The Outstanding Performers of International Jazz Day

Daniel Hautzinger
Youn Sun Nah, Esperanza Spalding, and Chucho Valdés, and others at International Jazz Day in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Steve Mundinger
Youn Sun Nah, Esperanza Spalding, Chucho Valdés, and others at International Jazz Day in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Steve Mundinger

International Jazz Day from Cuba airs Friday, April 27 at 10/9c and is available to stream.

Every year since 2012, some of the world’s finest jazz musicians have gathered from around the globe on April 30 to make music together in celebration of International Jazz Day, in places such as Istanbul, Osaka, and the White House. In 2017, they congregated in Havana, Cuba, performing in Latin America’s oldest theater, the Gran Teatro de la Habana.

With Cuba in the news as Raúl Castro steps down as president and 2018’s International Jazz Day just around the corner (it’s being hosted by St. Petersburg, Russia this year), it’s the perfect time for a broadcast of that concert, which was emceed by Will Smith and Quincy Jones. Meet some of the outstanding participants here. 

Herbie Hancock

The legendary pianist, who gained acclaim playing with Miles Davis and pioneered jazz fusion and jazz-funk, is the reason International Jazz Day exists. As a UNESCO ambassador, Hancock wanted to create a day celebrating jazz’s global power to unite people. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, which he chairs, helps organize the annual celebration.

Herbie Hancock at International Jazz Day in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Steve MundingerHerbie Hancock. Photo: Steve Mundinger

Esperanza Spalding

Like Hancock, the vocalist and bassist Esperanza Spalding has achieved popular fame outside of jazz through her mixing of genres: in 2011, she became the first jazz musician to win “Best New Artist” at the Grammys. Having performed in Cuba for International Jazz Day, she was scheduled to bring Cuban musicians here in 2019, but the concert was recently cancelled because of difficulties obtaining visas for the Cubans. Enjoy a clip of her performance of “I Adore You” in Havana with Cuban legend Bobby Carcassés:


Ambrose Akinmusire

Akinmusire is a young, fresh musician as keen on reimagining jazz as Esperanza Spalding (he has even played with her), whose critically acclaimed albums and compositions don’t shy away from social issues – one song lists the names of young black people killed by police. He’s also appeared on a track by the rapper Kendrick Lamar, who just became the first non-classical or jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for music.

Saxophonist Kenny Garrett and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire at International Jazz Day in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Steve MundingerSaxophonist Kenny Garrett and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Photo: Steve Mundinger

Roberto Fonseca

A grooving pianist whose music is thoroughly grounded in his native Cuba (watch an interview and performance on WTTW's The Experience with Dedry Jones), Fonseca also served as a guide to Geoffrey Baer for the WTTW special Weekend in Havana, showing him the vibrant musical culture of the Cuban capital. Fonseca is also a priest of Santería, the African-based faith that emerged amongst slaves in Latin America, and introduced Geoffrey to the religion in this clip:


Youn Sun Nah

Americans might be surprised to learn it, but there’s a thriving jazz scene in Asia. At International Jazz Day in Havana, Japan was represented by trumpeter Takuya Kuroda, while vocalist Youn Sun Nah bore the standard for South Korea. While she’s proficient in standards, she also skips across genres easily, performing everything from Nine Inch Nails to cheery Latin pieces to Korean folk songs to her own moody compositions.

Youn Sun Nah (center) with Regina Carter (left) and Esperanza Spalding (right) at International Jazz Day in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Steve MundingerYoun Sun Nah (center) with Regina Carter (left) and Esperanza Spalding (right). Photo: Steve Mundinger

Kurt Elling

Elling is a heavily awarded jazz singer native to Chicago. He won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album in 2009, won the DownBeat Critics Poll for fourteen consecutive years, and has been named “Male Singer of the Year” by the Jazz Journalists Association eight times. Watch him sing Gershwin’s “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leaving Soon for New York,” featuring a thrilling interplay between Elling’s scat and percussionist Adel Gonzáles:


Chucho Valdés

Valdés, another Cuban pianist, is one of the prime innovators in Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz. He founded the seminal group Irakere, one of Cuba’s most popular bands, and has won numerous Grammys and other awards. His is a musical family: both his son, Chuchito, and father, Bebo, are also pianists.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba (left) and Chucho Valdés (right) at International Jazz Day in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Steve MundingerGonzalo Rubalcaba (left) and Chucho Valdés (right). Photo: Steve Mundinger


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