How Porfirio Díaz Changed the Course of Music and Influenced the Origins of Jazz
By: Luís Espinosa
Jelly Roll Morton, an American ragtime and early jazz pianist, bandleader and composer said that if you do not obtain Latin rhythms you will never have the correct tinge to obtain jazz. So is it possible that the music so characteristic of New Orleans have a Mexico influence?
Mexico composer and pianist Francisco Tellez confirms this idea through the historic fact that the now U.S. states of California, New Mexico, Texas among others were territories of Mexico up until the middle of the XIX century. Fertile ground for cross cultural activity between Afro-Americans and Mexicans. In regard to this hypothesis, academic Geraldine Céliér, wrote “the fact that we do not have any recording or evidence about Mexico jazz prior to the 1950’s permits us to speculate that this evidence is contained in the Mexico genres of boleros, mariachi, contemporary or classical, ranchera, corridos, huapangos and sones. The universe of the endemic music of Mexico shares the same libertarian ideals as jazz.
John Storm Roberts gives us the answer to this question when in 1979 he published the first edition of “The Latin Tinge” with the subtitle: The impact of Latin American music in the United States. It is here that we can find one of the most unusual episodes in the history of jazz.
In the years 1884 & 1885 New Orleans was the host to the World Industrial & Cotton Exposition. Cotton producers from around the world were invited to participate. Mexico had been invited since 1869. President Porfirio Diaz who had just begun his second term was an important sponsor of this exhibition. He sent the Eighth Cavalry Regiment band which was comprised of almost 100 musicians and directed by Encarnación Payén. The idea was to not only to show the industrial process of cotton in the Pavilion of Mexico but to also showcase the quality of Mexican musicians.
The form and style of the Mexican musicians had an important influence on the New Orleans bands as well as on their interpretation of this form and style. “El Jazz en México”, a book by Alain Derbez tells us that during their stay in New Orleans, the Mexican Cavalry Band inspired the writing of a report in the music magazine Century, published under the title of “Very Mexican Band”. Among the Mexican musicians’ scores came danzas, habaneras, military marches and three danzones. Other local publishers published the printed scores of many of these popular songs. The music of Mexico was part of the musical life of New Orleans in an early period of jazz. A period considered the birth of jazz in the United States.
Several members of that band sent by Porfirio Diaz stayed in New Orleans, among them, the saxophonist Joe Viscara, of whom the jazz drummer Papa Jack Laine said: "He almost does not speak English, but the son of bitch really can blow!" The influence of Mexican music on jazz was so profound that a magazine of the time in New Orleans, affirmed that the word "Jazz" was a degeneration of the word "Jarabe", a music genre endemic to Mexico. There were even those who ventured to assure that the Jazz was the result of the attempts of black musicians to play Mexican music.
Many of the musicians in the early stages of New Orleans jazz were of Mexican origin. Like the clarinetist Lorenzo Tío, whose father was from Tampico and was a member of the Eighth Regiment Calvary band. Lorenzo taught many clarinetists in young New Orleans jazz bands. Another was Luis Florencio Ramos, an original member of the Eighth Regiment Calvary band sent by Porfirio Diaz. And there was Alcides Nuñez, who performed for a whole season with the Original Dixieland Jass Band, a group that recorded the first jazz music album in 1920. Several Hispanic surnames stand out in jazz studies that were rooted in New Orleans.
Tom Bethel in his book “George Lewis, Jazzist from New Orleans” described Lorenzo Tío as the Mexican clarinetist who "attended the 1885 cotton exhibition and whose classical style influenced so much that he is considered as the introducer of the clarinet in jazz." Blues composer H.C. Handy tells in his autobiography, "Father of the Blues", that in early times it was Mexicans and Europeans who played clarinets in black bands. Lorenzo Tío Jr. (son) was known to be the teacher of the clarinetist Sidney Bechet.
Saxophonist Richard “Dickie” Landry performed in Mexico in March 1983. During the performance he talked about the Mexican band at the Cotton fair. He said that for his first concert in Mexico he was inspired by the success of the World Cotton Fair in New Orleans. He described the performance of the Mexican band as a parade that flooded music to the city, "it was the first time that the New Orleans jazz players heard the clarinet sound ... the Tío Brothers remained in New Orleans after the exhibition to teach the American musicians how to integrate these instruments (clarinet) into their bands and music."
The New Orleans Industrial and Cotton World Exposition was the event not only where Mexico contributed to the birth of jazz but also contributed in the inclusion of brass instruments in this genre.
Alain Derbez, El Jazz en México: datos para una historia (México: Fondo de Cultura económica, 2001)
Aurelio Tello, La Música en México: panorama del siglo XX (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2010)
John Storm Roberts, The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin American Music on the United States (New York: Oxford University, 1999), 36.