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Chico O'Farrill: Prime Mover in Afro-Cuban Jazz

SOURCE: Published: 2001-07-01

Chico O'Farrill was one of the main guiding lights in the emergence of Afro-Cuban Jazz in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He arrived in New York from his native Cuba at a point where musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Machito had begun to forge a distinctive fusion of bebop and Cuban music, dubbed Cubop at the time, and quickly became a key figure in that movement.

Ironically, he confessed to a rather low opinion of Cuban music prior to his move to the USA, finding it one-dimensional by comparison with jazz. His initial exposure to the new music fired his own ideas, and showed him a way to make use of his native music.

He was born Arturo O'Farrill into a respectable, well-to-do family in Havana. His father was Irish, and his mother German. He attended a military school in Georgia, where he learned to play trumpet, and was also exposed to big band jazz for the first time.

His parents hoped he would study law, and deeply disapproved of his musical leanings, but eventually arranged for him to study composition with the Cuban composer Felix Guerrero. His education continued in Havana's jazz clubs, and he played trumpet in several Cuban bands before moving to New York.

He found work as an arranger with Benny Goodman, and also wrote the popular "Undercurrent Blues" for the band. He worked as a "ghost" for other arrangers who found themselves overstretched, including Walter Fuller and Quincy Jones.

He made his first major contribution to Afro-Cuban Jazz in a recording session for Machito, arranged by Norman Granz in December, 1950. O'Farrill's sophisticated, richly wrought but vibrant The Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite is regarded as a watershed work in adapting Cuban music to a modern jazz big band, and featured Charlie Parker, Flip Phillips and Buddy Rich amongst the musicians.

He described Afro-Cuban Jazz as "a very delicate marriage", in which each aspect of the music had to be held in proper balance. He made several more recordings for Granz in 1951-4, including The Second Afro-Cuban Suite in 1952, a gentler and more reflective piece which O'Farrill regarded as more satisfying in purely compositional terms than its more famous predecessor.

As well as leading his own band, he composed The Manteca Suite for Dizzy Gillespie in 1955, expanding the trumpeter's famous hit of 1947, and also arranged for Stan Kenton and Stan Getz.

A failing marriage and legal complications saw him leave the USA in 1955 for a decade. He returned to Cuba, then moved to Mexico in 1957, where he remained until 1965, recording and working with local bands. His compositions from this period include another major work, The Aztec Suite, for trumpeter Art Farmer.

He returned to New York in 1965, and settled there. He worked with artists like Count Basie, Gato Barbieri, Dizzy Gillespie and Cal Tjader, but eventually chafed against the restrictions of always being asked to write only in Afro-Cuban style. He was adamant in his refusal to compromise his standards, saying that if he could not record and perform his music with a properly prepared big band, then he would not record at all.

He was reunited with Machito and Gillespie in 1975 for an album, Afro- Cuban Jazz Moods, but faded from the jazz scene after that recording, working mainly as a composer of music for television and commercials, and the occasional less predictable commission, including arranging some music for David Bowie's Black Tie White Noise album in 1993.

Just as his career in jazz seemed over, however, he staged a remarkable comeback, beginning with the release of his album Pure Emotion in 1995. His producer at Fantasy Records, Todd Barkan, gave him his head in the studio, and the album was nominated for a Grammy Award, as was its successor, Heart of a Legend, in 1999. A third album, Carambola, appeared in 2000, and he was featured in the acclaimed film Calle-54, released this year.

He wrote a commissioned piece for Lincoln Center in 1995, featuring Wynton Marsalis, and led his own big band in a weekly residence at Birdland, with his son, pianist Arturo O'Farrill, who took over conducting the band earlier this year.

He is survived by his wife, Lupe; his son, Arturo; and his daughter, Georgina.



Kenny Mathieson is a freelance writer based in Scotland. His book Giant Steps: Bebop and The Creators of Modern Jazz (1999) is published by Payback Press. E-mail: kenmat@dircon.co.uk

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