In the “roaring twenties”, Argentina was a prosperous country and its capital, Buenos Aires, resembled in many aspects European cities like London, Paris and Berlin. All the cultural and intellectual activity, following a strong tradition from the preceding century, was imported from those cities, and so was jazz: at the beginning, it didn´t arrive from the United States, it came from Europe, where it had been “discovered” in the previous decade.
In the thirties, jazz got installed in the city´s cultural life. In the first years, however, things were not easy for the new music in a mostly conservative society: there were xenophobic groups that opposed jazz, claiming it was against the “National Identity” (represented by tango and folkloric musical expressions), and thus made efforts to eradicate it.
Fortunately, jazz was not only strong enough to survive this reactionary attacks, but also received some vital influx from a diversity of factors, especially the radio boom and the supportive attitude of intellectuals and writers of the time, who embraced jazz, as tango musicians had already done some years before.
Actually, the local antecedent of the first jazz bands were the tango orchestras, and most of the times the musicians and conductors were the same. Gradually, the technical knowledge began to deepen and musicians got more professional, jazz broke its ties with tango, and new jazz orchestras were formed, emulating the models of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller.
Meanwhile, the first Argentine jazz musician that exceeded his country´s boundaries was causing a big sensation in the pre-war French cabarets. An incredibly gifted guitarist with unmatchable swing, Oscar Alemán had first been hired by the exotic dancer Josephine Baker while she was performing in Buenos Aires. In the euphoric Parisian jazz scene of the thirties, Alemán got the chance to play and record with the most important musicians, were they European (like the members of the legendary Hot Club de France) or American expatriates, like Bill Coleman or Freddy Taylor. He was often compared to Django Reinhardt, whom he frequently got to play with. Unfortunately, those duets have escaped recording, and we have to content ourselves with just imagining how the Gypsy and the Argentine might have sounded together.
With the beginning of the Second World War, the European dream was over for Alemán, who returned home to enjoy considerable success and a prolific recording career until the end of his life in 1980. Alemán´s recordings are now available in cd format; a true legacy from one of the first musicians to use jazz to expand the Argentine musical frontiers, and who, with only a few years in Europe, gained a place in jazz history (in 1998 Acoustic Disc released a comprehensive anthology, Oscar Alemán: Swing Guitar Masterpieces, 1938-1957)
Albeit jazz kept on developing, following with some delay the changes that were taking place in the United States, it was only in the sixties that two other musicians achieved international projection: Lalo Schifrin and Leandro “Gato” Barbieri.
In 1956 Dizzy Gillespie gave several concerts in Buenos Aires, and thus had the chance to listen to Lalo Schifrin´s Orchestra, a sixteen piece band with a modern repertoire and a style that mixed elements from Stan Kenton, Count Basie, Latin-jazz and bebop. Gillespie was impressed by the young compositor and conductor, and told him that they should work together one day. For Schifrin, the dream came true four years later. When Gillespie knew he was in New York, he called him right away and asked Schifrin to compose some music for him. One thing led to the other: soon Schifrin was the pianist and musical director of Gillespie´s new quintet, and some time later he composed the Gillespiana suite, recorded in November, 1960. The album became a huge success, the suite gained the best of critics and Schifrin, under Gillespie´s wing, got the necessary exposure to become known in the jazz world.
Encouraged by Schifrin´s experience, Barbieri migrated to Rome, Italy, a couple of years later. Once there, he soon found his way when he got to play with trumpetist Don Cherry, embracing for a while the free jazz style and collaborating in emblematic projects such as Charlie Haden´s Liberation Music Orchestra (1969) and the Jazz Composers Orchestra (1968), formed by Cecil taylor, Pharoah Sanders, and Larry Corryell.
Barbieri is the only Argentine jazzman that has played real free-jazz, and while he did it he gained recognition among the style´s adepts and from critics like Leonard Feather and Nat Hentoff. But it was with the soundtrack to the film Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972), that he got the attention of a larger audience.
In 1973 Barbieri returned for a brief period to Argentina, for he was interested in South American music. He assembled a group of Latin American musicians with a strong emphasis in the different and varied rhythms of the whole region, and thus blended a unique style of free-jazz, Latin American music and folk rhythms highly original and, most important, full of political content. Barbieri intended to make the world aware of an oppressed people, and thus turned his back on abstraction to explore his own cultural roots. The result was the album Third World, and a sequence of four “Latin American Chapters”, the albums that constitute his most important work.
In the late seventies, military dictatorships seized power in most South American countries, and an obscure period began. Like many intellectuals, scientists and artists, Barbieri fled away once again. Surprising and disappointing everybody, Gato left the activist behind and started to play some funky-pop, diluted commercial music which, besides his always melodic improvisations, had no artistic interest or value at all and, for many, it´s music that sank into oblivion. After many silent years, Barbieri made a triumphant comeback in the late nineties, which also included the recording of two new albums and several tours around the U.S., Europe, and his homeland. Although sporadically because of health troubles (he is 71 years old) Barbieri still performs. And even though his strength has been considerably reduced, his still has his trade-mark, preternaturally visceral, emotionally raw sound intact.
The late seventies and early eighties were a dark period not only for Barbieri, but for Argentine culture in general. And jazz, always the weakest musical genre, suffered it amply. As in the beginning of its history, the military dictators rejected jazz for its “imported” origin –even rock and roll sung in any foreign language was banned, and jazz had to wait way beyond the nineties to recover.
It was only from the year 2000 onwards that Argentine jazz started to grow steadily, even abruptly, with not only a young audience willing to enjoy it, but with a whole generation of young professional musicians completely dedicated to perform jazz. These musicians, who brought jazz to the youth and who are now between thirty and forty years old, had two enormous benefits the previous generation didn´t: they grew up in democracy, and had the chance to study abroad (mainly in the United States and, particularly, in Boston´s Berklee School of Music), and then went back to their country, where they had the chance to make a living with their profession.
The economic stability of the nineties, on the other hand, inserted Argentina in the international circuit, and thus celebrated jazz musicians like Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Michael Brecker, Lionel Hampton, Oscar Peterson, to name only a few, visited the country frequently, finding here an enthusiastic audience that anxiously waited and, in some cases, revered the visiting artists. These “good times” in economic terms, also brought the mega-store Tower Records (which only in Buenos Aires simultaneously opened four branches), so during those years one could find in Buenos Aires as much music as in New York or London, including jazz.
In December, 2001, a big economic crisis exploded in the country and, although Tower Records closed its stores and left, and although there were no more visits from abroad for at least three years, jazz prove once again to be strong enough to survive the crisis. Independent labels started to flourish, and an array of young musicians started to find new places to play. There was a big audience for jazz, and since the foreign starts couldn´t make it anymore, the vernacular figures had to feed the jazz fans. Also, pioneering figures from Schifrin and Barbieri´s generation gradually begun to got the recognition they long deserved, both as players and as teachers of the younger generations.
These days Buenos Aires´ jazz agenda is excessive. Every year Argentina hosts seven jazz festivals. The radio is broadcasting more or less 10 jazz programs a week and every night you will be able to find some live concert somewhere, with at least seven serious jazz clubs only in the capital. One of the most notable qualities of the youngster´s generation, is the willingness they show to find their own voice through the jazz language. Indeed, if anything distinguishes this newer generation of musicians, is that they no longer delve into the past nor in the jazz repertoire (not exclusively, at least) but instead they play their own music, and many of them give equal importance to the art of playing to that of composing.
Independent labels like BAU Records (with pianist Ernesto Jodos, guitarist Fernando Tarres or sax player Luis Nacht as best exponents) or MDR Records (which released a series of albums entitled On Piano that featured six solo piano albums by local pianists/composers) have been holstering this new wave that is already being called “Argentine Jazz”, but also the big company EMI has launched its jazz branch through a sub-label called S´Jazz, which has released fifteen albums so far, all of them by Argentine musicians, some of them already established, and some of them making their recording debut.
The purest jazz tradition thus melts with elements of academic and contemporary music, New Tango (the music created by Astor Piazzolla), folk music (particularly the music from the Andean landscapes in the North-West of the country), and the rich and diverse musical culture that one can find all over this country; a country built as a modern nation in the 19th Century through a strong immigration that lasted way beyond the 1930´s. As a universal tongue, now jazz is being open to the music those communities brought in with them, through the immigrant´s grandsons. Italian, Polish, Spanish, Ucrainian or Jewish music, among others, are also enriching and nurturing Argentine jazz, a music that, after its first century, is alive and sounding better than ever.