Latin Jazz Conversations: Arturo O'Farrill (Part 4)


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Life is certainly an endless circle of possibilities; whenever we see an ending, it's always likely to find a new beginning. The artistic world seems filled with an inherently frustrating series of roadblocks, derailing finely tuned plans for new directions. Some individuals see this as an ending point to further artistic work and simply stop any forward motion. Creative minds look past ending points though, always finding new and inspiring directions that insure artistic continuity. This forward-looking attitude may not also find the easiest path, but it creates new beginnings for musical projects.

Full of positive energy and thoughtful insight, pianist and bandleader Arturo O'Farrill has spent a lifetime moving forward musically regardless of potential roadblocks. O'Farrill spent his childhood surrounded by music, a result of his father Chico's high profile work as a composer and arranger in the jazz world. As a child, he was exposed to his father's employers like Dizzy Gillespie, Machito, and more, until he eventually found inspiration in a Miles Davis recording. He dove into a passionate exploration of jazz, finding camaraderie among his peers and wisdom within a community of experienced players. Just out of high school, O'Farrill caught the ears of contemporary jazz composer Carla Bley, leading to an inspirational tenure in Bley's employment. Before and during his time with Bley, O'Farrill actively avoided any relationship with Latin music, a fact that would soon change. After leaving Bley's band, O'Farrill found work in his father's jingle business, which required him to play strictly around the clave. A growing friendship with bassist Andy Gonzalez also convinced O'Farrill of the importance of a Latin music study. As his interest in the music grew, he helped instigate a return to creative writing and recording for Chico. Three critically praised albums brought Chico's creative music back into the public's attention, and connected O'Farrill with trumpet player Wynton Marsalis. Many discussions between O'Farrill and Marsalis led to the creation of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, a big band dedicated to Latin Jazz under the support of Jazz At Lincoln Center. The band established a serious repertoire, held numerous concerts, and released the popular release Una Noche Inolvidable. After several years though, Jazz At Lincoln Center reached a point where they couldn't support the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra and O'Farrill's group parted ways with the iconic jazz institution. Unwilling to let the band disintegrate, O'Farrill formed a non-profit organization, the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance, which supported the group's continued existence. With a new support group, the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra commissioned new works, explored new artistic territory, toured internationally, started innovative educational programs, recorded respected albums, and won a Grammy. The Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance also supported O'Farrill's dream of taking Chico's music back to Cuba, a goal that the elder O'Farrill never accomplished. With a new lease on music and life, O'Farrill continues to move his group into a promising future.

Despite doors closing, O'Farrill consistently found new ways to explore exciting artistic directions, providing the world with new outlooks on Latin Jazz. From the cutting-edge work of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra to his continued support of Chico O'Farrill's rich repertoire of jazz compositions, O'Farrill stands as an important advocate and artistic trailblazer in the Latin Jazz world. In Part One of our interview with O'Farrill, we looked at his childhood surrounded by Chico's music, his discovery of jazz, and his rejection of Latin music. Part Two of our conversation turned towards O'Farrill's influential tenure with Bley, his work in Chico's jingle business, and his renewed interest in Latin Jazz. Part Three of our discussion focused upon O'Farrill's role in the resurgence of Chico's music, the creation of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, and the group's first album, Una Noche Inolvidable. Today, we dig into the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra's departure from Jazz At Lincoln Center, the establishment of the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance, and the Chico O'Farrill Orchestra's trip to Cuba.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra left Jazz At Lincoln Center in 2007 and you created the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance—why did you leave and what has the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance meant to you?

ARTURO O'FARRIL: We really left because Jazz At Lincoln Center built a huge facility and was very much in fiscal distress. I could see the writing on the wall two or three years before it happened. They actually approached me and asked me if I would be the “Latin person" there, but with their orchestra or have a smaller group—there were a couple of ideas. I could see the financial distress and I could see that Wynton was really worried that his beloved institution would go under.

So he came to me quite honestly and said, “We can't do it anymore, we can't afford it." I said to him, “Have we failed you in any way?" He said, “No, you've done an extraordinary job and brought the highest level of artistic quality and standard to our stage." He was very pained about it and very beautiful, very generous about it. I said, Wynton, “Can we count on you for your support? We'd like to continue this. Can we count on you for the repertoire that we've already built? The wardrobe that we have, the recording, and the hard drives?" Wynton said, “Yes, of course. Anything that we can do—anything."

So we went out, I got a board of directors, and I created a non-profit organization called The Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance. Not only have we survived, we've actually done better on some level since we left Jazz At Lincoln Center. We've actually traveled more internationally. We've recorded what I consider better albums. We got a Grammy, which was quite an honor. What's really important is that we've taken some of the frustrations that I felt being a part of Jazz At Lincoln Center, acted upon them, and created a solution.

One of the things that I always felt was lacking is that educationally, there was very little emphasis placed upon this music. Now, we've actually begun to plant residencies in inner city schools in New York City. We go, give kids instruments, instruction, and ensemble experience. This is different than the lecture/demonstration model that is so popular with so many institutions. We take kids under our wing, visit them weekly, sit with them, and present them with instruments; it's a different thing than coming in, doing a show, and leaving. That has always been my desire educationally and we've actually been able to do that with the Alliance.

We've been able to uphold a performance season, which I vowed we would never stop doing. We're doing things that are very interesting—we're presenting some cutting edge stuff. We commissioned Vijay Iyer's first big band piece. We did a concert of Miguel Zenón's music in a big band setting. We did a concert called CubaNola, which is an exploration of the common roots of jazz and Latin music in Cuba and New Orleans. We had the great Donald Harrison come and lead us on this journey. We're doing amazing programming. We've explored the music of Randy Weston with his big band music. We've explored the music of Edmar Castaneda. It's consistently been an amazing performance season.

We're exposing our audiences to the idea that Latin Jazz is not just mambo. It's not just salsa and it's not just samba. One of the first things that I did at Jazz At Lincoln Center was name the band the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. Of course, everybody said, “I thought it was the Afro-Cuban Orchestra." I made really clear that I just wanted to get away from the model. The truth of the matter is that some of the best music in jazz is being created by pan-Americans. If you really just limit yourself to Cuba and Brazil, and maybe Puerto Rico, you're doing a tremendous disservice to this music. There's some unbelievable Peruvian music, Colombian music, . . . I could go on and on and on about the things that I'm discovering.

I do not in any way shape or form try to be an expert or even pretend to be a spokesperson—I am a student. I'm a babe in the woods. I'm going out and learning things about my people and my music that astounds me. Some of the instrumentation in Honduras, some of the dances in Puerto Rico—there's stuff that I think is such a vital part of this experiment called the New World or the African Diaspora.

I really believe that the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra is a prototype for the orchestra of the future. It's an orchestra that is not limited to genre or institutional jazz. It reflects a more accurate picture of what jazz is.

The Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance is bigger than just the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra or Arturo O'Farrill. It is something that helps create a framework in which a future for this music exists. Long after I'm gone, I would hope that this music continues to be explored, that people continue to erase the divisions, and that people continue to embrace the true pan-American vision of this music. I want there to continue to be a vehicle for young musicians, composers, and visionaries.

So we've worked very hard to support the music and not just our needs. One of the first things that we did is extend our organization to other bands. One of the first things I did is extend an invitation to the Mambo Legends, to Pete Rodriguez, Jr., and more. I said, “We're a resource for you, if we can help in any way, let us know." That's really counterintuitive to most jazz organizations, which tend to be very insular and very cloistered. We're all worried about funding, but if we don't all watch out for each other, then what little we have will be taken away.

LJC: It's such an important mission

AOF: It's always a choice. So many institutions will say, “We're having our one Latin concert tonight out of our jazz concert season." They do this instead of integrating and synthesizing these essential roots together and creating a more accurate picture of what this music is. Our forefathers understood the synthesis, but somehow we've gotten away from that model.

New Orleans and Havana had a lot of commerce at the turn of the century. There was a lot of cross influencing and a lot of cross populating between the two cities. It's no surprise to me that the music of early nineteen hundreds had so much in common. It's no surprise to me that so many of the rhythms are so similar. Yet, we define jazz and Latin Jazz as separate entities. It's crazy to me.

The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra and its parent organization The Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance are just amazing. Without two hundred people on staff and without billions of dollars and endowments—without any help what so ever, just a small, dedicated group of people—what we've been able to do is astonishing. I've got an incredible board of directors who have extended themselves in ways that I can't imagine. We've got beautiful fans. Symphony Space has been very good to us.

One of the first things that I did when we left Jazz At Lincoln Center was to determine that we would never be beholden to another institution financially again. We are separate from Symphony Space. We are not part of their funding. Every concert that we perform, we raise our funds and we pay our musicians. We pay for our educational programs, and we commission pieces. The commissioning rate is very simple—everybody gets the same money and it's very low. But people love us. The musicians that come to work for us, sometimes they give it back. We're talking about the cream of the crop, the most interesting young musicians—they come to us and they say, “We'd love to play for you. We understand the mission, we get it." I'm very, very grateful.

LJC: You took the Chico O'Farrill Orchestra down to Cuba last years . . .

AOF: A lot of people get confused between the Chico O'Farrill Orchestra and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, they're two separate entities. The Chico O'Farrill was my father's orchestra; it sat directly under his watch. It's been in residence at Birdland for fifteen years. When I went to Cuba in 2002 to perform, a huge chunk of my heart was torn away when I realized how broken hearted my Dad died, because he never got to return to Cuba. So I dreamt that we'd have the chance to give him peace and bring a measure of justice to the world by bringing Chico's music back to it's home and performing his masterpieces on his native soil. The Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance really supported and administrated the details of taking the Chico O'Farrill Orchestra down to Cuba.

Our trip wasn't about going down there and showing how great we are and how great we swing. Our trip was about going down there and giving thanks, to return a son, and pay homage to a people who changed forever the face of our music. In essence, it makes the statement that without Cuba; there would be no jazz. Without Cuba, there would be no Chico O'Farrill.

LJC: Did you feel like people knew about Chico and his music? How was the reception to the band?

AOF: The Cuban population, especially the jazz and Cuban music followers—know all about Chico. In fact, one of the things that motivated me to make this trip, now over eight years ago, was the fact that I went around asking people if they remembered Chico or if they had any response to him. Much to my surprise, I found that the average music person not only knew who Chico was, but they felt that he was one of Cuba's great heroes. So we, with great delight, had the privilege of performing four times in the festival. We closed the festival—the final concert was dedicated to the orchestra and Chico's music.

One of the highlights of my life was the closing number of the closing concert of the Havana Jazz Festival. I wrote a special piece for this occasion, called “Fathers And Sons, From Havana To New York And Back." It was a tribute to my father, Bebo Valdés, Elis Marsalis, a tribute to my children, and the children of Afro-Cuban Jazz. We had my sons on stage performing with six extraordinary Cuban young people and Chucho Valdés. It was an astonishing evening, a real milestone in my existence. I was able to pay tribute to Chico, to Chucho, to Elis, and to young people everywhere. I called it Fathers And Sons, but it's really a tribute to mothers and daughters too; it's a tribute to families, a tribute to the lineage that extends all the way back to Africa and gives us all a voice today.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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