In conversation with arturo o’farrill

By Tomas Peña

Congratulations on successfully completing your first season at Symphony Space!

Thank you man, that means a lot to me.

Also, congratulations on the release of Song for Chico, a recording that your father would have been very proud of.

                   Arturo O’ Farrill, photo by John Abbott

Yeah, I think it's a good one. It's also a testament to the orchestra because we created it under great duress.

Not bad for an orchestra that was “Banished from the Kingdom!”

I did use those words, didn’t I?

You certainly did. Care to talk about it?

The fact is the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra left Jazz at Lincoln Center because the focus on our activities was diminishing. On the other hand I can’t say as I blame them because Lincoln Center was never really our “house.” Actually, it was very generous of Lincoln Center to even think that they could pull the idea off. The important thing to remember is that Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center were the only major institution that even paid any attention to us. So kudos to them for caring!

As the saying goes, “One door closes and another door opens.” How are things at Symphony Space?

Funny that you should mention that. I grew up eight blocks away from Symphony Space. In fact, the City of New York recently renamed the corner where I grew up. It’s called “Arturo / Chico O’ Farrill Place.” As for Symphony Space, the best thing it is the educational work that we are doing. Symphony Space represents the “real” world. Just look at their programming. It runs the gamut.

It’s one of the few venues where the masses can see a concert for a reasonable price.

They have made an overriding commitment to keeping their ticket prices to about twenty-five dollars. That’s one of the many reasons why Symphony Space deserves to be praised and supported. At the end of the day the institutions that we fund should reflect the communities they serve.

Let’s backtrack for a moment. You were born in Mexico City and you grew up in New York City. Obviously your father, the great Chico O’ Farrill was a tremendous influence on you as well as Frank Machito Grillo, Mario Bauza, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Graciela and others.

Yeah, my father was a heavy, heavy.

You attended The Manhattan School of Music and the Brooklyn Conservatory.

And I earned my degree from Queens College.

Early in your career you performed with Carla Bley, a key figure in the free jazz movement.

She’s brilliant! I played with Carla’s band for three years. In fact, I was listening to her and the Charlie Haden Liberation Orchestra just this morning. It almost made me cry!

Initially you rejected your father’s music but as you matured and your father got older you developed an appreciation for it.

When you’re a kid you reject everything. I was into bebop and free jazz. Basically, I ignored his music. I didn’t want to play montunos (vamps) and hang out at Latin nightclubs until four in the morning.

Back then the New York Latin nightclub scene was called the “Cuchifrito Circuit.”

You have no idea. Imagine being on the subway with your keyboard at four o’ clock in the morning!

In 1994 I worked with Jerry and Andy Gonzalez and they very generous. They were actually the ones who hipped me to that fact that it was OK for me to play my father’s music and that Latin jazz is really profound. They also recommended a whole line of pianists and musicians that I should study. At the same time my father was asked to come out of retirement. You know how your parents get old overnight? One year my father was strong and healthy and the next year he was old! So I started helping my father and it was an ambivalent journey because we were not the best of friends when I was growing up.

Nevertheless what I came to realize is that my father was not only a great composer and bandleader, but he was also a great contributor to the music of the 20th century. He was my Pops, a great man who was finally being given his due, so I really did not have a choice. This is the same man who wrote The Aztec Suite and recorded with Charlie Parker and Stan Getz, and never received a Grammy. As he got older I assumed the leadership of the orchestra.

Tell me about your trip to Cuba.

The people remembered us. Not only did they remember us, they venerated my father’s memory, knew who I was and actively followed my career.

               Arturo O’ Farrill, photo by John Abbott

What is it like to be the leader of a 20-piece orchestra?

I am primarily a composer and a pianist. Being the leader of a big band is an art; however, the artistry is revealed at the rehearsals. Also, the art of being a bandleader is reflected by how you treat your musicians. If you still you have all of your musicians at the end of the day then you are doing something right, because the Lord knows I can’t pay them the money they deserve! The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra has the baddest of the baddest (musicians). Deep down, they know I love them and I would do anything for them.

Speaking of bad, you enlisted drummer Dafnis Prieto and trombone player Angel Papo Vazquez to arrange two of the tunes.

Dafnis arranged the title track ("Song for Chico") and Papo arranged Juan Tizol’s “Caravan.” Dafnis also plays with my Riza Negra band and my quintet and octet. He is an exceptional musician and in my view, a model for the young musicians of today.

In your liner-notes you rail about the fact that “too many people spend useless amounts of energy defining jazz by what it isn’t” What do you mean by that?

Put simply, we cannot define jazz by what it is not. What we need to do is define jazz by its inclusionary possibilities. Dizzy Gillespie preached this every day of his career. It’s a reality that hits me everyday. The music that we love has to reflect who we are. The spirit of jazz has always been about innovation and overcoming oppression. That’s how it began and that’s how it will continue. Jazz doesn’t need validation. It doesn’t need to go to the concert halls or the corporate boardrooms to be thought of as ‘serious’ music. Now is the time for people to organize, create their own non-profit institutions, their own distribution systems, and to make alliances with culturally friendly institutions that are not interested in dividing culture by race or by socio-economic standards. I could go on all day.

Let’s talk about Song for Chico, a recording that definitely reflects who you are. You dedicate the tune, “Such Love” to Sam Furnace …

He’s a musician I grew up with, a real journeyman.

We already talked about the title track and “Caravan.” There’s “Humility,” which was penned by trumpet player Tom Harrell, a scorching version of Tito Puente’s “Picadillo” (dedicated to the late Mario Rivera), “Cuban Blues” and “The Journey,” which was composed by your father.

The repertoire consists of a lot of simple, classy arrangements. My dream is to record Musica Nueva. In fact, we are already planning our next season at Symphony Space and Musica Nueva Dos is in the works.

Funny you should mention that, after the Music Nueva concert at Symphony Space I overheard someone complaining about the fact that the music was not danceable …

In a previous concert we revisited the music of Tito Rodriguez and somebody told me that they overheard someone saying, “Aw man, they are playing the same old stuff.”

Musically speaking, do you sometimes feel like you are caught between a rock and a hard place?

Not really, because it means people are talking.

From your vantage point, where is the music headed?

Both of my sons are brilliant musicians. One is an incredible trumpet player and the other is an incredible drummer. They are ready to take over the world! Nothing gives me more joy than having a young musician kick my ass! That means that long after I am gone the music will continue.

In addition to being a bandleader, pianist, composer and arranger, you are also an educator.

I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Where do you find the time? What’s a typical week in the life of Arturo O’ Farrill like?

A typical week for me could be a board meeting on Monday, followed by a rehearsal. Then I come up to Amherst for two or three days to teach. I have a trio at the Harlem School of the Arts on Saturday; we do Birdland on Sunday’s as well as master classes, seminars, and workshops. It is maddening, slightly chaotic and sick! You only have one lifetime to give it all away. If you don’t, then you have failed.

Do you have any final thoughts?

We are all humans, we all overreach, we all make mistakes but it is important to keep in mind that the work that is being done at Jazz at Lincoln Center is very important. People need to support Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center as well as the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and Symphony Space. And if you don’t like what we are doing, tell us! That’s how we learn. I will never forget Wynton for having the vision and for giving my father the recognition and respect that he deserved while he was alive. Chico O’ Farrill’s brilliance has yet to be fully understood …

Yet another reason to honor our legends while they are alive and well. Thank you for speaking with and good luck with the upcoming season at Symphony Space.

Un Abrazo my brother!


June 10, 2008 · 2 comments

  • 1 Regina Larkin // Jun 11, 2008 at 07:36 PM
    I have seen Arturo's work with NYC Public School children and he captivates all students as individuals. Bravo to such an inspirational man. This article brings more dimension to this fabulous human being.
  • 2 Debi O. // Sep 08, 2008 at 12:20 AM
    Arturo took Detroit by storm with the Latin All-Star tribute to Mario Rivera and Hilton Ruiz. I was there at the Detroit Jazz Festival, and I can honestly say, that one performance was worth the trip from western Mass! And, it is very exciting to know that Arturo is close by in Amherst. Bravo and, Gracias' Arturo.