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Latin Jazz Conversations: Arturo O'Farrill (Part 1)

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It's the unique nature of our childhood that shapes our individual qualities and forms our identities as artists. Our parents expose us to their own musical preferences and share their priorities for the arts in our lives. Their friends and our extended family add their own influences to our perceptions, exposing us to different sides of music and a variety of approaches. For most of us, these connections with music through our parents, family, and friends lead us to lifelong memories filled with musical associations. When a young person grows up among a musical family though—especially an important musical family—these fond musical memories intensify into a passionate urge to perform.

Pianist and bandleader Arturo O'Farrill lived his childhood knee deep in music, surrounded in a swirl of musical worlds. Born in Mexico on June 22nd, 1960, O'Farrill came into a world filled with a vast musical legacy, provided by the illustrious career of his father, major Cuban composer Chico O'Farrill. His father had cut his musical chops through studies in Havana before beginning a highly influential career in New York, writing for Benny Goodman, Machito And His Afro-Cubans, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, and more. Arturo was born during the O'Farrill's tenure in Mexico, but they soon moved back to New York, where a young Arturo experienced his father's world. He watched his father work in recording sessions and live performance, while coming to know Chico's wide array of jazz associates. He studied piano casually while young before encountering Herbie Hancock on a Miles Davis recording that lived in his father's record collection. Hancock's performance inspired O'Farrill in a big way, sending him on a passionate quest to be a jazz musician. His studies at New York's High School Of Music And Art brought him in close contact with a number of other young people that shared his interest, and together, they soon intensified their hunt for jazz knowledge. The surrounded themselves with a cast of older and experienced jazz musicians that spent significant time schooling the young students. As his performance skills grew, O'Farrill moved further away from his father's legacy in Latin music, rejecting any association with the genre. Instead, he immersed himself in modern jazz, a course that would soon change in his future career.

Today, O'Farrill stands as one of the most important figures in Latin Jazz, leading the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, the Chico O'Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, and a variety of his own groups. An artist well-versed in modern jazz and Latin cultural traditions, he brings one of the most innovative and exciting personalities to the music today. In Part One of our interview with O'Farrill, we discuss the influence of his father's musical life, his unstoppable thirst for jazz as a young person, and his rejection of Latin Jazz in his youth.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You were born in Mexico and moved to New York; you must have been around a ton of music due to your father. What were your earliest memories of music in your life?

ARTURO O'FARRILL: My earliest memory is watching my mother put on make-up to go out and sing with my father's band. I couldn't have been more than two or three. I remember getting to New York; Graciela picked us up at the airport and brought us home. When we got to the apartment on 88th Street, Mario Bauza was there. So it's been like that.

I remember being surrounded by my father's crazy friends, some of whom were people like Dizzy Gillespie and Gerry Mulligan. My mother and father liked to have parties—they would have these crazy, crazy parties. There were people carrying on until all hours of the night and there were great musicians there. I didn't really know or understand it—I wasn't a musician yet myself. So I didn't quite get who these people were. I knew they were very eccentric and very loud. But they were amazing people; I knew something was unusual about them.

I remember going with my father to recording sessions; there were sessions with Count Basie . . . it was stuff that you kind of take for granted because you're a kid. You're not quite aware of the magnitude of what's going on. I went to see him conduct in some park in New Jersey. I was really young㬇 or 12. He was rehearsing Thad Jones, who was the soloist. They were rehearsing some piece and I heard some onlooker say, “They don't really need a conductor, what's he doing up there?!?" I started getting really upset, and saying, “Hey, that's my father! He wrote that!"

It's funny because you don't really think about these things. You don't really think about what it's like growing up with someone whose whole life is about music. My father was very serious about music. He loved listening, he loved studying, he loved composing—he just loved music. It's a sickness that the O'Farrills have!

LJC: When did you become a performer and start playing the piano?

AOF: I took the perfunctorily piano lessons when I was 6 or 7 and I didn't dig it that much. It just didn't do anything for me. Around the age of 12, I discovered Miles Davis. I had grabbed a record out of my father's collection because the cover was so cool. It was Miles Davis' Greatest Hits. I read the liner notes, and they were really mostly about the way that Miles dressed. I remember thinking that was really cool.

I put on the record and the first cut on it was “Seven Steps To Heaven." Herbie Hancock took a really amazing solo on it. I didn't quite understand harmony or theory—I was already been playing the piano for a while and I had already been improvising to some degree, but I had never heard anyone do that. I remember thinking very concretely that if I could learn to play like that, I would be a complete human being. It sounds romantic, but it's the truth. I wasn't thinking about being famous or making a living, I just knew that I needed to play the piano like that because it was so cool. That's probably when I got very smitten.

LJC: Was your father someone who helped you along in your music education or were there different people that influenced you?

AOF: My father and I had exactly one lesson and it was a disaster. He tried to get me to write a string quartet. I submitted my work to him and it just dissolved. My father was not a huge part of my education when I was young—later on of course he was.

The truth of the matter is that I got a lot out of meeting other musicians. I went to an art school in New York called Music And Art. I met other musicians there, people that I loved and admired. We started to become little jazz nazis, just listening like crazy to Bud Powell, Charlie Parker . . . just listening like crazy. That was my first hardcore schooling, with my friends, trying to sound like beboppers. We discovered a little joint on the lower East side that was just owned by some guy. It was a little club, a place with a piano, a drum set, and a bunch of old musicians. They would come and they would play all day. It got so bad that we eventually started cutting school to go play music all day!

I was hot at Music And Art because I could play 16th notes like Chick Corea—people thought that was amazing. The first time that I went down to the club, and they called “Half Nelson." We started playing it, my turn came to solo, and I started railing these 16th notes. Everyone in the club said, “Stop the band—we're here to play jazz man!" I felt like an inch tall; I just wanted to die as all these old jazz musicians were looking at me like I was something the dog dragged in. But I stayed; I didn't disappear. I started hanging out with these guys, asking them how chords worked, started shedding, learning the whole library of bop and post-bop standards, as well as some great American standards. That really was my education.

It's funny because now that I'm veteran of this thing, I've done a lot of teaching, and I realize that there was something very sacred about those days. They didn't have a jazz education world. None of this stuff was available. At the time, I don't think there even was a jazz program. The first jazz program was at University of Massachusetts, under Dr. Billy Taylor. He was really the first person to create a jazz department; you can go backwards in history, but that was really the first jazz department at the University of Massachusetts—that was thirty years ago.

But I was learning jazz easily 35 years ago. I don't even know if there was a jazz department in the world at that point. We had to go out and find the old cats. They hated us, but we were persistent. We were like mosquitoes buzzing around their heads and asking them to teach us. It was an amazing time. Somehow I think that it's a very different age now. There are a lot of brilliant young musicians now, but when you get handed the secrets to the kingdom, somehow it's not the same ownership that we had—we had to yank those secrets out of people, figure them out ourselves, and own them. That's not to say that jazz education is bad or good, it's just very different. I feel very lucky to had to have work my stuff out myself.

LJC: I've heard that during that time you avoided Latin music . . .

AOF: Like the plague!

LJC: Was that a reaction to your father's work?

AOF: Absolutely. It was a reaction to my father. Also, there's a lot of socio-economic pressures placed upon young people in the world. I think that there was some sort of self-hatred that I had because I was Latino. The only Latinos in my life were the janitors and the people that my father played with. So I rejected them. It wasn't even a racial thing. It was more like I associated being Latino with being less than the prim and proper white New York that I saw. It's very sad, because I think that a lot of people deal with these pressures and never get to identify them or talk about them.

I thought jazz was much cooler, hip, and educated. I didn't like the hand drums and the bell, I thought it was uncultured. The truth of the matter is that jazz and Latin music are virtually the same animal, just different sides of it. To me, it had to do with my father, it had to do with the neighborhood that I grew up in, and it had to do with the world that I saw. There's nothing quite as amazing as an amazing Latin performance, composition though—to me, there's nothing that marries the forces that join together to create this music quite as elegantly as the best Latin Jazz that we have.

LJC: That's an association that goes out into the greater jazz world, looking down upon Latin music. Have you ever sensed that outside yourself?

AOF: Oh, from the beginning. Latinos and Latin musicians hold jazz up on this pedestal. When we approach jazz, we learn it. It's sacred—we learn the harmony, the language the style—we take it very seriously. That's not the way that jazz musicians feel about us though. Jazz musicians have kind of genericized Latin styles. It's changing now—there are a lot of hip, young musicians.

For the longest time though, a generic beat on the drum sufficed for all Latin music. It's so disrespectful. I understand that it's foreign and it's different and there's a language involved. Nonetheless, Latin music is seen as a sub-set still to this day, with the emphasis on sub. It's seen as some sort of lower level music. And it's not—I say this and it's my job, but whatever. To me, when you're talking about the experience of the African diaspora in the new world and the marriage of Europe and African in the new world—there's no fuller expression of that to me than to hear a composition by Chico O'Farrill played by an orchestra. To me that's the apogee of the experience that we call jazz.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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