inclusion in the group's set of an evergreen such as "El Manisero" ("The Peanut Vendor"), arguably the best-known Latin tune and the song that introduced Americans to real Cuban rhythms when it was performed in a Broadway theater by Don Azpiazo's Havana Casino Orchestra in 1930. Los Amigos' version spotlighted Flynn and Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, whose thumping bass work recalled that of his famous uncle Cachao; special guest Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros, who lives in New York, contributed a blasting trumpet solo. In the middle of the classic danzon "Almendra," the band segued into a lowdown descarga (jam) that recalled the smoky bebop sessions of the musicians' American counterparts. In Enrique Lazaga's rapid hands the gYiro, a gourd scraped with a wooden stick, was transformed into a solo concert instrument. And Joaquin Oliveros, playing the traditional Cuban wooden flute -- rarely used these days -- showed why his nickname is "El Hilguero" (the Songbird).
The lineup also included famed conguero Tata GYines, groundbreaking percussionist Changuito of Los Van Van fame, and violinist Lazaro Jesus Ordonez, who performs with the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba. Seventy-six-year-old vocalist and composer Nico Rojas flew on a plane for the first time to perform, singing three of his moving ballads; in a poignant moment he also struggled to play the guitar, his fingers having grown stiff with age. Seated at a black grand, Flynn wore his trademark wraparound dark glasses and a dark suit, his playing a melding of classical lyricism and percussive chords. At the end of a number he threw his arms up in the air, like a football player after scoring a touchdown.
A particular high point of the show was composer Ernesto Lecuona's "Danza Lecumi," a piece written for two pianos. Flynn was joined on-stage by Valdes and a heart-pounding Afro-Cuban percussion section featuring three bata -- the sacred drums that invoke the spirits in Santeria ceremonies. "Danza Lecumi" is one of the tracks on Flynn's sublime CD Tribute to Ernesto Lecuona, recorded in Havana and recently released in this country by Milan Latino. Early-twentieth-century composer Lecuona -- whose semiclassical works were inspired by Cuban and Spanish folkloric music, and who enjoyed huge popularity in the United States in the Thirties and Forties with hits such as "Malaguena" and "Siboney" -- is one of Flynn's favorites. He particularly favors Lecuona's so-called Afro-Cuban dances, in which classical melodies are combined with liturgical African rhythms played on the piano with the left hand.
"Lecuona created Afro-Cuban music, it's indisputable," Flynn claims. On a stormy afternoon the day after his concert, Flynn is planted on a straight-backed chair by the window in his hotel room. Marta, his wife of four decades, slicks back his white hair with a comb while their son Jesus, who acts as Flynn's manager, captures the moment with a video camera.
"For me this album was a daunting endeavor," the pianist admits. "Lecuona is very difficult because it's very complex piano. He was a musician with extraordinary pianistic skills. I had played most of the compositions on the album over the years, and in preparation for the recording I began to read them all again."
Flynn reads music in Braille, memorizing a small section at a time. While this method is efficient enough and has given him access to an abundance of material by European and American composers, he has experienced problems when learning the work of Cuban composers whose work is not available in Braille. He could not play Lecuona's music until the early Sixties, and then only through the efforts of his friend Armando Romeu Gonzalez, the conductor of Havana's Tropicana Orchestra at the time. Romeu learned Braille so that he could transcribe Lecuona's compositions with Flynn.
"Classical Cuban music has not had a lot of diffusion," laments Flynn. He hopes to record an album of nineteenth-century pianist Manuel Samuell's work soon. Flynn's black tortoiseshell glasses stand out against a pale complexion dotted with age spots where freckles must once have been. Short and stocky, he wears loose trousers and wingtips, and except for a T-shirt emblazoned with a loud tropical design -- a souvenir from his recent tour of Japan with a Tropicana-style Cuban extravaganza -- he resembles a tough Irish-American detective out of a Forties film noir. His father was an American of Irish descent from Philadelphia. He met the pianist's Cuban mother while she vacationed in the United States. The couple married and settled in Havana. When Flynn was born, a doctor's overzealous use of forceps to bring him into the world permanently damaged his sight. As a child he could make out light, colors, and shadows, but he gradually went totally blind.
The musician remembers his mother as "a good hostess," and the piano that enlivened her weekly parties captured his attention at a young age. While still a toddler he would climb up on the piano stool and try to figure out the songs he had heard. Soon after, his mother died and his father returned to Philadelphia, leaving him with an aunt and uncle. They sent him to school at the Cuban Association of the Blind. When Flynn was fifteen, a Cuban music professor who had studied in Europe brought Braille sheet music to the island, and Flynn began his formal music studies.
In the Forties he fell in with young musicians who, like him, were fans of American music. He formed a group called Loquibambia that included vocalist Omara Portuando, singer-composer Jose Antonio Mendez, and guitarist Alberto Menendez (now a Miami resident). "We and other bands started writing songs that, harmonically, had a certain American touch about them," Flynn remembers. "The thing was to take a song and give it the kinds of harmonies and melodies that we heard Sinatra or Nat King Cole sing." The jazzy incarnation of bolero was called filin, a style that remained popular until the Sixties, when it was supplanted by the folky nueva trova movement, whose socially minded songs were more in sync with the ideology of the revolution.
Eventually Flynn moved on to lead in the five-man combo Grupo Cubano de Musica Moderna, which devoted itself to a hybrid of Cuban rhythms and jazz-based improvisation that had become known as Latin jazz. "In the Fifties and Sixties, Frank Emilio and his quintet nurtured the Latin jazz style. They were a model for a lot of groups and for individual musicians," says the 56-year-old Valdes. Considered the leading Cuban jazz pianist of his generation, Valdes recently signed a deal with Blue Note Records through the company's Canadian subsidiary. "I went to all of [Flynn's] concerts until, listening to him, I discovered my own personality."
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Los Amigos has existed since the late Fifties in some form as a side band for a fluctuating group of Cuban talents; the group's format was fashioned after the infamous all-night descargas recorded in Havana's Panart studio. Pianist Pedro Justiz, known as Peruchin, led Los Amigos until he died in 1977. Then Flynn stepped in. In 1996 one incarnation of the group recorded the album Barbarisimo, released in the United States last year on Milan Latino. A slightly different lineup appeared at Lincoln Center.
"Our goal is to keep this going," Flynn emphasizes. "Inevitably what we play is going to have a more modern sound, but I want to maintain the acoustic instruments and to preserve the old genres -- especially the danzon, which I consider the Cuban genre par excellence."
Having released his first two albums in the United States since the Sixties, Flynn chats excitedly about future projects and the hope of re-releasing some old recordings he did on the Cuban Egrem label. Valdes shares his enthusiasm.
"Frank Emilio is a pianist who has influenced every subsequent generation, and those to come, because he's kept up-to-date," notes Valdes. "You can't talk about Frank Emilio in the past because he's still very much present, and he carries with him a legacy of positive, creative influences for the young talents in Latin jazz.