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Jazz Safari At Newport Jazz Festival With Saxophonist Jane Bunnett

Kari Njiiri, NEPR, spoke with saxophonist Jane Bunnett following a performance with her all-female band from Cuba, Maqueque, at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. 

They were midway through a U.S. tour that she and her husband, trumpeter Larry Cramer, organized. She says the tour almost never happened due to last minute problems exacerbated by the Trump administration’s re-imposed travel restrictions on Cuban musicians.

Jane Bunnett: It is really enough to make you go crazy. I am a little crazy. Larry is a little crazy. We're all a little crazy. Best part of you know, one of the things is when we get on the bandstand, for everybody, for the girls lining up, for the, you know, just the money it costs us to do this, there's a real joy and a real... we've arrived, we made it, we're here. And none of this is taken for granted, you know, that we can do this.

Kari Njiiri, NEPR Jazz Safari Host: How was Maqueque formed? How did you guys put together these group of women?

Well, I was in Cuba and I was with what's called a Jazz Safari. Now our jazz radio station, 24-hour station is called Jazz FM-91. And they do these safaris, they do one to England then one to Italy and they do one to Cuba.

Jane Bunnett at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival
Credit Kari Njirri / NEPR
Jane Bunnett at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival

This is an actual safari.

Yeah, we call it safari. And what happens is people donate to the station and a substantial donation of something like $2500. They get a tax receipt. This is during their fundraising for the station. They get this one week trip to Cuba, which entails musicians from Cuba and a few Canadian musicians. And we stage an actual jazz festival. We don't call a festival. We call a jazz event. It's like a private party in one of the hotels in Veradero.

There was some really seasoned singers in that show that are very known in Canada. And they were like, whoa, who is this young lady?

So what happened was I met this young singer and I met her in the lobby. And I had set up a jam session in the cigar lounge in one of the hotels. And so there was a number of people there and a number of well-known jazz artists from Havana. So I ran into Dayme Aracena in the lobby, and we started up a conversation. She said she was a singer and I said, come to the jam session. So she came to the jam session. She was like 17, just turning 18 at the time. And she was very good, she sang way beyond her years. So afterwards, I think the following month I was artistic director of an event that's called Sistering. They raise money for women at risk with her children and family. And they are a wonderful organization, and so I've been doing this show for some time and I'm the musical director for it. So anyway, I convinced them to hire Dayme because there's a huge Spanish-speaking community in Toronto, and I thought it was quite important maybe to have somebody who would sing in Spanish to reach out to that. And they went for it. So she came and she did three songs. All the women do three songs, and there's a couple of women, comedians and stuff. And she brought the house down. There was some really seasoned singers in that show that are very known in Canada. And they were like, whoa, who is this young lady?

So after that, I started to think about, well, she's just now starting to build an audience in Toronto with, you know, people that never knew her before. And that's when Larry and I got the idea, because I've been working in Cuba in a number of the conservatories, there's 25 conservatories in Cuba. Five of them were in Havana. And we're talking about some of the schools have up to 500 students enrolled. And these students come from all over the countryside. And they audition to get free musical education at these institutes. 65, 70 percent of the students are women. And I would be at a jam session or someplace and they'd be sitting on the sidelines and they would never engage in the jam session. They'd be happy to watch their boyfriends play and they'd never bring their instruments. And if they did, they would just like, you know, I'd be like, come on, come up and play. No, no, don't make me, I don't want to go. And many of them just stopped. And when they graduated, you know, you had 15 years of training, musical training. That's when they start them at the age of eight. So by the time they're 16, 17, their seasoned professionals, they are so good. And then they just stop playing. So...

Because of a lack of opportunity?

Ok, first of all, lack of opportunity. And lack of opportunity, meaning even the guys are getting a lack of opportunity. You can't just go say, I'm going to go play at that cafe bistro over there. Or I'm going to go play at that theater, you know, like we can. You have to go through these levels of government. You have to ask the Institute of Music. You have to ask the Minister of Culture. You have to ask permission. So when you engage in doing that and there's all these guys...Sorry, girlfriend, you can wait because, you know, it's pretty macho there. So you got the combination of lack opportunities for everybody. So the women are sort of on a lower level and it takes a very takes a very strong woman like a Yissy, on drums here, (pointing to band mate Yissy Garcia, who briefly by our conversation) who is like, I'm going to go there and play. Now, she's one of the more the more seasoned ones because her dad is a professional musician. But still, it's been really hard, really, really hard for her too. 

...so I got this idea to say, well, maybe this is now the time to try and see if I can do something for some of these women, because, you know, I'd like to see more women out there playing.

Anyhow, so I got this idea to say, well, maybe this is now the time to try and see if I can do something for some of these women, because, you know, I'd like to see more women out there playing. So I talked to Dayme and I brought her back up to Canada. And we started to kind of work on some music. And then I went back to Cuba with Dayme and Larry. And I started checking out the various women that I thought were possibilities. And that's how I put together the group.

You know, the personality thing was very, very important. And, of course, the fact that they want to play jazz because this is not a show band. The most important thing is, you know, we're improvising; we're trying to challenge each other. I'm trying to encourage the other girls to write for the group and everybody is now writing material. And so they have to have that spirit to really want to be jazz musicians, even though we're still working strongly in the context of Cuban musical forms and rhythms.

The Cuban connection for you. You seem to have found a real niche. It seems to speak to you in a certain kind of way. How does it speak to you?

You know what? Well, I think it's my background being pretty steeped in jazz. I got into jazz because of Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders and Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Don Pullen and Mingus and Sam Rivers and Joe Henderson. I came at it from Pharaoh Saunders and Coltrane and then discovered Charlie Parker. I heard about Coltrane before Charlie Parker. And as I started to, you know, listen more and more to jazz and the different, you know, styles of the music, then I got, you know, going backwards, I discovered Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, I got interested hearing about Barry Harris, who taught in New York. And I started taking Larry and I started taking the bus to New York City to study at Jazz Forum. Mark Morganelli set up these jazz workshops with Barry Harris. So I came out from that...

You mean from Toronto? You'd take the bus to New York?

Yeah, I would take a bus to New York and stay for the weekend. And those were brutal. You know, we would we would get in at like 10:00 at night and go directly to Barry Harris' class. And he was relentless. He'd be going until 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning with his classes. They're unbelievable. I mean, he's something else. So, you know, I still like really, really love that music. And that's my foundation.

So when I got into Cuban music, it was purely accidental. Going to Mexico getting sick every time I went to Mexico. We Canadians do, you know, this is like 1981, 82, Cuba became a destination place for Canadians to go. So it was a cheap trip. I went there for a week. It was like $300 and something. It was hotel, three meals a day, airplane. And I was like, what the hell? Let's go. And so the moment I got there, there was music, music, music, music everywhere. And one of the first things musics I heard was the Afro Cuban folkloric music. And I, you know, for me when I heard that music, the chants and the drumming, right away I heard Africa Brass. I heard Coltrane. I heard Pharaoh Sanders. I heard these kind of that whole period of music which came out of the black musical experience. And that music just spoke to me, even though of my background and everything, I just I felt it and I heard the connection between those two musics. So that's what I started listening to was these Afro Cuban and the music of the Orishas. And then I met Merceditas Valdes and Guillermo Barretto. And they started introducing Larry and I to other people that were doing other musical things were maybe coming more from something else. And then, jumping ahead, when we made our film in the year 2000, Spirits of Havana, I traveled across a whole country and I started then hearing the regional, not only the regional sounds of each province, but the historical, like I mean there's a whole Cuban classical part of music there too.


It's just like jazz, right? I mean, it's not just one thing. There's like many things that you get a tree and it just goes like this. So you got all this music that influenced from Europe, and then you got this influence by Haiti and this music that's influenced from tribes, you know, areas of Africa. And like I mean, what happened in Cuba was like, you know, they had these cabildos (ethnic associations created by enslaved Africans in Cuba based on Spanish fraternities). And each one had their own particular religion and music. And so those things have been preserved in Cuba. So it's just endless.

Kari Njiiri is a senior reporter and longtime host and producer of "Jazz Safari," a musical journey through the jazz world and beyond, broadcast Saturday nights on NEPM Radio. He's also the local host of NPR’s "All Things Considered."
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