Inaugural Bayfront Jazz Festival aims to help ‘bring back joy’

Written By Mike Hamersly
April 26, 2021 at 2:16 PM

Groundbreaking pianist Chucho Valdés says he has been keeping busy during the pandemic by composing, performing online, and teaching young students through his academy. (Photo courtesy of OCP Photography Miami)

With the weather turning balmy and the world slowly beginning to open up again during the COVID-19 pandemic, International Jazz Day on April 30 couldn’t come at a better time.

Especially in Miami, where the inaugural Bayfront Jazz Festival will celebrate this truly American form of music this weekend.

The two-day concert, on Friday-Saturday, April 30-May 1, at the FPL Solar Amphitheater at Bayfront Park, aims to help “bring back joy” after more than a year of forced cultural isolation, according to organizers.

“That was the inspiration,” says Manuel Molina, who along with partner Amos Rozenberg makes up Melrose Media, which is hosting the festival. “Miami is one of the first cities to open, having small concerts with limited audiences, and the city has been wanting to revitalize downtown. Also, the weather is great, and it was not that complicated to convince great artists to come here.”

Of course, the live-music scene is far from all the way back to normal. The 10,000-seat amphitheater can allow only 15 percent capacity for the festival, which adds up to 1,500 socially distanced patrons per day (the concert is also available through livestream video). And yes, masks are mandatory, except while eating or drinking.

“We hope that now, step by step, this [festival] is the first initiative, and we will be able to increase in size and bring more people for the next event that we are programming,” says Molina.  “Hopefully, at one point everybody will feel much more comfortable, and be vaccinated, and we’ll drop those masks.”

Aymée Nuviola, who portrayed Celia Cruz in a 2015 series, is known as “La Sonera del Mundo” for her improvisational vocal skills. (Photo courtesy of Blue Note Tokyo)

The festival’s lineup would be stellar by any standard, but it seems even more so for jazz fans who have been starved for live music. Friday night kicks off with jazz-funk vibraphonist Roy Ayers (whose groovy, laid-back 1976 standard “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” suits the Magic City well) and his quintet, followed by legendary Cuban pianist, bandleader and composer Chucho Valdés and his quartet.

Saturday offers a slightly different vibe, with jazz drummer Mark Guiliana laying down adventurous electronic sounds in the late-afternoon sunshine with his Grammy-nominated ensemble Beat Music! Later, the renowned Cuban duo of pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and vocalist Aymée Nuviola (“La Sonera del Mundo”) take the stage fresh off their 2020 release, “Viento y Tiempo,” recorded live at Blue Note Tokyo. The festival closes with a bluesy bang with Tony- and Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and the eight-piece Memphis Soulphony.

The hugely influential and groundbreaking pianist Valdés – best known for co-founding the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna in 1967 and the Afro-Cuban jazz group Irakere in 1973 – has been keeping busy during the pandemic by composing, performing online, and teaching young students through his academy. But nothing beats performing in front of a crowd, and the Miami resident is itching to get onstage for the first time since December 2019.

“It will be the first concert I will do during the pandemic for a live audience,” says Valdés, now 79, who is also well-known for being the son of legendary pianist and bandleader Bebo Valdés. “I’m really happy to celebrate, as every year, the International Jazz Day, and it can’t be in a better place than Bayfront Park for the sound and the beauty. For me, [Jazz Day] is a really important day for all the musicians that play that genre. The first Jazz Day I performed was at the White House in 2016, and in 2017 it was in Havana, and I also was part of it.”

The music of Valdés’ group Irakere, whose many innovations included blending complex Afro-Cuban percussion and rhythms with traditional jazz, isn’t a great fit for a quartet and therefore won’t be part of his set, which will run about 75 minutes. (“But if the audience asks for more music, of course we will play longer,” he says).

Considered one of the most gifted jazz pianists of his generation, Gonzalo Rubalcaba was born into a musical family in Cuba. (Photo courtesy of Yuka Yamaji)

Still, to Valdés, Irakere’s legacy continues to resonate today.

“We never thought it was going to be a success, but we knew we were breaking some barriers and creating new sounds with great musicians with a lot of possibilities,” he reflects. “And as a result, Irakere was a starting point of the Cuban music that we are listening to today. Today, all the musicians recognize that the music changed after this band. They talk about a ‘before’ and ‘after’ Irakere.”

Not surprisingly, Valdés’ musical foundation began with the teachings of his father, Bebo.

“I learned from him the jazz, the Afro-Cuban and the orchestration,” he recalls. “And when I turned 15, I started to be the pianist of his orchestra. When he had a recording session, I played the piano and he was the conductor. In that way, he showed me how to develop myself into the background of an orchestra under the conduction of a maestro.”

Although Valdés will turn 80 on Oct. 9, he possesses the creative energy of a man decades younger.

“There is still a lot to learn, and I have a lot of ideas to develop,” he says. “Right now, I just finished composing a suite in four movements. The premiere will be in November here in Miami, and then we’ll present it in Europe and then back to the rest of the U.S. I’m also creating music for the future with new musical concerns that I have. That’s what keeps me focused.”


WHAT: Bayfront Jazz Festival

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. April 30 and 4:30 p.m. May 1

WHERE: FPL Solar Amphitheater at Bayfront Park, 301 N. Biscayne Blvd., Miami; livestream available on mobile, desktop, tablets, Apple TV and Roku TV 

COST: $55.25-$195.25 per day for in-person performances; $15 for one-day livestream pass and $25 for two-day pass

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