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THE GREAT CUBAN ENCOUNTER OF 1977 : CHAPTER 1

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER’S VALIANT ATTEMPT TO RE-OPEN CUBA WITH JAZZ MUSICIANS

PRE-RAMBLE

It’s early May 1977. my first wife and I are going through a divorce. My kids, Jeanne, 10, and Russell, 7, and I have just returned from a weekend mountain-top Bluegrass Festival in Amcram, NY. We attempted sleep up there as well. That is to say we brought sleeping bags with us. We left the Amcram Mountain early Sunday spurred by my daughter’s remark that the Sunday Sunrise Service was not to her liking, “Daddy,” she opined, “I like yesterday’s music better.” (Bill Monroe, et al. ) Seems the whiney c&w service was an experiment for the Festival; definitely not bluegrass. I must admit I was real proud of her at that moment. Her daddy’s lobes?

After driving them to their mother’s home on Long Island I’m about ready to collapse into my convertible couch in my studio apartment in the Village, which was not much bigger than a walk-in closet. But as East Coast Editor (sic) for Down Beat I had to retrieve my messages,

One was from my friend David Amram, the phone message which would change my life. “Arny. i’m going to Cuba with Diz, Fatha, Stan and others. I’ll call you when i get back and we’ll do a story, Pops.” like Louis before him David calls everyone “Pops.” They were to cruise from New Orleans on a ship. What kind of a ship? A tramp steamer no doubt under cover of darkness for sure, just like one of those classic noir radio dramas, i romanticized.

I listened again to those strange combinations of words coming from the answering machine. “Cuba? with (Cubop progenitor and legend) Dizzy Gillespie?” During the Cuban embargo no less, in effect since the early 1960s? Aloud i said to the machine, “Going to Cuba?! Not without me you’re not.” This was the antidote to my blues.

Without looking at the clock –it must have been early in the a.m. still Amram time– I rang-up David. “who do I call to get on that Cuba gig?” Seems it was a Jazz Cruise leaving from New Orleans in less than a week (mid-May). Adrenaline rush. Couldn’t sleep. I called. it was still early that Monday.

SECURING PASSAGE AND LINING UP THE GIG

The Cruise Company’s first response was a discouragingly curt, “We’re fully booked. with a full complement of press representatives.” Then almost as an afterthought, “You need a visa, a letter that you’re on assignment, and, oh yes, F.B.I. clearance.” (Do they call that vetting these days?) came more info. I thought I heard a snicker when he said “F.B.I. clearance,” that takes months, if at all, especially to Cuba. Who has that?

I did! I was bonded by the Fed when I was an over-the-counter trader during an earlier Wall St. career. (see “About Me” on my home page.) But was it still effective? I had done some work for the then fledgling Nasdaq so I made calls to people I knew at securities agencies in N.Y. and D.C. I still had clearance, and it came with the required visa. My passport, which I always keep up-to-date, was.

Down Beat did not quite leap at the idea. their skepticism faded when I offered to pay half the fare. but they were not to have exclusivity. I made up for the balance by soliciting assignments from former affiliations, Variety and Billboard. Eventually that consortium of publications grew to a total of five (5) with the addition of columns for Newsday alternating with Amram, and a long piece with photos for a classy Spanish language glossy publication, Nuestro.

All I now required was an airline ticket to New Orleans, returning from the Bahamas to the States (more on that later), which a friend secured with dutiful urgency.

All of the above was a sequential preamble series of events culminating in the most exciting trip of my life, then and now.

NEW ORLEANS

It was my freshman visit to the Crescent City –it was Spring Break as well– and I was there for only the overnight prior to boarding the Greek registry S.S. Daphne. what kind of name is that for a freighter?, I thought. Anyway, I made the most of those few hours walking the famous streets, visiting the infamous boites, imbibing drinks I had never heard of as I strode..

Here’s the deal as I remember it, quaint by today’s standards: as a U.S. citizen you weren’t permitted to travel to Cuba from a U.S. port. (Canadian trips were always available.) and you weren’t permitted to re-enter the U.S. directly from Cuba. Hence the reason our return port of entry was the Bahamas. We had to make our way home from there. On our own.

But I digress. while in N.O.LA we partied through the night. I wended my way back to the hotel for a quick rinse and a nap –it was already daylight– and thence to the ship docked at the foot of Canal St. on the Mississippi, hidden behind some warehouses. That scenario was more as I had envisioned it. Did I hear sound effects, foghorns perhaps?

Not! as I approached the pier I could hear crowd noises, more jeering than cheering. tor public consumption the trip was supposed to be an innocuous Islands Cruise. Pres. Carter was doing this surreptitiously and on his own initiative; he was trying to get a U.S. foot in Fidel Castro’s door then pry it open. It was nothing if not unprecedented.  The Hispanic citizenry (in self-exile?) objected, loudly.

protesters in N.O.

CONFRONTATIONS IN PORT

Word had leaked to the Hispanic press and from them to the general media of our real destination, Havana. radio, tv, print were all present, in various languages. This was, after all, multi-cultural New Orleans. They were supposed to steer clear of the passengers and crew, but their bullhorns and placards were a-buzz including a pooled television crew on board. And then there were the attendant bomb threats. Talk about stressful.

tv pool interviewer w/crowd in N.O.

tv interviewer w/N.O. street band

All of importance were interviewed and as we were sworn to secrecy, no one offered anything to the probing press crews. I don’t know how many of the passengers were aware of it, but we later learned there were ex-pat Cubans aboard with gifts such as food who were trying to get home to visit relatives. They were intercepted and may even have been arrested when we got into Cuban waters. the noir-ishness was coursing through my fecund imagination. we found out later how close we all came to that fate as well. Or worse.

Local media departed. bomb crews cleared us. promises were made by some of us to return to Nawlins to be debriefed. We didn’t know the (un)official line at that time about returning. We heard “castoff” and we slowly made our way down the muddy Ol’ Man towards the Gulf of Mexico.

LAISSEZ BON TEMPS ROULER

The historic jazz partying of a lifetime was about to commence. and we were all atwitter about it.

did I mention that the S.S. Daphne was not a freighter but a luxurious, if intimate, ocean liner?

S.S. Daphne docked in N.O.

to be continued.

- © content & photos arnold jay smith

April 2012, July 2015

LINKS OF INTEREST:

Hot House Mag celebrates its 30th Anny: www.hothousejazz.com

N.Y.U. Jazz Fest 2012 celebrates Sy Johnson Friday, May 4, 9:30p in Skirball Center: www.steinhardt.nyu.edu/music

for Newport Jazz Fest 2012 updates: www.nreportjazzfest.net


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