Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Jazz Balm

I’ve been off my number for the last couple of weeks, anxious about everything—my house in New Orleans, my decision to live in San Miguel, if my God-daughter, Bianca, will get here for a visit before she has to return to work—wishing I hadn’t committed to do an article on jazz for a new magazine so that I could just stay home and lick my wounds. But I had, and after talking to a couple of the musicians, realized I also needed to hit the clubs. I hadn’t heard anyone for months, not since bassist Tyler Mitchell’s trio stopped playing Wednesday nights at Limerick. Even on a budget, Limerick was easy, no cover charge, and drinks were cheap. It was my Wednesday night ritual when they were offering up jazz that night, primarily for a young Mexican crowd, which also meant they were developing a new audience for the music I love.

I wasn’t impressed with San Miguel’s jazz scene when I came here almost four years ago. One jazz club, Tio Lucas on Mesones, didn’t seem like much to someone who’d spent most of their life in New York. But jazz has a short history in Mexico. Mexico City’s first jazz trio didn’t come on the scene until the 80s and was organized by an American, Bobby Kaplan, who lives here now. A club offering jazz 7 days a week, in a city this size, is a rarity for Mexico.

I’d only planned hit Tio Lucas a couple of nights and stop by Sierra Navada, a restaurant on Hospico, where guitarist Ken Basman, who moved here from Toronto, and keyboardist Doug Robinson, an import from San Diego, improvise alternate Fridays. But San Miguel was offering other musical choices for the next several days, and some of it was jazz. The Sunday after I heard Ken and Doug’s sophisticated interplay, I headed to the Wine Bar, at Fabrica Aurora, to hear Sibyl Lee-English’s set of classic R&B and jazz love songs.

As I was winding down Sunday night, I noticed that with just a couple of music hits my spirits had lifted. This was far cheaper than the shrink I had begun to feel that I needed, and I was looking forward to hearing more jazz the following week. En route to Tio Lucas, I stopped at Sunset Bar, on Mesones, where they were serving blues with happy hour, then headed downstairs to hear Doris Rogers, who moved here from Baltimore more than 20 years ago. Doris, who sings jazz classics with impeccable phasing and timing, has been singing at the club trice weekly since it opened. That night Gabriel Hernandez, a virtuoso from Cuba, was on piano and Antonio Lozoya, director of San Miguel’s annual jazz festival, was on bass. I’d planned to stop by another night to hear Bobby, who in addition to playing drums, piano and harmonica, also sings—he was one of the finalist for the Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition in ’98—but he was on vacation for a couple of months. Friday night I headed for the Angela Peralta Theatre to hear Gabriel’s latest jazz exploration, 10 original piano compositions, that he showcased with a trio that included Tyler and percussionist/drummer Victor Monterrubio. Their collaboration was one of the best jazz concerts I’ve heard anywhere.

The next week I headed back to the Peralta to hear Gabriel again, this time backing his father, Gabrielito, y su Descarga Cubana (his Cuban jam session). The repertoire that night was Afro-Cuban dance music—son montuno, danzón, mambo, cha-cha and bolero. And the band, that included Gabriel on bass, three drummers, a couple of horns, and a vocalist, had the audience dancing in the aisles.

Although I’ve finished the article, I’m headed out this week to hear Gabriel again—this time in duet with Tyler, at Mivida, a restaurant on Hernández Macías. Gabriel recently signed to do a year’s tour with the Afro-Cuban All Stars and, after October, won’t be around town too much, so I’m rushing out to hear him while I can.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Lenses and Chasms

It’s taken me forever to finish this post started a week ago. Anxiety over events in New Orleans took my focus AGAIN. I am bored with myself. That sometimes I let the fallout from Hurricane Katrina consume me, for much shorter periods now, but still far longer than my two-hour rule. Two hours was the max I allowed myself to worry about something gone wrong before the storm.

I’m restless. I haven’t been back to the States in a year—first time since I came, almost four years ago, that I’ve spent a full year just in Mexico. Until a few weeks ago I was comfortable with this—being in San Miguel with short excursions to other Mexican cities. But lately I’ve been having fish outta water experiences, something I haven’t felt for a long time here. I’ve wanted to go home, not to a specific location but home to my creative, thinking, colored-American community, not strictly African-American but non-white.

It started with Michael’s death—mourning his passing, celebrating his life in a community that thought child molester when they heard his name. It’s interesting where people choose to be reflective. My friends here question much that is disseminated through the media but accepted unproven allocations about Michael without giving them much thought. They view him through a different lens. He wasn’t their hero, one of their ambassadors, like Aretha and Stevie, showing American, and the world, what it meant to be young, gifted and Black.

Our book club’s discussion of Barbara Chase-Riboud’s novel, Sally Hemings, was another isolating event. I couldn’t believe that these intelligent, educated women were romanticizing slavery, accepting the author’s interpretation, that Sally’s love for Jefferson supercede all the sorrow surrounding their union—his not returning to Paris, as promised, where she would have been free; losing her children; having three siblings sold at auction following Jefferson’s death. And one of the romanticizers was Black. But raised in an environment different from any I've known; by a mother who thought Black salvation lay in marrying white. In essence, over time, eradicating the brown. When discussing this with an old friend, who, like me, is living far outside her comfort zone, Teia pointed out that, fucked up as this was, it demonstrated progress. In the space of 30 years, reaction to this book had moved from outrage and denial to rose-tinted glasses. Progress doesn’t always match our fantasy of change.

Discussions on the ignorant comments in the States regarding Malia Obama (wearing shorts in Italy with Puffy), and Professor Gates' arrest made me aware that empathy and shared experiences are not the same, it’s the difference between head space and heart space.

We humans may be more alike than different but the lens through which we’ve experienced life creates chasms. One of the reasons I’ve stayed in San Miguel is that living here broadens my life lens—not just through my interaction with Mexicans and their culture but also through my communication with Canadians and white Americans. But I don’t always feel like being a student. Right now, I’m wanting to be among people who have experienced life through my lens.