How did Haiti’s international jazz festival snag one of music’s hottest stars?

Cécile McLorin Salvant, a Miami native, is a rising star on the jazz music scene. The winner of several Grammy Awards, she’s headlining the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival in January 2019.
Cécile McLorin Salvant, a Miami native, is a rising star on the jazz music scene. The winner of several Grammy Awards, she’s headlining the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival in January 2019. Courtesy of Cécile McLorin Salvant management

As the husband-and-wife duo behind Haiti’s premier international musical event, Joel Widmaier and Milena Sandler Widmaier are used to presenting major jazz celebrities: Branford Marsalis, Jed Levy Quartet, Julie Michels of Canada. and Cuba’s Gonzalo Rubalcaba, to name a few.

But for years, there was one star in the jazz universe they could never seem to get: Miami-born Cécile McLorin Salvant.

So last year, as the couple began planning for this year’s 13th edition of the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival, they did something unusual.

Cécile McLorin Salvant’s approach to her music is clever, thoughtful, winsome and unexpected. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

“We went to the family,” Sandler Widmaier said. “It’s not like us to do that but I sent a message to her mother and said, ‘I don’t understand why we can’t get her. We have been asking a year in advance to get her, not only for the jazz festival, but for International Jazz Day as well, and every time the answer is ‘No.’ If she doesn’t want to, OK, and I will stop bothering the agent.’ “

Léna McLorin Salvant responded on behalf of her daughter: “She wants to. Haiti is really dear to her.”

And this is how after five years of trying, the PAP Jazz Festival, which kicks off this weekend and runs through Jan. 26, landed one of jazz music’s most-watched artists, Cécile McLorin Salvant, who also happens to be part Haitian.

“We usually have headliners who are always foreigners. Now, it’s a Haitian,” said Sandler Widmaier, who has long tracked McLorin Salvant’s rise from virtual unknown to 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition winner to multiple Grammy Award winner. “She is the one female jazz singer that everybody wants right now, and so we are really proud to have her, really happy.”

For McLorin Salvant, 29, playing the festival is not just long overdue, it’s a chance to go back to her roots, both as a musician and as the the daughter of a Haitian physician and a French-Guadeloupean mother.

“There is always this idea of reconnecting, of re-familiarizing yourself,” she said. “Haiti is not that huge but culturally it has given so much to the world; if you look at the history of jazz too, Haiti and Haitian music is super-fundamental to early, early jazz in New Orleans. It’s fundamental to Cuban music, to all kinds of music that ended up influencing jazz either directly or indirectly.”

Haiti, she said, is a huge part of her life. “My dad is Haitian, a lot of my friends growing up were Haitian American, children of Haitian immigrants. So it is integral to who I am as a person. However, it is the identity of a Haitian American, of someone who is not from that country, but yet who feels that country in their ancestry and in their traditions.”

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Artists perform at the 12th Edition of the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival in January 2018 at the Université Quisqueya in Haiti’s capital. Josue Azor Courtesy of the Port-au-Prince Jazz Festival

So what can jazz aficionados expect from McLorin Salvant when she takes the stage at the Karibe Hotel on Sunday, a day after five-time Grammy Award composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard officially kicks off the eight-day festival before foreign diplomats and visiting jazz fanatics?

“We are going to play,” said McLorin Salvant, who dismisses talk that she’s the next Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn or Ella Fitzgerald. “There’s a lot of feeding off of the moment and off of the audience and the musicians. For me it’s not something that’s calculated or planned in advance. We have a set of songs that we are probably going to do, a lot of things in French. But who knows what is going to happen. That is probably part of the appeal as well, having music that is heavily improvised.”

It’s this spontaneous creativity and energy that musicians like McLorin Salvant bring, said Sandler Widmaier, that makes the jazz festival not just eclectic but a must-attend event in a country struggling to lure tourists amid recent changes in travel advisories from both the U.S. State Department and Canada that warn their citizens to reconsider travel to Haiti.

Such warnings, organizers say, have not dampened their enthusiasm for the event or the caliber of musicians its attracts.

“For us, we have the ambition of becoming the festival of the Caribbean,” Sandler Widmaier said. “And for that you need headliners, we need to be a reference. If we don’t have big names, we can’t be a reference.”

In addition to McLorin Salvant and Blanchard, this year’s s festival will also feature arranger and pianist Alex Mercado of Mexico; soprano and alto saxophonist Émile Parisien of France; violinist Chelsey Green and the Green Project from the United States; and English soul and R&B singer Joss Stone.

“I know every year I say we have an incredible lineup, but I really think that we have it this year,” Sandler Widmaier said. “There are going to be a lot of jam sessions because of the musicians we have. We really feel that these are musicians who want to do that.”

Sandler Widmaier said one of the nicest surprises they got this year was when Stone’s people reached out asking if she could be part of this year’s lineup. But the singer, who is embarking on a world tour, wasn’t just interested in singing. She asked to be teamed with both a young Haitian artist she could perform with during her visit and a charity that she could give back to. After being given several choices in both categories, Stone chose Coralie Hérard, a promising young Haitian singer, composer and guitarist and the LGBT-rights group, Kouraj (Courage).

“It’s amazing,” Sandler Widmaier said, adding that initially she thought the inquiry was a joke from Stone, who is paying her own way to the festival and not taking a fee.

In fact, after years of lobbying the various embassies to support the event by underwriting jazz musicians from their respective countries, the couple notes that this year there are a number of artists and embassies who chose to participate on their own. They credit this to not just the festival’s reputation as a mostly jazz-centered event, but the various activities built around the eight days. They include workshops and collaborations between the visiting and local musicians; the popular, after-show jam sessions at local restaurants and the festival’s public service ventures that include free shows at other venues around the capital..

This year the festival also is pushing a more eco-friendly event by cutting the number of its fliers and booklets in half, and asking patrons to each adopt a tree for $3 in Haiti’s La Visite National Park. Located in the the Massif de la Selle mountain range, the park is in danger of losing many of its majestic pine trees and other vegetation.

“We are trying to show a new way of doing things,” Sandler Widmaier said.

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.