Mucho Mejor

Cry for Argentina


Buenos Aires, Argentina

September, 2009

Filed by:  Doug Rosen

The jazz scene in Buenos Aires is a complete nightmare.  Since arriving here in Buenos Aires, I’ve gone to three different jazz concerts, and they’ve all stunk.  One took place in a neighborhood where they rob you, another took place in the basement of a hotel, and the other took place in a subway station.  Where else could they think to have a concert?  In a men’s room?  From what I can tell, there is only one “club” club.  That’s to say, a club specifically dedicated to jazz, the so-called “Thelonius Club.”  It was there that I went first to hear the original pieces of the Mariano Otero Quinteto, led by Mariano Otero, one of Argentina’s foremost and well-regarded bass players and one of the leaders of the “Nuevo Jazz Argentina” movement.

The first thing that happened was that nothing happened:  he was supposed to start playing at 9:30 and instead started at 10:16.  Once he got started, however, I noticed that although he was the “leader,” he never took a solo.  He just stared upwards and moved his lips around, trying to simulate some kind of constant orgasm that he was receiving through his music. The trumpet and alto sax were the only ones doing anything.  And by “anything,” that’s exactly what I mean.  There was no coordination.  It sounded like each and every member of the band was playing out of their ass.  It was truly incredible.  It was like Otero held a casting call for a jazz band, selected the first four people who showed up, gave each of them an instrument, and told them to blow into it.  There was no melody line at all, nothing in the least bit discernible.  Just a bunch of disorder and grating noise.  And it was loud.  Very loud.  The trumpet player kept aiming the hole of the horn directly into the microphone at point-blank range like he was trying to swallow it.  It was horrible.  They sounded worse than a 4th grade band’s first rehearsal.

What most confounded me is that although the evening was an absolute disgrace, everyone sat transfixed and enraptured.  The critics love him.  He gets rave reviews.  The place was packed.  At the end of the night, everyone kept shouting, “Otra!  Otra!”  (Another!  Another!)  I have absolutely no idea how he gets away with it.  “Jazz! Jazz!”  This is not jazz.  This is the kind of stuff that keeps Tylenol in business.

My ears still ringing, a week later I went to the Voyeur Jazz Club, located in the basement of a luxurious hotel in Buenos Aires’s wealthy Recoleta neighborhood, to see a guitarist duo do an homage to Tom Jobim.  It was a dinner and concert.  I would love to comment more about this particular evening, but there was a group of obnoxious people at another table behind us who wouldn’t shut up, and I couldn’t hear a thing.

After that, I took advantage of all that the city has to offer by attending the “Jazz en el Subte” series, which endeavored to celebrate jazz by gathering different bands and having them play in a four hour festival in different subway stops around the city.

At four o’clock on a sunny Sunday afternoon, as I walked down the steps of the subway and heard the saxophones of the Sotavento Jazz Band playing Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” I wondered why I didn’t walk back up the steps.  It was right at the moment when a musician decided to take a solo on the bridge.  For some reason he decided to hook in to a riff evocative of Arabic music and just kept playing it over and over until his face turned red.  Then he sat down, and while the next soloist without the faintest sense of time or rhythm tried to randomly blow out a series of notes at the lowest register of his instrument, the original soloist and I happened to make eye contact.  Then he suddenly turned away and started moving his body to the beat of the music, trying to give the impression that he was “into it,” although not in a manner as flagrantly insecure as Mariano Otero.  The reason I kept my gaze fixed on this particular musician was because, apart from his complete inability to depart from a premeditated and inappropriate riff, his head looked exactly like that of my father’s former law partner.  During the next solo, a train came by.

The next group up was the “Tango Jazz Quartet.”  This time, I knew better.  As soon as I saw four guys arrive with scruff, long hair, and accordions, I got up from the subway floor that I was sitting on and went across the street to the McDonald’s, where I was at least able to give some leftover breadsticks to an indigenous woman standing next to the door with her calloused palm open.

Then I went back and gave the “Debra Dixon con 4” group a chance.  They actually weren’t too bad.  But again, I noticed that it was all show.  The longer they could hold a note, the more seemingly difficult to play, the more randomly placed, the more times they could play a riff over and over, the redder their faces got, the more they appeared to be “into it”—these were the things that frustratingly seemed to most please the crowd.  The musicians were doing things that they thought they should be doing, instead of truly being engaged, including the old trick of whispering and laughing and smiling smugly to each other at the end of a song, as if sharing some kind of inside joke.

One of the concertgoers in the subway stop “Estacion Jose Hernandez” informed me that there is an “Escuela de Jazz” (Jazz School), that meets every Sunday in a coffee shop.  In addition to my wallet, I will also be bringing a chair.