Jazz Has Arrived in Colombia

When I graduated from Berklee in 1983, my home country, Colombia, was one of the least likely places for a jazz musician to launch a career. Except for a couple of bars and a pizza place in the northern part of Bogotá, there wasn’t much of a jazz club scene. The rise of the drug cartels and the widespread wave of violence that followed, led to a travel ban on foreigners visiting our country. Institutions such as the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and many foreign embassies stopped bringing cultural activities to Colombia. Most of the international jazz and classical concerts where curtailed for some time.

Theaters and cultural institutions throughout the country began filling the gap with local bands. At the time, I was lucky enough to have unpacked my bags and put together a quintet to play some of the music I had written during my Boston years. Other local bands and musicians leaped in with hot fusion repertoire, and audiences responded to a new jazz scene springing up among Colombian music lovers.

In 1988, the first jazz festival was organized by Teatro Libre de Bogotá. It was certainly a brave effort given the conservative tastes of local concertgoers and the violent atmosphere in the country during those years. This success of the festival marked a crucial turning point and a new trend in Colombia’s entertainment business and became the first of many festivals that would follow. Today, Colombia holds approximately 20 annual jazz festivals in addition to numerous jazz recitals offered at various concert halls. We have come a long way in a short time. Here are some insights on how the country welcomed non-native musical forms and changed its music consumption habits.

During most of the 20th century, Colombia was far behind the rhythm of international music development given poor music education programs in the schools (a situation that persists today), and a general lack of interest in musical forms other than native folk and commercial music. Other factors hindering visits to Colombia by the world’s top artists included a historically stingy economy for cultural investment and a lack of infrastructure, including proper stages and sound equipment. A major transformation came during the 1990s with a number of fortunate coincidences. Acts such as Carlos Vives and Shakira gained the kind of international attention never before seen by Colombian artists. Music schools started sprouting at universities in almost every major city in Colombia. As well, public institutions began to program big rock, jazz, and salsa festivals in Bogotá and Medellín free of charge. This sudden change brought work opportunities to local session musicians, producers, and music teachers alike, and was especially effective in consolidating a new audience for bands of all genres.

In 1995 the Bogotá mayor’s office hosted the first big music festival, Jazz al Parque, in the city’s parks. Free admission to the festival prompted concern among local musicians that audience members would come to expect free tickets for all musical events. But as it turned out, audiences multiplied after having a chance to experience jazz for free. They got hooked on it. Recent editions of Jazz al Parque have offered listeners the chance to see such artists as Wayne Shorter, Danilo Pérez, and other key figures in jazz. Organizers chose a weekend in September to celebrate the event, which, not coincidentally, is the same weekend that the Teatro Libre Jazz Festival is held.

Other cities began to organize similar events at the same time to take advantage of the media promotion given to the Bogotá festivals. The Caribbean city of Barranquilla now hosts two festivals. Inaugurated in 1997, the traditional Barranquijazz festival focuses on Latin music, and a more recent addition, the Atlantijazz festival, is dedicated to eclectic and avant-garde programs. Together, they present about 40 local and international bands during a two-week period, and include performances, clinics, and masterclasses by guests such as Chick Corea, Cachao López, and many others. Pastojazz in the southern city of Pasto and Ajazzgo in Cali are also big players in the Colombian jazz festival circuit. They are part of a joint venture formed by the five major festivals to lower the cost of international transportation of bands and to share artists and other resources. The jazz craze in Colombia doesn’t seem to end. Every year a new jazz festival is announced in September, like recent events held in the beautiful tourist town of Mompox and in the Andean city of Ibagué. Collectively, this amounts to an impressive 150 jazz concerts held within a month throughout a country with no previous tradition in jazz.

In the past, rock bands always skipped Colombia when touring other countries in South America. Now it’s a favorite stop in the region. Recent concerts have featured Madonna, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and many others.

In 2007 the Caribbean port city of Cartagena became the setting for a classical music festival produced to the same high standards of the finest festivals held at European summer resorts. The restored colonial halls of Cartagena along with top classical soloists and orchestras make this event one of a kind for Latin America.

The Colombian government has become a key player in these new cultural activities. Much of the funding for festivals comes from the Ministry of Culture, an institution that also distributes new instruments to students in small- and medium-sized towns to foster the formation of bands and youth orchestras. One of the most attractive stages for performers and agents around the world recently opened in Bogotá, the Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo. This state-of-the-art theater has equipment, acoustics, and architecture rivaling those of Lincoln Center and other top venues around the world. There is also the Bogotá Music Market, which is also held in September and sponsored by the Bogotá Chamber of Commerce. This event is a showcase where booking agencies can catch performances by bands seeking opportunities to play abroad and locally.

For more than 30 years, I have performed at most of the theaters and events listed above. I have always remembered a good piece of advice Gary Burton gave me when I took his music business course in Berklee. He said to be authentic and build on your own roots. The repertoire my group focuses on includes Colombian styles such as cumbia, bambuco and joropo, presented in a new harmonic setting with improvised segments not found in traditional Colombian music. Local audiences appreciate our effort to take traditional music a step further.

These days, many proficient young performers are competing for a chance to play at jazz events in Colombia. This shows a positive development of music in our country. I attribute this to jazz being a musical genre that can connect with the very different musical languages found all around the world.