Havana jazz is a unique breed. This Caribbean jazz style is a melting pot of Spanish, African, Chinese, North American and Mexican sounds blended into a sophisticated syncopation. Cuban jazz is listened to and performed with gusto, by aficionados around the world.
On the international jazz circuit, the Havana International Jazz Festival is mecca. Joining this yearly event exposes you to the incredible, Afro-latin jazz beats that you’ll only find on the Caribbean’s biggest island—as well as allows you to rub shoulders with jazz greats from around the world.
The 34th edition of the Havana Jazz Festival takes place from January 13 to January 21, 2019. Here’s everything you need to know to attend.
How The Havana Jazz Festival Started
In 1987, a group of Cuban Jazz musicians led by Bobby Caracasses put together the first ever jazz concert at the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza in downtown Havana. It was such a success that year after year, similar concerts were organized, with world-renowned jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Charlie Haden and Roy Hargrove taking the stage.
Soon after, the International Jazz Festival got its name, as well as an honored place on the global jazz circuit. It expanded to include most of the concert halls in downtown Havana and in 1996, renowned Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes became the artistic director and President of the festival.
The Havana Jazz Festival Today
As you might imagine, the Havana Jazz Festival is a lively event. The festival atmosphere spills out far past the concert halls, with impromptu jam sessions satiating jazz lovers along the Malecón streets late into the night.
The official program isn’t released until a month before the festival but the lineup is sure to wow. Past performers include Jorge Reyes, Los Brujos, Iba Ibo Yoruba Specimen, The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, Wayne Wallace and many more.
Where to Stay
Havana is rife with accommodation options. Reserve a room and enjoy old-world glamor in one of the city’s five-star hotels, like Hotel Nacional de Cuba, or opt for a more local experience by reserving a room at a Casa Particular (many are now listed on AirBnb).
Getting to the Havana Jazz Festival
With the exception of nationals of other Caribbean islands, almost all foreigners are required to have a tourist card to enter Cuba. Tourist Cards grant a maximum stay of 30 days (90 days in the case of Canadian citizens) and can be extended once for the same period. You can purchase them ahead of time or on arrival at Havana airport.
While there are now more than 20 direct flights a day from the US to Havana, American citizens still need to join an OFAC-approved tour group to be allowed to enter the country and attend the jazz festival. A special tourist card should be issued by the tour operator as part of your trip price.