HAVANA – American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis took hundreds of star-struck young Cubans on a musical history lesson Friday that showed the deep connections shared by U.S. and Cuban music — even if the Cold War enemies are separated by a half century of animosity.
Marsalis and his New York-based Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra are in Cuba for a series of groundbreaking concerts alongside Cuban legends like pianist Chucho Valdes and Orlando Valle "Maraca" that have packed the house at Havana's 1,500-seat Mella Theater all week.
The visit has come as relations between Cuba and the United States remain frosty — despite early hopes among some that President Barack Obama would improve ties and perhaps even end America's 48-year trade embargo on the island.
Marsalis has tried to stay out of the thicket of politics on his visit, saying in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday that he is in Cuba for the music and the people.
"The fact that the political situation between Cuba and the United States of America is bad gives (the trip) an added story line. But we live underneath that story line," Marsalis said, sitting in the back of a chauffeured car on his way to Havana's renowned National Arts School.
Marsalis, 48, said he feels that he and his band members do have a part to play in fostering better understanding between the two peoples, but it is an emotional and cultural role that connects on a human — not political — level.
"We are playing a role right now. We are coming here, we are being embraced, and we are embracing," he said, before musing about music's underlying place in any epic struggle.
"Did the spirituals have a role in the Afro-American (slaves) becoming free? Yeah, they did, but people, when they were singing them, did they say, 'Let us sing spirituals so we can be free?' No! ... Art's function is to lift the consciousness and the hearts and minds of people."
While the orchestra's nightly concerts have been the talk of the town, and their music has played almost nonstop on state-run radio, another focus of the trip has been educational.
Marsalis and other band members have held workshops, school visits and jam sessions with young musicians, and are planning an event Saturday to introduce jazz to children as young as 6.
Marsalis' teaching style is warm and infectiously enthusiastic, and the band members seem as enthralled by the young musicians as the children are by being in the presence of American stars.
Marsalis, a New Orleans native from a famously musical family, is one of the best known jazz musicians alive today. He signed his first record deal as a teenager in 1980, and later won a Pulitzer Prize for "Blood on the Fields," a musical composition on slavery and freedom.
He has been feted at the White House, and he played for Obama and others at a private inaugural celebration on the day the president took office.
The trip by the Lincoln Center jazz troupe is the first of two important visits to Cuba by American artists this year: The American Ballet Theater has scheduled a visit for November to honor Cuban ballet legend Alicia Alonso.
When Marsalis rolled up at the National Arts School on Friday, hundreds of children in brown and white uniforms lined the driveway, while students and faculty cheered from the rooftops. The institution is a sort of high school for Cuba's most promising musicians, and it sits next to the Superior Art Institute, where the best of the best will go when they graduate.
"Welcome, welcome, Wynton Marsalis!" the children screamed, many holding up mobile phone cameras.
"That's beautiful," Marsalis replied, rolling down the car window. "I can't wait to get out there and check this out."
Once on stage, Marsalis spoke of the link between Cuban habanera rhythms and turn-of-the-century New Orleans ragtime music, which was a precursor to modern jazz.
Marsalis led his band on a 90-minute musical history lesson, playing Duke Ellington's "C-Jam Blues," Charlie Parker's rendition of "Cherokee," Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia" and other hits by greats such as Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis.
The band members let Cuban students — some as young as 15 — play with them, patting them on the back, shaking their heads approvingly and applauding their solos.
"I've never had an opportunity like this. It was the greatest day of my life," said Laurenzo Molina, an 18-year-old trumpet player whose soulful playing seemed to impress Marsalis and the other American musicians.
Ismael Vinas, a 16-year-old trumpet player who watched from the audience, said he dreamed that one day he would be able to travel to New York to see Marsalis in concert. When asked what role he thought the orchestra's visit would have in bridging the gap between the two countries, Vinas smiled.
"Music is music, and politics is politics," he said. "The two have nothing to do with one another."