From the soulful Lou Rawls and Ruth Brown to Latin legends Celia Cruz and Oscar DeLeon, from the red-hot blues of Robert Cray, Duke Robillard, and Eric Bibb to a rare solo performance by McCoy Tyner, the San Francisco Jazz Festival brings together the best in the world.

SFJAZZ profoundly demonstrates the impact Jazz, America’s homegrown commodity, has had on the four corners of the world. The San Francisco Jazz Organization (SFJAZZ) is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving the traditions and encouraging the growth of jazz through presentation and education in the San Francisco Bay Area.

From October 25 through November 5, Jazz took center stage at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre, Oakland’s Paramount Theatre and various venues in between. I attended four different performances, all quite diverse from the next: “Remember Shakti” featured English guitarist John McLaughlin and Indian tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, “Jazz in Brasil” presented Toots Thielemans and Márcio Faraco, “The Legends of Latin Jazz Salsa Dance Party” featured Celia Cruz and Oscar De’Leon, and I saw a triple bill showcase highlighting Cuba’s own Orquesta Aragon, Eliades Ochoa and Cubanismo.

Cuban Music’s Widespread Appeal

I’m always inexplicably drawn to the events featuring Cuban Jazz/Salsa parties, and this year was no exception. Perhaps it’s the connection I feel as an African-American to the African slave influenced cultures of Cuba and the Caribbean. Our African ancestors arrived in the Americas by chance to work in the cotton fields, while many of our distant relatives were delivered to Cuba to work with sugar cane.

The Paramount Theatre’s show showcased three of Cuba’s best. I first heard of Eliades Ochoa in the Cuban musical documentary “Buena Vista Social Club.” Void of the played-out typical American propaganda, the movie presented a side of Cuba that has forever changed my perspective.

Eliades Ochoa was decked out in his trademark cowboy hat and boots. His singing voice is gritty and his guitar belts out a classic acoustic sound. I regretted not being able to understand Spanish as his banter with the audience kept the people around me laughing throughout his entire performance.

Founded more than 60 years ago, the legendary “La Orquesta Aragón” has taken Cuba’s charanga, a style of music highlighted by flute and violins, to grand heights. This band has recorded more than 700 songs incorporating many styles of traditional and not so traditional Cuban music, including cha-cha, son, guaracha, flamenco, samba, swing, and many others. They have traveled around the world and have toured Africa more than any other Cuban group going to places like Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Zaire, Benin, Zanzibar, Ghana, and the Congo.

Dancing in the Aisles?

Closing the almost sold out performance was Cubanismo. Founded by trumpeter Jesus Alemany in the mid 90s, Cubanismo has taken the salsa community by a storm with screaming horns, passionate vocals, explosive percussion, and sizzling rhythms. They pound their instruments into submission, and leave the dancers in a sweltering heat on the floor.

I was quite interested to see how the Paramount Theatre, which doesn’t allow dancing, would corral the many dancers that were very excited about this show. The ushers put up a valiant effort, escorting many of the people dancing in the aisles gently back to their seats. But finally they were overwhelmed by the jailbreak of dancers as they staked their dancing turf in all corners of the theatre.

Jazz in the City? Nobody does it better than the San Francisco Jazz Festival.