HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra will play concerts in Cuba this week with what he said on Monday was a simple goal -- to bring people together through music.
His is the latest in a growing series of cultural exchanges between the United States and Cuba as the two countries grope for common ground after five decades of hostility.
The New York-based jazz orchestra, making its first trip to the communist-led island, is set to play concerts Tuesday through Saturday and give classes to young Cuban musicians.
Marsalis, 48, said he was honored to be in Cuba, with its own rich musical history rivaling that of his native New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz.
He told of how, when he was 12, his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, brought him an album featuring Cuban jazz great Chucho Valdez and said, “Man, this is what cats are playing in Cuba.”
“Then he put the record on and every time something would happen, he would go ‘wooooooooooo.’ He was always ‘woooooooooo,'” Marsalis said.
He eschewed any overtly political overtones to the Cuba visit, saying the message of jazz was universal.
“Our tagline is ‘uplift through swing.’ We raise people’s spirit all over the world through the art of swing,” he said.
“In our music, swing means come together and stay together, even when we don’t want to.”
Marsalis said he had played and recorded music over the weekend with Cuban musicians including the pianist Valdez and Buena Vista Social Club singer Omara Portuondo, both of whom accompanied him at Monday’s press conference.
Later in October, Jazz at Lincoln Center will produce an “Afro-Cuban Jazz Celebration” with Valdez and his Afro-Cuban Messengers performing in New York in a tribute to Cuba’s influence on jazz, which Marsalis said was substantial.
The Marsalis-led jazz orchestra has succeeded in coming to Cuba where its fellow Lincoln Center resident, the New York Philharmonic, did not when it attempted to schedule concerts on the island a year ago.
The Philharmonic had to cancel when the U.S. government refused to give patrons who were helping fund the trip license to travel to Cuba.
The 48-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the island prohibits most Americans from legally visiting there, but musicians and other artists are among those who can get a license to go.
U.S. President Barack Obama has modestly eased relations with Cuba by, among other things, permitting visits to encourage “people to people” contacts.
The American Ballet Theater is scheduled to perform in the Cuban capital in November in a tribute to one of its former dancers, Cuba ballet legend Alicia Alonso.
In the past year, pop band Kool and the Gang and Puerto Rico’s Calle 13 have played in Havana, and in March 2009 the U.S. artists presented the first major American group exhibition in Cuba since the 1980s.
Editing by Jeff Franks and Jackie Frank