“When people hear this music, they go nuts about it.”
Arturo O’Farrill was calling from New York City to talk about Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, coming Friday night to Willett Hall for the Virginia Arts Festival. As pianist and music director, he’s the front man, the public face of the band. And he is a man on a mission.
“Even though the roots of this particular genre are in Afro-Cuban music,” he explained, “which is very much a product of the New York mambo scene in the 1940s, I want to reach beyond that. I think that the future of Latin jazz is in all of the Americas, and really in all of the world; anywhere people have a commitment to a Latin-based foundation. I don’t want this music to die, you see, and all the folks from that era mostly are gone. I want this music to last long past my time period. So I look forward to calling it Afro-Latin because it embraces Latinos throughout the world.
“I believe that people all over the world need to connect their head, their heart and their feet. It’s such a potent tool to do that.”
Arturo O’Farrill knows whereof he speaks. His father was Chico O’Farrill, a legend of the genre, a Cuban native who came to New York in 1948 and spent the next decade writing Afro-Cuban music for some of the biggest names in the business. But young Arturo didn’t immediately gravitate in the same musical direction.
“When I was really young,” he said, “I was mostly listening to a lot of pop junk. I played piano, classical piano, but at the age of twelve I discovered Miles Davis and I became desperate to learn how to play that music. I really didn’t play any Latin music until I was probably in my twenties, and even then I wasn’t really a strong Latin musician until I was in my thirties.”
He and his father had a relationship fraught with typical father-son dynamics:
“I would say we’ve always been close, but the relationships between fathers and sons are never easy; ‘close’ means a lot of different things. I think there was a great deal of father-son natural animosity. I really loved my father and was a huge fan, and I really also loved him as a son. But it’s just difficult.
“I started working with my dad in the jingle field, in commercial jingles. We did a lot of Bumble Bee tuna, American Airlines, Sheraton Hotels, and that was really our first time working together. We didn’t have a full-time working relationship until 1995 when he was asked by Milestone Records to produce Pure Emotion. Then I got to go over to the piano chair, the music directorship, and he was already kinda getting elderly at that point. So he needed as much assistance as possible. And I was very happy to do it; it was almost like an artistic, spiritual reconnection—not only with the music, but also with my father.”
That album also reconnected Chico O’Farrill with the Latin jazz audience at large and marked a comeback that reignited interest in his music and his legacy. Arturo played a major role in making that comeback happen.
“I was there,” he said. “I was really one of the driving forces behind it. At some point I was really running everything. Not only was he elderly, I think it was too little too late for him. He was happy to be acknowledged and get some notoriety, but he deserved it decades earlier. I think it’s nice to be appreciated, but you want to be appreciated at a time when you can take advantage of it in a way that can energize you and cause you to greater creativity. If they do it when you’re just tired, it’s not the great opportunity that it could be when you’re younger. I was very proud to see that day; I was happy to see my father receive a modicum of acclaim and success.”
Arturo O’Farrill has had his share of acclaim and success, and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra is the culmination of his vision to keep this music not only alive, but fresh and vibrant.
“Since we are the Afro-Latin jazz big band,” he said, “we start with the foundation of those kinds of orchestras. We can’t go anywhere without talking about Machito; that’s our bedrock, our foundation. We start with Machito, the Palladium era, Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente, Chico O’Farrill, Mario Bauza, and from there we are expanding outward. We’re constantly commissioning new works. We’re premiering extended compositions, but of course the repertoire of the Palladium and salsa and our foundation is vast. So there’s always more and more music from that era that we can uncover and mine for its richness.”
I asked his thoughts on the current immigration debate.
“Technically, I am not allowed to speak for Jazz at Lincoln Center on such issues,” he replied. “As an individual I’ll tell you that we would lose a great and vital and important economic, social and cultural powerhouse if we were to restrict immigration laws and take people out of this country who provide such a wealth of services and richness to all of us. I think it would be tragic; I think it would be a huge mistake.
“This country was founded and built by immigrants. For us to do anything different would be a betrayal of ourselves.
“People have still got a fear of ethnicity in this country. One of the biggest issues is that people don’t realize that Latin America is America; it’s part of who we are. We’re connected to Mexico; we’re connected indirectly through Mexico to Brazil and Colombia, and I think it’s going to continue to grow. The rhythms and the style of Latin America are just beginning to impact not just music, but food and art and movies. I think America is beginning to acknowledge as a nation what a great cultural richness there is south of the border.”
Those Latin rhythms are so infectious, I wondered how to listen to them in the seated setting of Willett Hall.
“We hope they’re sitting uncomfortably in their seats,” he answered, “with a wiggle in their tush that cannot be denied. And eventually they jump to their feet, we hope, and they cannot stop themselves at that point. We always invite the audience to experience the music with their bodies.
“This music is also music for the ear, and there’s such a richness of intellect and art and culture in the writing. We’re going to do our best to show them that it’s rich, it’s powerful, it’s complex, and it’s also extraordinarily fun.”
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