July 28, 2021

Frank Emilio’s Afro-Cuban jazz turns 100

Frank Emilio Flynn, in 2001.Luis Sinco / ‘Los Angeles Times’ via Getty

On April 13, it was the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Cuban pianist Frank Emilio Flynn. This year also marks two decades of his physical disappearance, not spiritual or musical, since his legacy as one of the great legends of Afro-Cuban jazz remains intact and some of his memorable standards and melodies are still today a source of teaching and workhorses of old and young jazz players on the island. Frank Emilio was one of the pioneers in bringing Cuban popular music to the language of jazz and in converting rhythms such as danzón, mambo or chachachá into devilish downloads, with percussion always occupying a leading place, although he also brought to his field the best of the American jazz tradition consolidating a unique style. Despite this, it would be unfair to remember him only as a composer and performer of this genre, because despite being blind since the age of 13, Frank Emilio was a versatile pianist with a solid academic training, capable of executing the scores of Debussy, Chopin or others like no other. Bach, or the exquisite Cuban dances of Manuel Saumell, Ignacio Cervantes or Ernesto Lecuona, which he recorded on numerous discs.

“For some, he is a jazz player who dominates Cuban music; for others, a Cuban pianist with a sixth sense for jazz ”, said of him the musicologist Nat Chediak in his Latin jazz dictionary, edited by Fernando Trueba. Some called him “the magician,” and his influence on modern Cuban music, in the field and in Afro-Cuban jazz it is considerable, as many musicians and television programs have recalled these days, in which Frank has been seen again with his black glasses playing songs of his vintage, such as the famous Gandinga, tripe and sandunga, or their incredible versions of Sherezada O Toni and Jesusito (by Ñico Rojas), which even the youngest musicians know and are indispensable in any jam session Cuban.

Music and Cuba are synonymous with Frank Emilio, owner of a story of personal improvement that began from the day he was born. I met him in the nineties sitting at the piano at the La Roca restaurant, in Vedado, where he entertained the customers’ food. The complete repertoire of the greats of American jazz was known (he cited among his influences Art Tatum – “an unattainable goal” -, George Shearing or Oscar Peterson), and if you asked him for any Cuban bolero, the Mandinga quiquiribú or a Snowball song, he made them his with an incredible sensitivity. His ability to improvise, his subtlety and his musical culture absolutely captivated you, and so it was that until his death, in August 2001, I followed him around clubs, hotels and theaters in Havana, until we made a beautiful friendship and I was able to interview him. On numerous occasions.

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His father was an American who worked on the island as a diver installing undersea cables for a telephone company. His mother, Digna, was a simple housewife, but she always liked music. He liked it so much that, although no one knew how to play the piano at home, he bought one so that the musicians who entertained silent movies shown in a nearby theater could come to play there after performances. There Frank Emilio heard for the first time the instrument that would mark his life.

At birth, the misuse of forceps by the midwife left him practically blind. “Until I was 13 years old, when I completely lost my vision, I only perceived lumps and colors, but I stretched out my arm and began to babble my first musical experiences at the piano, like the waltz Three o’clok in the morning, which were the ones I heard at home. “One day, when Frank was five years old, Digna died and his father returned to the United States, leaving him in the care of some uncles who raised him as a son and who, realizing his talent for music, they supported him in his studies, and then he began to imitate the style of the famous pianist Antonio María Romeu, his first idol, and apparently he succeeded because in the thirties they began to call him “the only imitator of the Magician of Keys ”.

At age 12 he won an award for amateur artists playing precisely a danzón by Romeu, Three pretty Cuban women, and thus obtained his first professional contract. Still wearing shorts, he began to work as a pianist in a danzonera orchestra, a practical training that conditioned his unique way of playing the instrument.

In the 1940s he decided to study music “seriously”. His great piano teacher was César Pérez Sentenat and he learned harmony with Harold Gramatges and Félix Guerrero, arriving years later to perform at the Palacio de Bellas Artes with a program that included works by Bach, Mozart, Ravel, Debussy and by the Cubans Ignacio Cervantes and Ernesto Lecuona – in 1959 Cuban dances and danzones, the first of a series of records that combined the Danzon repertoire with pieces by Cervantes and Saumell.

Through Miguel Matamoros, he started working at the radio Mil Diez, a station where he accompanies interpreters, does solo piano programs and is part of the Loquibambia group, which plays trendy North American music and numbers by young composers such as José Antonio Méndez and César Portillo de la Luz, with Omara Portuondo as singer, becoming the pianist of the field by excellence. Later, he would be the founder of the legendary Cuban Modern Music Group (later called Los Amigos), composed at its base by five passionate jazz musicians: drummer Guillermo Barreto, bassist Orlando Daddy Hernández, the tumbador Tata Güines, the güirero Gustavo Tamayo and himself.

This is his time of unbridled bohemia. “We never went to bed before six in the morning,” he said, remembering that at that time he was very flirtatious and walked without a cane. “The güagüeros [conductores de autobús] they knew me and left me at the door of the house ”, he said, and when he made these anecdotes, between song and song at La Roca or at the La Zorra y el Cuervo club, his face lit up.

He was the founder of the Cuban Jazz Club in the 1950s. American musicians such as Tommy Dorsey, Sarah Vaughan or Zoot Sims used to travel to Havana to play many weekends, and at dawn Cubans and Americans used to unload at Las Vegas, Club 21 or Habana 1900. There were jam sessions legendary, like the one that took place in Sans Souci with Sara Vaughan and her trio, which was made for the books. That night Frank Emilio and Sarah’s double bass, Richard Davis, improvised together, who at one point in the night asked Frank to accompany him on The Nearness of You. He did not have them all with him and he asked him if he knew it, to which Frank replied: “In what tone do you want it, mulatto?”

One of his great friends and admirer, the conductor of the Tropicana orchestra, Armando Romeu, encouraged him to do Raphsody in blue, from his beloved Gershwin. Frank replied that he couldn’t because there were no scores for him in Cuba. Romeu learned braille to translate the work for him, and Frank Emilio not only performed this work with the Symphony Orchestra, but later did the Concert in fa Gershwin, something he was proud of.

Like many Cuban musicians, he fell into oblivion in the 1970s, when the revolutionary offensive was unleashed on the island; clubs closed and jazz became almost the enemy’s music. “Boldly, I had dedicated myself to cultivating other genres, and I kept working,” he said. He composed, gave concerts, devoted himself body and soul to teaching music to other blind people. In 1996, when Cuban music became fashionable by commercial carambola, it made Barbaric, genuine Latin jazz album. Then came the danzones CD My yesterday, Tribute to Lecuona and, in 1998, he recorded for the famous Blue Note label Ancestral reflections, one of his great albums.

That same year, the American trumpeter Winston Marshallis traveled to Havana and saw him play at the La Zorra y el Cuervo club. He was fascinated, and invited him to play for two consecutive years at the Lincoln Center in New York. Thanks to publicity, a cousin discovered her existence and was reunited with her family in the United States.

I treasure the gift that New York brought me from that trip: a record from the big band by Marshallis, with Take the A train among its subjects. It was one of the standards popularized by Duke Ellington who liked to play and who first listened to him at La Roca, but to a Cuban rhythm.