Sue Miller – Cuban Flute Improviser, Writer & Academic

Latin Improvisation Aesthetics in New York: SEM Panel PresentationNovember 15th, 2015


 4pm- 5.30pm

Panel 4B:  Room 404




Dr Sue Miller (Leeds Beckett University, UK): presenter and chair

Dr Ben Lapidus (CUNY, USA): presenter

Professor David Garcia (University of North Carolina, USA): discussant


Latin Improvisation Aesthetics in New York

Panel Abstract

Clave feel’ is often cited as one of the main elements of Afro-Cuban/salsa improvisation yet very little to date has been done to demonstrate this concept analytically. Building on research in this area by Christopher Washburne, Peter Manuel, David Garcia, Robin Moore, Lise Waxer, and Robert Farris Thompson, three scholars of Latin improvisation consider how clave remains a point of tradition, pride, and practice for many performers of Afrocuban music in New York City. Brass, woodwind and piano clave-based improvisation styles are examined to demonstrate how clave feel can define both the artistry and identity of performers. Ethnographic research informs the musical analyses of solo improvisations from both recordings and live performances to demonstrate how clave sensibility permeates the artistic work of New York-based Latin soloists. The creative interchange between Cuba and the USA is explored by Ben Lapidus whose case study of pianist Sonny Bravo shows how the concept of playing and arranging in clave was elevated and held sacred in New York City more so than elsewhere. Similarly Sue Miller examines the New York charangas in terms of cubanidad, adaptation and fusion in the context of the annual Mamoncillo festival. Both papers explore the role of influence, demonstrate the improvisational artistry of renowned performers of clave-based music and explore the idea of a distinctive New York-style Latin aesthetic.

Dr Ben Lapidus:

Clave, Honor and Tradition: the Music of Sonny Bravo in New York City

There are few living New York City-born and based musicians who have had as illustrious a career and as serious a familial and musical pedigree as Elio Osacar, also known as Sonny Bravo. With hundreds of arrangements and recordings to his credit over the last sixty years, he is considered an authority on clave consciousness and adherence. Bravo’s fealty and depth of clave knowledge is sought out by performers and composers to create modern arrangements and provide típico piano improvisations. His arrangements for Charlie Palmieri, José Fajardo, Tito Puente, Joe Cuba, Spanish Harlem Orchestra, and his own group, Típica 73 are filled with musical references to classic recordings while remaining fresh and creative. Bravo’s piano solos are viewed as classics that are studied by students of all levels and he has remained a sought out pedagogue over the last forty years. Long before it was acceptable, Bravo was the first New York bandleader post-1959 to bring his own band to perform and record in Cuba in 1978 with his musical heroes. Through an exploration of his arrangements, ethnography, and improvisation analysis, this paper explores how the simple concept of the clave permeates, identifies, and is emblematic of one musician’s multi-faceted career as an improviser, bandleader, and arranger. The paper shows how the concept of clave has been elevated in such a way as to serve as a point of honor and tradition in New York City.

Dr Sue Miller:

Defining a New York Latin Sound and a Latin Improvisation Aesthetic

Cuban flute player Eddy Zervigón, musical director of New York-based Orquesta Broadway commented in a 2003 interview with Israel Sánchez-Coll and Nestor Emiro Gómez that his charanga had ‘adapted the most to the New York ambience,’ stating that the band’s character was ‘more urban,’ and that son montuno was its backbone to which ‘various fusions’ were added. He states further ‘you need to pay attention to what’s going on where you’re living and sniff out the changes going on in the city.’ With a focus on the New York charanga bands of the early sixties, musical analysis and ethnographic research are combined in this paper to test the hypothesis that there is a distinct urban New York Latin sound, one that developed through adaptation to Pan-Latin American audiences in the city. Melodic, harmonic and rhythmic analysis of recorded solos provides evidence for both a distinct Latin improvisation aesthetic and a New York flavour. Analysis of live performances by New York charanga and conjunto bands at the annual Mamoncillo Festival in New York also reveals a subtle interrelationship between improvisers and dancers in which performance practice differs from that of the traditional Cuban orquestas and conjuntos which originally inspired these US-based groups.

Discussant: Professor David Garcia

More information can be found here: