Canadian soprano-saxophonist and flutist Jane Bunnett has enjoyed one of the most well-traveled careers in jazz music. Since her first trip to Cuba in 1982, she has journeyed back to the island numerous times both to record and make the documentary film Spirits of Havana. She also established the Spirit of Music Foundation to buy musical instruments for young Cuban musicians.
The winner of two Juno Awards—the Canadian recording industry’s highest honor—Bunnett has also courted controversy by championing Cuban culture. Some in the Cuban émigré community insist that her work has strengthened the Communist grip on the nation, and Bunnett lost a recording contract after the United States Congress tightened the trade embargo between American companies and the Cuban government with the Helms-Burton Act in 1996. Bunnett has forged ahead, nevertheless. She jokingly called her 1996 tour “Come Helms or High Water” and was gratified over the enthusiastic reception her documentary film received in Miami. “Because we didn’t make a political film and didn’t take sides and looked at the culture for what it is, for many it was the first time they were able to clearly watch themselves and take pride in their culture and
Trained on the piano, flute, clarinet, and saxophone; released first album, In Dew Time, 1988; released Spirits of Havana, 1992; made documentary film in Cuba of the same name, 1999; released Alma de Santiago, 2001.
Awards: Juno Award (Canada), Best World Beat Recording, 1992; Juno Award, Best Global Album (with the Spirits of Havana), 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Blue Note Records, 304 Park Ave. South, Third Floor, New York, NY 10010, website: http://www.bluenote.com. Website —Jane Bun- nett Official Website: http://www.janebunnett.com.
what they have regardless of politics,” she told Bill King of the Jazz Report online.
Born on October 22, 1956, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Bunnett aimed for a career as a classical pianist during her youth. She also trained on the clarinet. Unfortunately, she contracted tendonitis and was forced to reconsider her options. After seeing jazz bassist Charles Mingus perform in San Francisco, however, she returned home with a new inspiration. She began to study jazz at Toronto’s York University, this time on the flute and later, the saxophone. In an incident that she remembered as her “lucky break” in a 1991 profile in the Canadian news magazine Maclean’s, Bunnett recalled that the legal settlement for an accident she had at the university—she fell on some wet steps and broke an ankle—allowed her to pay for her first soprano saxophone. Although she remained an accomplished pianist, clarinetist, and flutist, Bunnett there after devoted most of her energy to the saxophone.
The next turning point in her career occurred in 1982, when the young musician and her husband, trumpeter Larry Cramer, took a vacation to Cuba. The couple’s first stop was Santiago, Cuba’s oldest city, on the island’s southeastern edge. Santiago still retained a mixture of Caribbean and African cultures, both of which were reflected in its music. Decades after the visit, Bunnett still remembered the impact of watching a band of eight drummers perform in Santiago. As she told Nicholas Jennings of Maclean’s in June of 2000, “There’s a real power to the music there. I’ve seen it lift people’s spirits in the poorest sections of the cities. Whether it’s religious, folkloric, or carnival music, it all has a purity and strength.”
Bunnett’s first album, In Dew Time, appeared on the Dark Light label in 1988. As Wade Riverside of Performing Arts and Entertainment in Canada wrote of her work, “Bunnett possesses the ability to play music that is at the cutting edge of the avant-garde without sacrificing anything in the way of listenability,” adding that “Bunnett’s playing is always entirely fresh, and her own.” On the heels of In Dew Time, Bunnett played an extensive international concert schedule, including dates in the United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and of course, Cuba.
The highlight of Bunnett’s early recording career came in 1992 with the release of Spirits of Havana, a work that brought her together with several of the most noted jazz musicians from Cuba. Indeed, the album was one of the few to bring contemporary Cuban music to a North American audience. After its release it won the 1992 Juno Award—the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy—for Best World Beat Recording. Bunnett followed its success with a string of albums that explored the ties between Latin and jazz music, including 1996’s Jane Bunnett and the Cuban Piano Masters and 1997’s Havana Flute Summit. Of the former, Hal Hill of Performing Arts and Entertainment in Canada wrote in 1998, “This is exciting music played by an exciting group of musicians, but it is the leader who dominates with her characteristic high energy, virtuosity, sensitivity, and wit.” Such reviews of Bunnett’s work—referring to both her musicianship and warm personality—became almost commonplace with each album and concert appearance.
While Bunnett was becoming a favorite of reviewers and cultivating a growing fan base, politics began to intrude on her career. When the American trade embargo on Cuba was tightened in 1996 by the Helms-Burton Act, a promising contract between Bunnett and an American record company was scuttled out of fear that it might run afoul of the law. Branded as a Castro supporter by some in the Cuban emigre population in the United States, Bunnett also found it harder to book concert dates in America. In the end, she estimate that she lost about $40,000 in concert revenues from the Burton-Helms controversy.
The controversy did not diminish Bunnett’s commitment to bringing Cuban music to a wider audience. With her tongue firmly in cheek, she called her 1996 tour the “Come Helms or High Water Tour.” That same year, she established the Spirit of Music charity to collect money for the purchase and renovation of musical instruments for Cuban music schools. Four years later, the Spirit of Music foundation had collected over $30,000 in Canadian dollars—often from benefit concerts with Bunnett as the headliner—to be used for its mission. As she proudly told Maclean’s in January of 1998, “When you give already talented kids instruments that work, they really wail.”
Bunnett had also grown a bit more comfortable with her role in the midst of controversy, as she told King. “I’m not a deeply political person, but politics have affected me on both sides. They affect me in the U.S. and Cuba too. I see many of my musical friends in Cuba really hard pressed. Musicians, if they possibly lived somewhere else would be really thriving in terms of their careers. There are freedoms they don’t have. It’s disheartening having to have permission to leave your country and sometimes being denied it.” For all of her admiration of her Cuban colleagues, then, Bunnett was not unaware of the shortfalls of Castro’s system; if anything, she was even more knowledgeable about contemporary Cuban life than many of her critics.
In 1999 Bunnett traveled back to Cuba to make Spirits of Havana, a documentary that followed the musician and her husband on a musical exploration across the island. Reviewers applauded the obvious respect and enthusiasm that Bunnett and her musical partners brought to the project; as Errol Nazareth wrote in the Toronto Sun in July of 2000, “Quite simply, it’s difficult not to be moved by what they do.” Among the highlights was Bunnett’s performance with the Grupo Vocal Desandann, a ten-member ensemble from Camaguey, Cuba. As Bunnett described the event to Nazareth, “They’re singing the music of their ancestors and I’m out of the loop. I’m from another culture and it’s not my music, but the melodies were beautiful and to be in the middle of those voices in that room gave me a chill.”
Bunnett was particularly pleased that Spirits of Havana was able to transcend the political aspect of Cuba’s history by showing how important music is in its culture. “One of the most important realities I wanted people to see with that film was that the music was made regardless,” she told King. “The music is such a part of the people’s culture and not a separate part of their lives. The music is intertwined into the social fabric. They don’t have a lot of food, a lot don’t have refrigerators, lights, running water, but the music is what gives them their nourishment and drive for life and holds them together.”
In addition to an extensive international concert schedule, Bunnett released Ritmo + Soul in 2000, which won the Juno Award for Best Global Album the following year. The soulful Alma de Santiago, released in 2001, was recorded in Cuba with a number of leading Latin jazz musicians. The album had “more of a group feeling to it,” as Bunnett told the Jazz Report, adding, “They have produced a lot without interference from American or other producers coming in and imposing their methods or preferences on the music. Cubans know how to produce their own music and get sounds.”
In Dew Time, Dark Light, 1988.
New York Duets, Music and Arts, 1989.
Live at Sweet Basil, Denon, 1991.
Spirits of Havana, Messidor, 1992.
Double Time, Justin Time, 1994.
The Water Is Wide, Evidence, 1994.
Rendez-Vous Brazil/Cuba, Justin Time, 1995.
Jane Bunnett and the Cuban Piano Masters, Blue Note, 1996.
Chamalongo, Blue Note, 1997.
Havana Flute Summit, Naxos Jazz, 1997.
Ritmo + Soul, Blue Note, 2000.
Alma de Santiago, Blue Note, 2001.
Los Angeles Times, June 15, 2000; September 15, 2001.
Maclean’s, November 11, 1991, p. 63; January 12, 1998, p. 64; June 26, 2000, p. 51.
Performing Arts and Entertainment in Canada, Spring 1991, p. 7; Spring 1998, p. 40.
Toronto Star, November 26, 2000. Toronto Sun, May 4, 2001.
Village Voice, June 23, 1998, p. 125.
“An Interview with Jane Bunnett,” Jazz Report, http://www.jazzreport.com/interviews/jane-bunnett.html (February 12, 2002).
Jane Bunnett Official Website, http://www.janebunnett.com/profile.htm (February 13, 2002).
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