Port-au-Prince Jazz Fest Celebrates 10 Years with Local, Global Talent


Haitian-American vocalist Pauline Jean performs at the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival in Haiti on Jan.

(Photo: Sharonne Cohen)

With indelible spirit, the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary in January. Featuring more than 30 performances, workshops and after-hours jam sessions, the festival hosted musicians from 15 countries, showcasing Haiti’s unique brand of Creole jazz, as well as a plethora of other genres.

Originally scheduled to begin Jan. 22, the festival was forced to rearrange its programming due to political and social turmoil stemming from election upheaval. A second round of elections compelled festival organizers to push the opening concert back to Jan. 24. As a result, an opening concert by pianist Kenny Garrett was cancelled. Nevertheless, opening night had much to offer.

A solid set by veteran Canadian pianist Oliver Jones’ superb trio with Éric Lagacé (bass) and Jim Doxas (drums) was followed by the dynamic Thomas Siffling Trio—rising stars on the German electronic jazz scene.

Also on the bill was the Haitian All-Star Jazz Band, featuring vocalist Pauline Jean, trumpeter Jean Caze, drummer Obed Calvaire, alto saxophonist Godwin Louis, keyboard player Mushy Widmaier, bassist Jonathan Michel and guest saxophonist David Sánchez, who was in Haiti doing research for a new project.

Taking the stage together for the first time, the group served up sumptuous Creole jazz with a program of traditional Haitian tunes (“Ti Zwazo”), standards (“I’m In The Mood For Love”), and compositions by ensemble members (“Sparks” by Caze, appearing on his newly released Amédé; “Gaya Kou” by Calvaire; and Louis’ soulful “Siwèl,” whose name alludes to a fruit popular in Haiti as well as a style of playing and improvising. (The saxophonist composed the song during his 2014 residency at the Jazz Gallery in New York City.)

Drummer Ruddy Nau, son of legendary Tabou Combo drummer Herman Nau, led the late night set at Asu Lounge, mashing up jazz, rock, funk and kompa.

How does the festival—a nonprofit event—manage to maintain itself during these troubled times? In large part, the festival thrives thanks to its collaborations with the embassies whose artists are represented, according to festival directors Joël Widmaier and Milena Sandler (who serve as president and general manager, respectively, of the Haiti Jazz Foundation).

Partnerships with the Haitian Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and international sponsors such as Prestige (Heineken), Barbancourt Rhum, Digicel, Air France and Delta also provide support.

With bands hailing from Belgium, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Mexico, Spain and Switzerland, the festival emphasizes cultural diversity, offering the vast majority (70 percent) of concerts to the public free of charge at two main venues: the new campus of Université Quisqueya (largely destroyed during Haiti’s 2010 earthquake) and Place Boyer.

After-hours performances and jam sessions held at Quartier Latin, Presse Café and Yanvalou featured headlining artists and local bands such as Project Chameleon and Challengers. Haitian-American bassist-composer Jaël Auguste was also a fixture at these events. Having moved back to Haiti, he is currently working on a new sound (which he describes as “Racine Fusion”—a hybrid of Haitian roots music, classical folk melodies and funk) for a forthcoming album.

Also appearing at the fest were Mexican jazz-funk-progressive rock outfit Pie Grande; Chilean tenor saxophonist and composer Agustin Moya; popular Panamanian singer Yomira John; Spanish flamenco-jazz pianist Chano Dominguez, who played a solo set at the newly restored Triomphe theater; and Beninese percussionist-vocalist Jah Baba, who delivered a transfixing set of jazz-infused African tunes.

Trombonist and alphorn master Pascal Schaer (Switzerland) offered two performances with his formidable Cor des Alpes—fellow countryman and trumpeter Ian Gordon-Lennox, bassist Olabissi Kpota (Benin), guitarist Cyril Moulas (France) and percussionists Baba Konate (Burkina Faso), together with special guest Jah Baba.

The group captivated audiences with tunes such as “Blues For Ali” (a tribute to legendary Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré) and “Fantasie Haïtienne”—a new tune written for the occasion. “An orchestra was born,” Schaer said after the concert, indicating that this collaboration will likely turn into an ongoing partnership.

(Note: To read a 2014 Editors’ Pick review of trumpeter Sean Jones’ album Im.Pro.Vise: Never Before Seen, which features drummer Obed Calvaire, click here).

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    Benjamin possessed a fluid, round sound on the alto saxophone, and he was often most recognizable by the layers of electronic effects that he put onto the instrument.

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    “He’s constructing intelligent musical sentences that connect seamlessly, which is the most important part of linear playing,” Charles McPherson said of alto saxophonist Sonny Red.

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    ​Albert “Tootie” Heath (1935–2024) followed in the tradition of drummer Kenny Clarke, his idol.

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    “Both of us are quite grounded in the craft, the tradition and the harmonic sense,” Rosenwinkel said of his experience playing with Allen. “Yet I felt we shared something mystical as well.”

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