A return to island jazz | Backstory

After being hit by pandemic restrictions, beloved jazz festivals across the Caribbean are returning, Nigel A Campbell reports, with a roster of exciting established and emerging jazz artists to keep your eyes on

  • Elan Trotman (front right) performs. Photo courtesy Island Muzik Productions
  • Elan Trotman of Barbados. Photo courtesy Elan Trotman
  • Ronald “Boo” Hinkson of St Lucia. Photo courtesy Ronald “Boo” Hinkson
  • Michelle Henderson of Dominica. Photo courtesy Michelle Henderson
  • Jill Scott serenades patrons at the Tobago Jazz Experience. Photo by Andrea De Silva
  • Montreal born Jowee Omicil, of Haitian heritage. Photo by Black Dandee courtesy Jowee Omicil
  • Chucho Valdes of Cuba. Photo courtesy OCP Photography Miami

The COVID-19 pandemic over the last three years wreaked havoc on island tourism and decimated the live music industry worldwide. A nexus for live music and tourism in the islands is the enduring island jazz festival, set for a reintroduction, a rebound and a reset in 2023. 

In the Spring 1993 issue of Caribbean Beat, writer BC Pires noted that there are “more than 30 jazz festivals every year in the Caribbean and most Caribbean people have never been to one … And there is a good reason for this: most people in the Caribbean don’t really need jazz — they’ve got perfectly good music of their own, thank you.” 

However, 30 years beyond Pires’ declaration, perpetual in-the-red economics, ageing demographics, and changing tastes have diminished the faddish-ness of the island jazz fest as a dreamed-of getaway — whittling down the “more than 30 jazz festivals” to fewer than a dozen. 

While a few island tourist boards and culture ministries still hold fast to the belief that the island jazz festival is an important magnet for tourists in low season, the remaining festivals have evolved to redefine those destinations by looking inwards. 

Notably, the jazz festival in the Caribbean has never been the same as the jazz festival in North America or Europe. For the fortunate traveller to and among the islands, the experience is a unique one. And the first step in understanding that experience is the artist and his/her music — those Caribbean artists who are defining the sound of jazz in the Caribbean and from the Caribbean, and positioning themselves and their music to be the new magnets for the masses. 

Boston-based contemporary jazz saxophonist and prolific recording artist Elan Trotman of Barbados has a formula that guarantees an audience; he brings his American audience to the island and assures the “heads in beds” result that island tourist boards enjoy. 

Having the benefit of a late jazz season date, his Barbados Jazz Excursion (12–15 October) was able to test the waters in 2022, and is expanding its target audience to other islands. 

In St Lucia, guitarist Ronald “Boo” Hinkson is a national cultural icon linking one of the pioneering jazz festivals in the Caribbean, St Lucia Jazz & Arts Festival (5–14 May), to audiences regionally and internationally. A festival regular, his presence bridges the festival’s origins in traditional jazz excellence with its evolution towards regional talent as inspiration and influence.

Both Trotman and Hinkson, along with St Lucian Teddyson John and Barbadians Nicholas Brancker and Arturo Tappin, represent one modern identity of Caribbean jazz: a tropical crossover/easy-listening sonic profile on many recordings, which serves as a jumping-off point for visitors to those festivals. 

Individually, these artists have positioned their music to be palatable to a wide cross-section of music lovers who are eschewing improvisational excess for reframed island vibes. 

Global artists share stages with local talent at the Tobago Jazz Experience (20–23 April), which has a similar profile to St Lucia’s, focusing on the tourist in paradise and the Caribbean luxe resort sojourner, thus signifying an awakening to new music possibilities that align with popular tastes without dilution of a native expression. 

“[T]hey’ve got perfectly good music of their own, thank you” is becoming the new way of reframing destination music festivals. In Dominica, Michelle Henderson and guitarist Cameron Pierre figure prominently in how that island’s Jazz ‘n Creole Festival (30 April) is growing to be a heritage festival locating an Antillean pulse — or more specifically, the Kwéyòl vibe — in improvised music and singing. 

Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana all offer similar yet unique island jazz experiences from September to November that define Francophone Caribbean native music — zouk, cadance, bélé, gwo ka, biguine — through the lens of jazz improvisation and fusion. 

This trend is paralleled in Trinidad with its series of one-day mini-festivals beginning one month after its mammoth Carnival through the final weekend in May — Jazz Artists on the Greens (25 March); I AM Jazz (9 April); North Coast Jazz (27 May), and more — that all benefit from a stable of local musicians continuing their exploration and evolution of kaisojazz (calypso jazz) and steelpan jazz.

The Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival, popularly known as PAPJAZZ Festival Haïti, helmed by local musician Joël Widmaier, was an outlier in 2021 in the midst of the pandemic, having their annual festival as a hybrid event: in-person live and livestreamed online. It returned in January for its 16th edition at various locations around the capital city. 

Determined resilience is an apt description for the ethos of this festival, while another would be contented nationalism. Haitian musicians and their music, which celebrates konpa and kreyòl and juxtaposes jazz with jubilation, are a main part of the programming of the festival. The Haitian diaspora was showcased to a global streaming audience. Montreal-born woodwind specialist Jowee Omicil, whose music is wildly described as having “a cosmopolitan sense of groove and injected with hints of voodoo blues”, headlined the 2023 edition.

Like Haiti, the jazz festival season in Cuba also begins in January. The longest-running regional jazz festival, the International Jazz Festival of Havana, celebrated its 38th edition in January. Also called Jazz Plaza Havana, it showcases both élan and patriotism from native musicians — from the legends Chucho Valdés and Bobby Carcassés to a new generation displaying jazz performance excellence. You can always expect a learning experience as the dynamism of Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz is explored here. 

Beyond poverty and politics, real and imagined, a sense of dignified originality reigns in these two island jazz festivals.

Of course, the next step to appreciating the recovering island jazz festivals is being there. With the lifting of travel restrictions and opening of island borders, visitors and regional travellers are on the move again. Caribbean Airlines boasts direct connections to any island with a jazz festival from hubs in the Caribbean and North America, and island-hopping flights and ferries serve to fill in the gaps. 

Optimum tourism and travel are still hampered by high prices brought on by increasing fuel costs, immovable and significant taxes on travel into and between islands, and by other man-made obstacles. Flying into Cuba from some countries is an expensive political act. Nevertheless, exploring myriad spaces and navigating labyrinthine routes to experience Caribbean jazz is still worth it.

Being there — hearing and experiencing the music and festival vibe — is a spirited complement to the typical sun, sand, and sea island adventure. St Lucian Derek Walcott’s absurdist inference from his Nobel Lecture — “[a] culture based on joy is bound to be shallow” — is upended by the recognition and curation of the new island jazz festival experience in the Caribbean, which takes into consideration the Creole context, the vernacular expression, and the melodies, rhythms and language of the region. 

What these festivals show is that beyond defining the destinations, there has been a growth of nascent music industries and the development of a cohort of native musicians whose careers have taken on a global perspective since the pandemic began. 

It’s not a contradiction nor an incongruity to suggest that island jazz festivals are world class. They are reflections of the music and artists that makes island cultures resilient, important and impressive. 

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.