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Latin Jazz Conversations: Arturo O'Farrill (Part 3)

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Entry points into jazz area vital part of the relationship between musicians and the general audience. As jazz moves further out of popular culture, artists need to find a way to invite listeners back into the fold. In doing this, they need to reach beyond the academic beauty of jazz, and create the bridge between hearing and really feeling the music. At the same time, these entry points need to be natural and honest, maintaining the music's integrity. It takes a special individual to create successful entry points into jazz and find an audience willing to accept them.

Pianist and bandleader Arturo O'Farrill had a natural entry point into music in his younger years and as an adult, he has helped create those pathways for a number of people. His family provided a natural connection to music, due to his father Chico's deep involvement in the profession. An in-demand writer and arranger, Chico worked with a number of important jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Machito, and Count Basie, simultaneously exposing his son to these iconic figures. A recorded Herbie Hancock solo inspired O'Farrill to fervently learn the inner workings of jazz, playing with his peers and older musicians. During a local gig, cutting edge jazz musician Carla Bley heard the 19-year-old O'Farrill and she soon recruited him for her band. Bley took O'Farrill around the world and seriously impressed the importance of unwavering artistry upon him. While O'Farrill dove deeply into modern jazz, he shied away from Latin Jazz, rejecting the music that build his father's career. On the job training as part of his father's jingle business combined with a new friendship with bassist Andy Gonzalez sparked a renewed appreciation for Caribbean and South American styles. Gigs with Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band brought O'Farrill into contact with producer Todd Barkin, who expressed an avid interest in recording Chico O'Farrill's creative music. With Arturo's help, Chico recorded three albums, Pure Emotion, Heart of a Legend, and Carambola, meeting huge critical praise. During Chico's upswing in the last part of his career, trumpet player Wynton Marsalis invited the O'Farrill's to join the Jazz At The Lincoln Center Orchestra in concert. Arturo approached Wynton with the desire to form a repertoire band that drew upon the Latin Jazz big band tradition, and years later, that dream became a reality. Officially a part of Jazz At Lincoln Center, the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra began an exciting series of concerts and released their first album, Una Noche Inolvidable. Drawing upon the experience of a career that now reached between classic Latin music and cutting edge modern jazz, O'Farrill now lead a group determined to take the best of the Latin Jazz world to a broad audience.

O'Farrill's role in the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra would turn him into a high profile spokesman for Latin Jazz, introducing countless people to the music through concerts, recordings, education, and more. His dedication to artistry would guarantee that people not only find their way into Latin Jazz, but that they experience its finest qualities. In Part One of our interview with O'Farrill, we look at his childhood around Chico, his passionate exploration of jazz in his youth, and rejection of Latin music. Part Two of our discussion dug into O'Farrill's tenure with Carla Bley, his involvement in Chico's jingle business, and his revitalized interest in Latin Jazz. Today, we explore O'Farrill's role in the resurgence of Chico's music, the establishment of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, and their first album Una Noche Inolvidable.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: The first time that I heard you play was on Chico's album Pure Emotion. Were you playing your father's music before that album?

ARTURO O'FARRILL: I did a couple of things with him. We did a concert at the University Of Miami, and then we did a couple of more concerts playing Chico's creative music. We really didn't have much work before Pure Emotion. I think at one point, my father was so hungry to do something artistic that he called Bob James; Bob James didn't even return his call! I began to feel really bad for my father—at that point, I understood that he had contributed some of the most brilliant work to our genre or for that matter, any music. I felt really bad; I was sad for him and I loved him as a son too.

I got to be really friendly with Andy Gonzalez and he got me into Fort Apache. I was working with them quite a bit. At the time, Todd Barkin was the producer and road manager for Jerry and Fort Apache. Todd pulled me aside one day—this was already Chico's waning years—and he said, “What is your father doing these days?" I said, “Quite frankly, he's being ignored. He's just kind of biding his time." Todd said, “Well, we can not have that." So he went to Ralph Castle at Fantasy Records and prevailed upon him to record Chico.

Of course, the rest is history. Pure Emotionwas a huge critical success. There was a headline on some newspaper that said, “The master was coaxed back down from the mountain." It didn't quite work like that. He actually would have been happy to have come down from the mountain twenty years before that.

LJC: There were two more albums from Chico after Pure EmotionHeart of a Legendand Carambola—do you think that the public got a larger awareness of his legacy?

AOF: I'm a big champion of Chico's music. I still feel that Chico does not have the kind of due that he deserves. On some degree he did, and on some degree he didn't. Those last three albums worked to really broaden his exposure.

In some sense, my father is a very strange type of person. He's not a bandleader—he doesn't play the timbales, he doesn't play the flute, he doesn't play the clarinet . . . he writes. What is that? You can't put him on stage at a drafting table. It's not sexy to the marketers. It's a very strange thing.

On top of that, he suffers from O'Farrillitis. O'Farrill sounds Irish. You look at him, and he looks very white; he doesn't look Latino. Americans and recording companies—we love to put things in nice little labeled boxes, we love to be able to point at something at say that we know what that is. You can't do that with an O'Farrill—it's too confusing. So I think that my father has never quite gotten the kind of attention that he should have gotten.

Some people say that Chico is the Duke Ellington of Latin music. That's really arrogant. That kind of comparative talk is real nonsense to me. Duke Ellington is the epitome of Duke Ellington music. Chico O'Farrill is the epitome of Chico O'Farrill music.

Chico is an extraordinary voice in the pantheon of jazz and Latin Jazz. He's not a household name, and I think that's sad. We've worked very hard to rectify that with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. We're not dedicated to Chico's music, but we play a lot of it. We play a lot of it all over the planet. It's very important to me that the wrong be righted, as it was to Wynton, as it was to Dizzy. It's just one of those things. If you're a responsible artist, you do the right thing by the right people.

LJC: You mentioned the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra and I've heard that it came out of a conversation with Wynton. How did that come about?

AOF: Wynton invited Chico to perform on Jazz At Lincoln Center stage. I've known Wynton for many years. We were friends for many, many years before that concert. In fact, I've known Wynton since he first got to New York and started at Julliard.

When he invited Chico to perform at Alice Tully Hall with his orchestra, it occurred to me that we have a beautiful big band tradition that is wholly and completely based on Latin music. But we didn't have a repertoire orchestra of our own that could begin to canonize and represent a more institutional overview of the history of our music. I talked to Wynton's assistant and I said, “I'm really impressed with what Wynton is doing. Maybe you could ask him if he could help direct us to an institution that might embrace and fund an exploration into our big band tradition." She mentioned this to Wynton; he indicated to her that it was a very interesting topic and that he would think about it.

Over the years, Wynton and I kept in touch, and we would play together periodically. One day we played a Christmas tree lighting in front of Lincoln Center. He turned to me and he said, “I've decided to give your idea a home at Jazz At Lincoln Center." I thought it was an extraordinarily magnanimous gesture—an unbelievable act of friendship and kindness that Wynton extended to me, my father, and our community. It was a very forward-looking thing for him to do, and I think that's one of the reasons that Wynton is great. He tries to bridge a lot of gaps, which I think is important to do.

LJC: The band's first album, Una Noche Inolvidable, is very dance oriented. What was the focus and direction of the band at this point?

AOF: If you listen to the Tito Rodriguez records, some of that stuff is really jazz. It's really unabashedly big band jazz. Even though it's set to a danceable rhythm, it exemplifies the very best of what we call harmony, big band writing, and brass writing. It's really extraordinary music. We wanted to pay tribute to our great song stylists in that tradition. It was a really huge success.

We wanted to pay tribute to the vocal stylings that we have in Latin music. We obviously have a very rich vocal tradition in jazz—we have Ella Fitzgerald and a list of heroes that we venerate in jazz. I thought it was appropriate and important to pay tribute to Miguelito Valdes, Graciela, Tito Rodriguez, and Celia Cruz—our heroes. So we brought Herman Olivera and Claudia Acuña to perform on the stages of Lincoln Center. It was long overdue. That concert was one of our most successful ones.

The dance component can never divorce itself from jazz. It sure can't divorce itself from Latin Jazz, we understand that. That's another reason why I love Latin Jazz. Sometimes we loose sight of the fact that the great music all has a dance component, I don't care if it's a Mozart sonata.

I remember once we performed with an educational quintet at a nursing facility. It was heartbreaking; there were some very compromised individuals in the audience. There was one young man who had some sort of serious illness and he had to be wheeled in. We started to play and he came to life—he started moving his hands and his body. As soon as we started to play, in my opinion, he started to dance, as best he knew how.

I think that it doesn't matter who you listen to, music moves your body. To divorce the intellect from the physical is an aberration. One of the things that I think is beautiful about Latin Jazz is that it reinforces this—the mind perceives and the body moves. It's a union that is very important.

LJC: It's funny how we've lost the dance component a bit in modern jazz.

AOF: I think that it is tragic. But I can actually move to Cecil Taylor. I can listen to Cecil Taylor and move. I love Cecil Taylor, that's some heavy, heavy music. It's just that you have to find it.

There's a beautiful word in art appreciation called the entry point. It's the point at which you enter into an artist's perspective. I think that there's an entry point in all music, where you abandon your need to cope with it and understand it; instead you begin to interact with it in a way that is not purely intellectual. I think that's hugely important. I think Latin Jazz does that in an extraordinary way. It's very accessible because of its rhythmic basis.

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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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