I first met Alain Derbez at Jazzatlán in Mexico City, in Roma Norte specifically. Roma Norte has a belle époque euphoric feeling to it, obscuring that it borders Colonia Doctores, a much less wealthy area in Mexico’s capital city.
Alain is a leading historian of jazz in Mexico. His book El jazz en México: Datos para una historia (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1997) is a classic of jazz writing. Also a musician, he was playing with a group that explored structuring fusion, rock, and rancheras into jazz. Alain—a courteous intellectual—and I chatted after his set, as night bled into the echoes of his music.
The tale of Mexican jazz, he told me, begins in New Orleans, as it does in the US. The World Cotton Centennial in New Orleans in 1884 was an opportunity for Mexican Dictator Porfirio Diaz to introduce Mexico as a peaceful country, one to invest in. Diaz sent a military band—a very good one, Alain told me—with expertise in polka, mazurka, marching band music, and waltz to the cotton fair. Members of this band remained in New Orleans for one year.
It was this band that began to teach future jazz musicians, including the Creoles of New Orleans who lived in Algiers. The clarinet and saxophone, Derbez said, were two instruments in particular that these Mexican musicians taught; a song like “Clarinet Marmalade” or Alphonse Picou’s “High Society” might have come out of these lessons given by Mexican teachers.
The plot deepens. After the Civil War, some Black musicians moved to Mexico to pursue life and land. Some Creoles would return to New Orleans to teach what they had learned about the clarinet in Tamaulipas, or wherever they had settled.
In the 1920s, because of prohibition, jazz musicians found themselves in cities such as Tampico and Tijuana. Prohibition in the US exploded the population of Mexican border cities, some like Tijuana tenfold, in the process becoming “Sin Cities” of newly built saloons and casinos that served audiences with nightlife. There musicians played and danced to a wide range of musical styles along with the jazz. Mexican bands from the north of the country were also part of this scene. This culture of foxtrots, Charlestons, and jazz extended itself to port cities, as the Roaring Twenties of Mexico. The first sound-film made in Mexico had a jazz soundtrack with foxtrots by Mexican composers.
This all came to an end with the rise of Mexican cultural nationalism, still famous through the work of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Jazz in Mexico was never about the expression of being Mexican, Alain explained, and the first secretary of education in Mexico (the governmental body that financed much of Rivera’s murals) attempted to prohibit Jazz. The music went underground at the time.
As if a feast to Xochiquetzal—as writer Elena Poniatowska writes in Mexican Color, “roses, daisies, marguerites, butterfly-flowers, tiger-flowers, bird-flowers, dog-flowers, sunflowers, jilote flowers, red and purple flowers, rosettes, gladiolas, cempasúchil, flowers for the day of the dead”—blooms into necklaces, the color of houses, textiles, ceramics, souls. Xochiquetzal is a goddess of beauty, sex, love, crafts, and general fertility. Beloved by Rivera and Kahlo, she shares the quetzal of Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl, which represents the unity of a bird and a snake, represents a golden age of life, when the snake, the dialectic and contradictions of human society, transcends conflict and arrives at philosophical and political enlightenment, being both human and quetzal.
Xochiquetzal combines flower and quetzal. She created human beings and is not only pursued by them, but we eat tamales in her honor. She represents another enlightenment. One based not around a political and philosophical wheel of life but on a spindle of those other human needs and desires. “They say that the sound that comes out of their trumpets is yellow, and the violin produces a lilac and pink sound,” writes Poniatowska about Mariachi musicians. Famous charlestons and foxtrots by Mexican composers are part of this spindle of culture in Mexico.
To Alain, jazz is made by a community outside of a national one. It is a cosmopolitan community, and answers to no local imposition. His concept of jazz is similar to Jewish culture after Babylon, when the rabbi became the torchbearer of a tradition that did not need a state to exist. The military band that went to New Orleans was not necessarily purely Mexican in nationality. There is a Joe Biscaro, or Bascaro, who was a part of it who may have been Cuban or from another part of the Caribbean. What to take away from this, Alain said, is that it has never been about nationality but about community, and the commitment of those who live in Mexico to this community. The French troops of Maximilian I, the Austrian who attempted to be Emperor of Mexico and was killed trying, as per Édouard Manet’s painting The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867–68), also played clarinets and saxophones in a band, he reminded me, and this regiment that went to New Orleans in 1884 may have originated with them.
Jazz has now rooted itself in Mexico City. In an untranslated book, El jazz en la Ciudad de Mexico (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2022), Alberto Zuckermann writes that the music began to be played in the capital city regularly in the 1950s. He lists musicians from famous Mexican dance bands of the time, such as those of Luis Alcaraz, Ismael Díaz, and Larry Sonn, participating in a recording titled Jazz en México, released in 1954 on Orfeón. They came together on the album as Trío and Cuarteto de Mario Patrón, Cuarteto de Héctor Hallal, and Orchestra de Estrellas.
“Begin the Beguine,” the trio’s take on Cole Porter’s tune, is melodically complex, a sign that this music was ambitious and made by trained musicians. Its title is in English, mind you, as are others such as “Jeepers Creepers” and “Pennies from Heaven,” this at a height in Mexican nationalism.
Cuarteto de César Molina, was led by César Molina on the trumpet, and their rendition of the standard “I’m in the Mood for Love” sounds like a night in love with Delilah, or Elena. Such thoughts of love could be found in the poetry of New Orleanian writers, such as the writers of Les Cenelles, an anthology of Black writing from Louisiana published in 1845, and certainly can be found in the poetry of Mexican writers and musicians, both descending from the Occitan troubadour poetics of Guillaume d’Aquitaine and others.
“How High the Moon,” played by Cuarteto de Héctor Hallal, is a highlight of the album. The piano playing is stupendous. There is an existentialist undertone to it, Pablo Jaimes allowing himself freedom from the expectations and fancies of an audience. A commitment to voice shines through on this version, as it also does in Hallal’s alto sax in “You Can Depend On Me” and “All the Things You Are.”
The album features drummer Tino Contreras, perhaps the most impressive of these Mexico City jazz musicians. Contreras bring this slow, lush, existentialist, style of Mexican jazz into music such as “La Noche de los Dioses” on Las Noche de los Dioses, released by Brownswood Recordings. Contreras’s music embraces nationalism and indigeneity, along with psychedelia and a general cosmopolitanism. “En El Viejo Estambul” from the album El Jazz Mexicano de Tino Contreras, released on Jazzman, is a performance that could be by The Doors.
Alain is critical of Contreras, who he considers a bit too falsely mystical. In the ’50s and ’60s, jazz made a comeback but was eclipsed by rock and roll in the 1970s and the 1980s. Now, Alain said, the music is making a comeback, despite a lack of recognition and support, and his book has helped this renaissance.
On the contemporary scene, Alain considers the band A Love Electric very significant. “Autumn City Portrait” from their album Todd Clouser’s A Love Electric, released on Ropeadope, is a beautiful take on the season. Héctor Infanzón is a special pianist to him, and so is the saxophone player Diego Maroto. Ana Ruiz, whose All & everything, a one track album that Ruiz released through Bandcamp, is masterful, a pioneer of free jazz in Mexico, he said. His list is too long to name everyone, he told me, and jazz in Mexico has wonderfully blossomed.
Germán Bringas is an interesting figure, as a sort of John Zorn. His venue Café Jazzorca was recommended by a well-known Chiapas cultural activist, Luis Aguilar. Bringas has also released records under his own label Jazzorca Récords.
Jazz, Alain said, is quite simply human history, it is a way of recreating oneself, the perfect way of living, grounded in community. It is a history of migration, resisting exploitation. It’s how we’ve come to understand the world and how this understanding is grounded in creativity. Jazz, he told me, is what is deeply within you, and allows you to play with others beyond language.
What are the utamakura, the commemorative places, of Mexican jazz? Utamakura in Japanese poetry were places visited by poets to feel the poetry of other poets. Alain said that to him the jazz community in Mexico is expressed in one’s own particular voice, and the collective Mexico itself includes your voice. The flux of birds, of ducks, these he compared it to. Mexico itself. Mexico’s colors—to Xochiquetzal, I thought to myself.