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The Heat Beat: Exploring Latin Jazz as We Celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month this April

April is Jazz Appreciation Month. Although the month is dedicated to honoring and learning more about all forms of Jazz, each year has its own theme.  For this year, the theme is “Latin Jazz and the Spirit of Cachao Lopez.” The goal of this month is to encourage appreciation for Latin Jazz. 

The simplest way to define Latin Jazz is the fusion of traditional Jazz and music from a variety of Latin American countries and territories, especially Cuba. In 1804, refugees from Haiti began to flee to Cuba. By 1809, some of these refugees had relocated to New Orleans. Latin Jazz then evolved over the years, as the music of Haiti, Cuba, and New Orleans blended together. The first distinctive Latin Jazz music appeared in 1928, when Cuban Composer Moises Simons wrote “El Manisero.” (The Peanut Vendor). By 1929, Cuban Flautist Alberto Socora had recorded the first Jazz flute solo. Cachao Lopez (1918-2008) is known as the inventor of Mambo music. 

As Latin Jazz continued to evolve over the decades, the sub-genre retained its distinctive sound. Traditional Jazz employs a swing rhythm and a backbeat with accent on beats two and four. Latin Jazz, in particular Afro-Cuban Jazz,  often features a clave, a set of repeating rhythmic accents that are emphasized on top of the groove of a song. It does not accent the same beats on every measure, such as two and four. 

Clave is far from unique to Latin Jazz. It can be heard in a wide variety of genres of music, including pop and rock music. 

Those unfamiliar with Jazz may recognize a clave in such classic pop songs as Santana’s “Oye Como Va” and George Michael’s “Faith,” or “Hello” by Adele. Modern pop fans may recognize a clave in songs such as “Paradise” by Coldplay, “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons, and “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift. 

Another common feature that creates the distinctive sound of Latin Jazz is known as “ostinato.” An ostinato is a short pattern that is repeated in the same voice or several voices throughout the composition. While the use of ostinato helps form the distinctive sound of Latin Jazz, ostinato is actually used in all types of music. Anytime you hear a pop song that is both catchy and annoying because you can’t get the same little constantly repeating portion of the song out of your head all day, you are hearing an example of ostinato. 

Some music teachers describe a riff or a hook as a type of ostinato, but the words are not always used interchangeably, as there is a slight difference. 

Writing for the website “Hello Music Theory,” Music Teacher and Writer Dan Farrant further explains that ostinato is slightly different than a riff in that ostinato is heard throughout the entire song, while a riff..or a hook…is not heard constantly throughout the song. 

Vreny Van Elslande is the site owner and writer for the website ZOTZin Guitar Lessons. He lists several examples of ostinato. 

Outside of Jazz, the most well-known music with an ostinato is probably “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen. “Under Pressure,” by David Bowie and Queen, is another example. Anyone nostalgic for the 1990s may recognize an ostinato in “Creep” by Radiohead. 

While picking out the elements of the music may  be a little difficult for those who do not sing or play themselves, or who have not studied music, there are some easier ways to distinguish Latin Jazz from other types of music. You may notice every instrument playing a particular rhythm throughout the entire song with no variation. 

The easiest way to become familiar with Latin Jazz is to listen to contemporary popular examples of it. Fans of other forms of Jazz may be able to find some in the music they already own, as some of Dizzy Gillespie’s music is Latin Jazz. His song, “Manteca,” performed with Chano Pozo, is widely considered to be a quintessential Latin Jazz tune, with Gillespie’s performing of this type of music responsible for creating the genre as we know it today. 

In addition to Cachao Lopez, a search for “Latin Jazz” on popular music apps such as iTunes and Spotify will return playlists featuring Tito Puente, Stan Getz, Bobby Montez, Eddie Palmieri, Arturo Sandoval, Bobby Montez, and Poncho Sanchez, more essential artists in Latin Jazz. 

Listeners of Phoenix Radio will have a uniquel opportunity to learn more about Latin Jazz this April. The radio program “Masters of Jazz,” hosted by Lou Santacroce, can be heard every Sunday afternoon from two p.m. until 6 p.m. Each week, a featured artist is played from 3 p.m. until 4 p.m. During the month of April, a variety of Latin Jazz artists will be featured each week. Masters of Jazz can be heard exclusively on Phoenix Radio at 95.5 FM The Heat, or streaming live at

Mark Ziobro
Mark Ziobro
Mark is the current Managing Editor for The Utica Phoenix, and a Central New York Native.

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