NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) — In a practice room at the UNO School of Music, assistant instructor Oscar Rossignoli melodically hits the piano keys without any sheet music to read or even the notes he has memorized.
He says improvisation is a melody that he says comes straight from his heart.
“For me at least, it’s not a style of music,” Rossignoli said. “It’s more of a language. It’s a language more than a category, like you have this style, this style and then you have jazz here.
The pianist has been playing this way for decades, ever since he fell in love with the instrument back home in Honduras.
“I would go to the piano and spend a lot of time with records and stop and play. And that’s how I got to know it,” he said. It’s not like we could have taken jazz lessons at any school. We didn’t have those resources available.
Rossignoli says he’s one of a growing number of musicians in the New Orleans metro area who dedicate their time to Latin azz, which Taslya Mejia, head of international relations at the New Orleans Jazz Museum, defines as “a combination Jazz, Latin American and Caribbean Styles.
However, Mejia says things get complicated when trying to trace the origin of the sound with different groups of people believing the stories passed down by word of mouth. But most experts agree it started with Cuban music prodigy Mario Bauzá when he brought his country’s Congolese rhythms and beats to Harlem in the 1920s.
However, the music he played did not pick up as quickly as other styles of music.
“He played this music, these notes to different musicians and they were like, ‘No, that’s not quite it.’ But he had a bigger dream and he thought, ‘One day I’m going to play these beats because these are my roots. This is who we are.'”
Over time, Bauzá’s work as a musician and composer became more popular as more Latin American immigrants put down roots in American cities.
“You have to understand the great immigration in the 50s and 40s for Cubans to the United States,” said Cuban-born percussionist Alexey Martí.
At the age of 7, Martí says he was inspired by the Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies of his grandparents and took up congas. From there, he developed an appreciation for the traditional music of his country and found success performing with different bands. In 2008, he took a leap of faith and traveled to New Orleans to work on his craft, like many Cuban artists before him.
Martí says the music he played at home merges with what you hear in the French Quarter, the second lines and the Mardi Gras parades.
“The conga is a rhythm. It’s a carnival rhythm and they create a nice fusion between Cuban percussionists and trumpeters,” he said. “They create one of the most beautiful combinations of jazz, Latin jazz. The Latinos came to amplify all the Latin American rhythms with jazz, with American music.
Traditional New Orleans jazz also mixes easily with other Caribbean sounds like merengue from the Dominican Republic.
“You have the freedom to improvise on accordion, tamboras, hand drums, guiro. It’s really very easy to improvise,” said Dominican-born musician Fermín Ceballos. “We’re very close to the type of jazz we do here (in New Orleans).”
Since 2012, Fermín Ceballos has honored the music he grew up playing in his island nation. But he’s made it his mission to embrace other forms of music in southeast Louisiana, going so far as to feature zydeco singer Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. on a song called ZYDECO STAR.
“When we went into the studio, because (Rockin’ Dopsie Jr.) is a master on stage, I said, ‘Here’s the melody. Here’s the lyrics. Do you want to make any changes?’ and he said, ‘No, no, no. You’re the engineer. I’m here to do whatever you want,” Ceballos said. “It’s a different culture here in New Orleans, but at the same time, you can still hear that Caribbean sound, that Caribbean feel (in the song).”
Ceballos and other local Latin artists say modern fusion echoes the origins of Latin jazz and is facilitated by the city’s love of collaboration.
“It’s kind of like, ‘Hey, can you play? come and play with us.’ It’s that attitude. It’s not about who’s the best or having competition for gigs. No, it’s about making music together,” Rossignoli said. “It kept me in New Orleans, so far, for eight years.”
The artists credit their fusion work and the region’s growing Hispanic population with a greater demand for gigs. The 2020 census reports that there are more than 322,000 Hispanic Louisianans statewide, or 6% of the population. That’s a jump from 2010, when Hispanics made up just about 4.2 percent of the state’s population.
And this year, the French Quarter Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, there was a combined total of 34 Latin musicians. It’s a sign for artists that music finds its place in New Orleans.
“It’s growing. It grows before my own eyes. Poco a poco,” Martí said.
While performers are enjoying their growing popularity, Martí says he doesn’t see his people represented enough in shows and concerts.
“You have to understand that the political and legal status of many people prevents them from taking advantage of the society where they live,” Martí said. “As Latin artists, you’re never going to see the full of your community because you have people who have to be careful about going to crowded places.”
Nonetheless, local musicians want to push the city’s Latin jazz scene to rival that of Central American countries like Costa Rica.
“The discipline of these musicians was a whole orchestra that embraced, loved and felt jazz. You can’t beat that feeling,” Mejia said.
She recently returned home from a trip to Costa Rica where she got to see how the country is embracing the musical genre. The trip was one of many trips she made for the New Orleans Jazz Museum to build relationships with Latin countries and showcase their work at the museum right next to the French market.
“We make different connections in the Dominican Republic, in Argentina, in Puerto Rico,” she said.
But some artists want more than just exposure. Many advocate more school programs and workshops that can teach people how music is played.
“The more rhythm and music we have here, the better it is for the city and for the young generation behind us to do something different,” Ceballos said.
In the meantime, the musicians say that if you listen carefully to their work, you can hear the historic sounds of their country and ours.
“Listen to it with intention. Listen to him and do nothing else. Just pay attention to what happens to the music, to every element, to every instrument, to every sensationalism,” Rossignoli said.
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