Jazz Caliente: What Makes Cuban Pianists So Good?

Dec 16, 2016

Cuban pianist are known throughout the world as among the best.  This week, we'll feature some of the modern-day Cuban piano stars:  Chucho Valdes, Omar Sosa and Emilano Salvador.  

The piano arrived in Cuba in the late 18th century and was quickly elevated to favored instrument status, especially for popular dances like the guaracha and contradanzas.  Thus began the Cuban piano tradition. 

Early piano masters included Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963), a piano prodigy who gave his first concert at age five.  He went on to be a prolific composer of distinction, the Cuban version of George Gershwin.  

Pedro Nolasco Jústiz Rodriguez, known as Peruchin (1913-1977), specialized in mixing jazz with Cuban popular music.  He influenced generations of Cuban jazz players, including Bebo Valdes, father of Chucho.

In the early 1960s, when Fidel Castro made an alliance with the Soviet Union, many Russian and Soviet-bloc music teachers came to the island and taught in the Cuban conservatories.  Their rigorous methods are still in use today.  

So a when a Cuban pianist, extremely well trained in the classics, theory and technique, turns his or her attention to jazz, the result is generally awesome.  And far from being clones, each seems to have developed their own distinctive style and sound.  

And they just keep coming.  Younger stars like Jorge Luis Pacheco, Alfredo Rodriguez and Harold Lopez-Nussa continue the tradition and push the boundaries at the same time.  

Read more history of the Cuban piano in Rebeca Mauleón's presentation for SF Jazz.

Jazz Caliente airs Saturdays at 5:00 p.m. The program is hosted by Robin Lloyd and produced by KNKX Public Radio.