Jazz came to me as a luminescent fairy would to a child wandering in a lost forest. I very young, four or five—and couldn’t distinguish dream from memory. The world was colorful, deep shadows, soft light. I lived in a perpetual state of sweet anticipation. My parents were new to the country, escaping Cuba in 1980 with nothing but the assurances of their awaiting loved ones. They settled in Union City, a strong Cuban enclave in North Jersey, and had me in 1985. With the exception of Merrie Melodies and Yankees telecasts, the soundtrack of my infancy consisted of a steady stream of Mexican ballads, Caribbean big bands, Cuban sketch comedy radio, and episodes of El Chapulín Colorado on Univision.
This world, though vibrant, went through a reboot every Thanksgiving night, when we went to our cousins’ apartment a few blocks away. The Reyes family had come to America in the first big wave of immigrants that left Cuba in the early-1960s. Visiting them carried with it a momentary sense of integration into a culture still not my own, even though I was the only one in the room born into it.
My cousins lived on the fifth floor of a drafty apartment building on Palisade Avenue, which for me might as well have been a cave of wonders on some undiscovered continent. From the minute I boarded that old elevator and felt it clang its way up, the flesh and bone barriers separating me from everything else began to soften and dissipate. My senses sharpened. Time slowed. I felt my body, as well as the space around me, condense into a taut, metallic perfection, so that adding a single molecule to the scene would’ve blown it all into oblivion. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to another world.
Within seconds, down the corridor and into the corner, we were there—Apartment 5B. The door opened with a soft jingle, and out poured an aroma that I still associate with a perfect happiness. It was a blend of perfume, roast turkey, new clothes, candied yams, fresh rice, hairspray, black beans, quality leather, aged rum and tobacco. My outer and inner worlds touched.
We were swallowed up by a roaring mob of outstretched arms and smiling faces. Backslaps, frenzied kisses, laughter and shouts of glee followed. There’s a frenzy to all reunions for Cubans of that generation, one that for too long believed it would never again see its loved ones. But at that age, I just thought this was how adults said hello—by dropping everything at once and jumping into a euphoric mosh pit in dress clothes. I stood in the center of it, knee-high, drinking it all in.
I had no reason to want any more from that night than some turkey and a scoop of ice cream, maybe a cartoon or two while the adults caught up over espresso. But I was too deep within my innocence to see its limits, to maim its mad rushes with the shame that now accompanies any brush with excess. I was awake to the room, and it was from this awareness that I noticed my cousin Pepe depart from the crowd and step to the stereo system.
What poured forth from those speakers wasn’t so much music as an assurance that this was a normal part of living. I didn’t know who or what I was listening to, or the humans gathered to play what sounded like chaotic musings on instruments. But I felt a private aesthetic—that inner platform, as unique as a fingerprint, assemble into something that would always be mine. Finding jazz was a baptism.
Today, my cousin Jose “Pepe” Reyes runs Jazz Con Class Radio, in my estimation the best, most lovingly curated jazz station. Give it a whirl at http://www.jazzconclass.com, or download the app.
—Follow Alexander River on Twitter: @alexwander85