skip to Main Content


What is Latin Jazz

This month we bring the hot Latin Jazz scene to the forefront of the heat of the summer. Nothing better than putting your dancing shoes on for some  rumba or mambo once the sun goes down and the music comes out. Jazz at Victoria Yards July 9 and Conversations with Curtis July 13 showcase this amazing jazz genre.

One of the most vibrant of jazz styles, generically termed Latin Jazz, comes from the Afro-Cuban tradition. The clave, both an instrument and a 5-stroke rhythmic pattern, is the heartbeat of great Afro-Cuban music. From there, Latin Jazz actually describes a variety of musical styles, such as the Cha-Cha-Cha, Descarga, Mambo, Rumba, Son Cubano, Bolero, Charanga, Guaracha, Montuno, and more.

Jump below for a playlist of some of the key pioneers of the genre and albums that demonstrate their influence. From there, we’ve highlighted some of the brightest Latin Jazz stars of today whose music is driving the genre forward.

Pioneers & Influencers of Latin Jazz

For a quick listen to get you into the Latin Jazz spirit, check out the musicians and albums below, through this playlist.  For more, Curtis Davenport’s 3-part blog series “Afro-Cuban Jazz Primer” offers a deeper dive into these musicians.
Part 1:  Ricky Ricardo Ain’t Real
Part 2:  Don’t Call it Salsa
Part 3:  Keep Calm & Clive On

Mario Bauzá (1911 – 1993) The first to explore fusing jazz arranging techniques with authentic Afro-Cuban rhythms on a consistent basis. His composition “Tanga” is considered one of the first great tunes of the jazz and Cuban mixture known as “Cubop”. Recommended album Tanga

Buena Vista Social Club (1996 – present)  Originally a popular black club in the pre-Castro, segregated Havana, the name came to represent an ensemble of veteran Cuban musicians, to revive interest in the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba, in 1996. The album that the group recorded under that name became wildly successful, as did an accompanying documentary.  Recommended album Buena Vista Social Club

Cachao (1918 – 2008)  Bassist Israel López Valdés, nicknamed Cachao, is recognized as the co-creator of the Mambo. He was also considered a master of the Cuban style jam session, known as descargas.  Cachao is considered to be one of the greatest bassists of all time, in any genre.  Recommended album Master Sessions; Vol. 1

Celia Cruz (1925 – 2003) The most popular Latin vocalist of the 20th century and an unequivocal musical legend. Defecting to the U.S. during the Cuban revolution, Ms. Cruz became an unstoppable force in a genre dominated by men. She earned twenty-three Gold albums during her career.  Recommended album The Absolute Collection

Dizzy Gillespie (1917 – 1993)  The only non-Cuban on this list, Diz is here as the bridge between Afro-Cuban music and straight-ahead jazz. Gillespie, Pozo and Bauzá worked on this stylistic fusion that they called “Cubop”. “Manteca” and “Tin-Tin Deo”, which Diz co-wrote with Chano, are considered Afro-Cuban jazz classics.  Recommended album Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods

Irakere (1973 – present)  The legendary Cuban band was an incubator for living legends such as Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval and Chucho Valdés. Irakere, was founded at the height of the cold-war tensions, in 1973, and out of it grew musical ideas that influenced jazz, Cuban pop, rock dance and Afro-Cuban music. Despite jazz being literally outlawed in Cuba at the time.  Members, all Grammy winners, still influence the scene today.  Recommended album The Best of Irakere

Machito (1908 – 1984)  “Machito” Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo, was listed as a musical inspiration by Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Stan Kenton. His big band, the Afro Cuban’s, became extremely influential in the genre.  Vocalist Graciela Pérez Gutiérrez, with her big voice and risqué stage presence, played a significant part in that success.  Recommended album Kenya

Benny Moré (1919 – 1963)  Bartolomé Maximiliano (Benny) Moré, possessed one of the most beautiful and expressive voices to ever grace Afro-Cuban music, known as “El Bárbaro del Ritmo” (The Master of Rhythm). From 1953, until his death, he led one of the most popular big bands in Cuba, “La Banda Gigante”.  Recommended album Sonero Mayor de Cuba

Chico O’Farrill (1921 – 2001)  Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill scandalized his family by rejecting the family law practice to hang out with the local black musicians. A Julliard educated trumpet player, his conservatory training caused O’Farrill to fully voice the Cuban rhythms, while also providing robust big band charts as well. His “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite”, for Machito’s Orchestra, featuring Charlie Parker, stands as one of the great Afro-Cuban jazz works of all time.  Recommended album Cuban Blues

Chano Pozo (1915 – 1948) Luciano Pozo González’ contributions to the development of Afro-Cuban Jazz during his short life are incalculable. Dizzy Gillespie and Chano’s collaboration in only 14 months melded Chano’s innovative style on the congas with the sound of Dizzy’s brash bop to create a sound like nothing jazz had ever heard before- the beginning “Cubop. He and Gillespie collaborated on writing the standards, “Tin Tin Deo” and “Manteca”.

Arsenio Rodríguez (1911 – 1970) Rodríguez played the tres (Cuban guitar) and the conga; a master of the son cubano, son montuno and rumba; prolific composer who wrote over 200 songs. He added piano, horns and congas to the traditional Cuban sextet or septet – this format became the standard for most Afro-Cuban music that was not performed by a big band.  Recording: Tocoloro – Arsenio Rodríguez y Su Conjunto

Mongo Santamaría (1917 – 2003) Influential Cuban conga player and bandleader, pioneered the marriage between Afro-Cuban rhythms and R&B. His recording of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” helped spawn the boogaloo (bugalú) craze.  His most famous composition, “Afro Blue,” became a jazz standard. Arguably, he is the musician with the widest influence in this grouping.  Recording: Explodes at the Village Gate

Carlos “Patato” Valdés (1926 – 2007) Once called “The greatest conguero alive” by Tito Puente, Patato invented (and patented) the tunable conga drum. During his illustrious career, he worked with virtually every legend of Afro-Cuban and jazz music.  Recording: Patato y Totico

Making Waves in Latin Jazz Today

Latin Jazz continues to be fresh and hot – listen to some examples of the artists leading the genre via this playlist and the profiles below.

Linda Briceño Venezuelan songwriter, trumpeter, producer and vocalist. She was awarded Producer of the Year at the 19th Annual Latin Grammy Awards, becoming the first woman ever to win the award.  We were blown away with her chops in the JAZZ ROOM Special Edition Women in Jazz 2019.  Solitude, 2019.

Arturo O’Farrill  Son of Latin Jazz musician, arranger and bandleader Chico O’Farrill, this pianist, composer, and director for the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra stands on his own.  2021 Latin Jazz Grammy winner:  Four Questions.

Miguel Zenón  Puerto Rican alto saxophonist, composer, band leader, music producer, and educator. Zenon is a multiple Grammy award nominee.   Most recent release El Arte Del Bolero (2021)  Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera is a tribute to another Latin Jazz great.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba  Multi-Grammy winner & A gifted Cuban Jazz pianist with amazing technique who filters various influences through the lens of his heritage   Recent recognition for Viento y Tiempo – Live at Blue Note Tokyo.

Poncho Sánchez  American conguero (conga player) has stirred up a fiery stew of straightahead jazz, gritty soul music, and infectious melodies and rhythms from a variety of Latin American and South American sources.  Most recent recognition with album Trane’s Delight.

Eddie Palmieri  Pianist, bandleader, and composer of Puerto Rican ancestry, an icon recognized for his funk jazz style. Eddie Palmieri was awarded the coveted 2013 NEA Jazz Master award.  2006 Grammy winning album Listen Here! 

Dafnis Prieto Cuban percussionist known as much for his groundbreaking teaching as his revolutionary drumming techniques and compositions, Prieto has had a powerful impact on the Latin and Jazz music scene.   He followed his Grammy win with recent album Transparency, named one of the best Latin Jazz albums of the year in the 2020 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll.

Pedrito Martinez Percussionist learned his craft from the streets of Havana, performing classic Cuban Rumbas, Afro-Cuban folkloric and religious music. “The Pedrito Martinez Group is writing a new chapter in Cuban music  history” NPR All Things Considered.   Most recent album released in 2021, Acertijos

Wayne Wallace Trombonist seven-time Grammy nominee who started in R&B, he is one of the most respected exponents of African American-Latin music in the world today.  Formed his own record label Patois Records (Motto: “Promoting improvisation”) to promote thev music of fellow free spirits.  From the Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet, The Rhythm of Invention

Charlie Sepulveda World class trumpeter and big band leader and one of the premiere artists in Latin Jazz. He is the musical director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Rockefeller Foundation in Puerto Rico.   With multiple Grammy nominations and a Billboard Award, his 2021 album “This is Latin Jazz” showcases his deep Latin roots.

Jose Valentino  Multi-instrumentalist, EMMY® Award Winner, Latin GRAMMY® Award Winner, & 52-time DOWNBEAT® Award Winner, A preeminent leader in music & media, television, global outreach & community development, and education industries, and more. To date, Dr. Ruiz has performed in 1400+ concert. “I Make You Want to Move” Grammy nomination for Best Latin Jazz Album in 2015.


With these amazing international artists in mind, remember that the best Latin Jazz is the one around the corner.  Take a listen to Conversation with Curtis discuss the local Latin Jazz Scene, and join us or seek out the Latin Jazz musicians in the region so you can dance the night away.

Don't Miss a Beat!

Sign up to receive news on shows, educational programs, and more.