Latin Jazz Conversations: Arturo O'Farrill (Part 2)


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Individuals find their way into music for a variety of reasons, but they eventually discover a prime motivating factor that allows them to continue. For some musicians, the community aspect of the art form evolves into a lifestyle that not only pays their bills, but also defines their social circles. Demand for a musician's abilities lead towards significant financial gains, and their further explorations into music reflect their desire to make more money. A small number of musicians strive towards the growth and exploration of artistry, a path that rarely leads to extravagant wealth or wide spread popularity. Still, the unselfish commitment to artistry that these musicians prioritize helps move music into the future.

Pianist and bandleader Arturo O'Farrill developed his inspired drive for artistic excellence through a number of influential experiences and relationships. Born in Mexico and transplanted to New York at a young age, O'Farrill walked into a world filled with vivid artistry. His father Chico built strong musical skills in Cuba and then spent his adult life contributing to the United States jazz scene, delivering compositions to musicians like Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Machito, Dizzy Gillespie, and more. Young Arturo knew these people through his father's work and his parents' social gatherings, but he wasn't really moved to pursue music until later. A Herbie Hancock solo on a Miles Davis record lit a fire with O'Farrill during his teens, who dove passionately into jazz performance. Camaraderie from his peers along with guidance from older musicians moved O'Farrill deeper into the jazz world. At this point, O'Farrill avoided Latin music furiously, but attacked modern jazz with the same intensity—a fact that caught the eye of legendary jazz composer Carla Bley. In 1979, Bley recruited O'Farrill for a performance at Carnegie Hall and then kept the pianist employed for several years. Bley's bold artistry and unwavering devotion to her unique approach embedded a dedication to artistry in O'Farrill that set the stage for his future career. After leaving Bley's band, O'Farrill found work around New York, which included regular sessions as part of his father's successful jingle business. Chico's jingles relied upon authentic Cuban rhythms and utilized the best musicians on New York's Latin music scene. These musicians held O'Farrill's piano playing to high standards, forcing him to revisit the style and do his homework. Bassist Andy Gonzalez urged O'Farrill to indulge in his connection to Latin music and spent generous amounts of time educating the pianists on Latin music history. With a renewed appreciation for Caribbean and South American styles, a strong foundation in modern jazz, and a firm commitment to high level artistry, O'Farrill stood poised to make waves in the Latin Jazz community.

O'Farrill's devotion to artistry and exploration hold roots in a number of experiences. The vast musical exposure of his childhood coupled with his father's artistic integrity and Bley's allegiance to her vision shaped O'Farrill's career decisions throughout his future. In Part One of our interview with O'Farrill, we discussed his childhood among Chico's legacy, his passionate exploration of jazz, and his rejection of Latin music. Today, we dig into his tenure with Carla Bley, his appreciation for modern jazz, and his rediscovery of Latin styles.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: When did you start performing professionally?

ARTURO O'FARRILL: I started gigging at the age of 15 or 16. We played lots of little gigs—wherever anybody would let us play, we would play. We were so devoted. If we weren't allowed to play, we would have died, we would have exploded! I look back upon those days and I realize what an incredible blessing it is to have that drive. That's one thing that I find sometimes lacking in young people today. Nowadays, it's more like they go to these jazz schools and they're handed the keys to the kingdom—it certainly wasn't my normative experience.

I did not become a professional jazz musician, or at least a recognized one, until I was 19. I was discovered at some hole in the wall bar in the middle of the woods in upstate New York. There wasn't even a town; there was a post office and that's it. We were playing in this bar and Carla Bley lived up the road. I guess the bar owner thought that we were good little musicians, so he called Carla to come check us out. I had no idea who Carla Bley was, no idea whatsoever. She came, and I guess she took a liking to me. I got a call from her husband shortly afterwards, asking me to go play in Carnegie Hall with them.

I'm very grateful that they took that chance—they had absolutely no idea that I could read! The fact that I could read two-handed piano music and play it competently . . . they didn't know that! But they took that chance. It's a very important thing to be grateful to the people that take a chance on you and not to be arrogant about it. I found myself on stage at Carnegie Hall, and the next thing I knew, I was on an airplane to play the Berlin Jazz Festival on the same bill as Chick Corea. You should always be grateful to the people that open the door to you that you don't deserve. Nobody deserves that door; that's a chance that somebody takes on you.

LJC: That must have been a new experience—Carla Bley's music is different.

AOF: Carla is an amazing composer. She is loved and venerated throughout Europe, but for some reason, American audiences have just completely missed her. I think that it has to do with her quirkiness, her sense of humor, and the fact that she's a woman. Women are ignored in our highest jazz institutions. The jazz institutions should be ashamed for leaving women out of the picture. I know that there's not as many women in jazz as there should be—we understand that. But a composer like Carla Bley, who's still alive, should be front and center at the biggest institutions in our nation. I've known Carla for many years, she's a wonderful composer, and that's it. Nothing more can be said.

That being my first experience as a musician was unbelievable. It cast the mold that I would follow for the rest of my life. Carla was very bold. She would do things for the sake of the art. At one point, I remember that she was really into songwriting. All the free jazz audiences were up in arms because they were used to her being a jazz artist. But she started writing these quirky songs, and people would actually boo her! She didn't care. It was so beautiful, because she turned around and wrote a song called “Boo To You Too." I remember the words:

Just when we were starting to play, Someone yelled out,"Take Them Away." Then the audience started to boo, What do you do, what do you do. Well boo to you too.

Carla showed me the most valuable lesson, which is that the art is important. It's not about the career or the money. It's not about the life or the hang. It's not about—and I use this quite sarcastically—the “fame" of being a jazz musician. It's really, really about the art—pushing the envelope, progressing, doing things that sound beautiful and have a life of their own. That's more important than you, the artist; it's about the art. For me, three years under that tutelage, we did some incredible music, just amazing. It was musically valuable, compositionally valuable, and it had a sense of humor. I couldn't have asked for a better finishing school—that was graduate level work for me.

LJC: You were in that scene influenced by Sun Ra and some different modern jazz artists.

AOF: Sun Ra, The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Jimi Hendrix . . . if my father hated it, it was sacred. My father got as far as Coltrane. That's what he got up to, and then it was too different. I'm sure that he would have liked it all if he had been younger. But for him, that's where it ended. For me, that's where it began—Oliver Lake, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Lester Bowie; it's all amazing stuff to me that I love and I think it's incredibly important music.

Look at the model that we have for jazz today. The spokespeople for jazz have come out clearly against that part of jazz history. In the Ken Burns documentary, it was mentioned quite clearly that Afro-Centrism and free jazz destroyed jazz. I think that part of jazz elevated it out of entertainment into the realm of art. When you talk about free jazz and Afro-Centric Jazz though, that's the most dangerous stuff; it has the most subversive elements in jazz. It's has the same thing that created Coltrane or even Louie Armstrong—it's the need to survive and the need to make a statement that creates great art. When you package it, it ceases to be art. But it's always about the art—thankfully that was my first experience with Carla Bley. I've been on that quest for the art ever since.

LJC: After you left Carla, what type of work were you doing?

AOF: My father had to make a living, so he developed a jingle business that specialized in the Hispanic market. He was a pioneer in the Hispanic jingle market. Up until Chico O'Farrill and his ventures into commercial music, the way that American advertisers dealt with the Hispanic market was by slapping a conga onto an existing track. Here came my father with his indigenous knowledge of real Latin styles, and he said, “No, if you're going to sell products to the Hispanic market, you're going to have to know how they listen to music." It was very revolutionary.

I once read a quote that lamented the fact that Chico had gone into the commercial field; it said that if he hadn't done that, he would have been something greater. That irked me; my father did a very honorable thing—he put food on our table and he didn't abandon us. More than that, he revolutionized the way that advertisers reached Latinos.

In fact, his commercials were swinging. We did a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial with Ruben Blades! It had a charanga string section and some great charanga style flute playing. The rhythm section had Nicky Marrero in it and Sal Cuevas—it was off the hook! You know they sold some chicken over that!

Once again, it's the art. My father had to put food on the table and he very honorably did so. In the process though, he was making art, he was doing integral things. My father was an incredibly humble and integral gentleman. He didn't do anything half way.

That's what I learned from my father, more than music. I learned my music from being in the scene and working with my peers, and I learned about art from Carla. The thing that I learned from my father was this incredible commitment to integrity. You do the right thing, you compose the right thing, and you play the right thing. You learn, you study, you work hard.

LJC: Is that what inspired you to pursue Latin music?

AOF: I started playing on his jingles. I had to learn about clave because Sal Cuevas got pretty mad at me one day when I was playing against the clave. He said, “Man, you've got to listen to the music, you've got to listen to Papo Lucca." So I went out and I bought Papo Lucca records, started listening to them, and playing along with them. Sal made me do that. I started listening to this music, and I started playing these jingles. It had to be authentic.

That developed into a friendship with Andy Gonzalez. He may be among the greatest musicians that I've ever had the privilege of knowing. I had been off the road with Carla for several years and I had been working a little bit with Noel Pointer, but things were slow. I was kind of struggling to make a living. We called Andy for a jingle, he came in, and he said, “Yea man, I've been following your career." I'm paraphrasing, but over the course of several conversations, he said to me, “You should embrace your Latinoness. You should really embrace it heavily, learn about it, and get right with it." That turned into a beautiful friendship that I'm very grateful for.

Andy literally sat me down in his house and played me the great Latin piano players, the ones that nobody has heard. Not just Peruchin, but guys that saved the instrument. He played me René Hernandez, Charlie and Eddie Palmieri, and really took me on a journey. He quite unselfishly gave up his time to educate me about this music. Sometimes people get very militaristic about this music, but Andy shared what he had with me freely. He played me a ton of music, and we've been friends ever since.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.


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