O'Farrill Seeks Converts to Father's Afro-Cuban Music
by Patrick Cole, Bloomberg News
August 7, 2008
What exactly are audiences to make of a jazz pianist with a Hispanic-Irish-sounding name, who leads a band that plays a blend of black and Latino music?
For Arturo O'Farrill, son of the late Chico O'Farrill, who created the distinctive sound and the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra that still bears his name, there's nothing confusing about it. Yet it's a challenge Arturo O'Farrill confronts everyday: how to win over the uninitiated and convince them that his music is indeed jazz and not some bastard second cousin.
``I think Latin jazz has gotten a short shrift in the genre,'' the bearded O'Farrill, 48, said in a recent interview at Bloomberg's New York offices. ``Just my father's name, Chico O'Farrill, is enough to push some people away. They don't know what category to put this music in. Our music should be performed, appreciated and taught as an international art form.''
O'Farrill leads an effervescent, 18-piece group driven by percussion and horns. The band is making its first appearance at Manhattan's Jazz Standard tonight and performs every Sunday night at the Birdland Jazz Club in Midtown.
Earlier this year, O'Farrill created the nonprofit Afro Latin Jazz Alliance to help develop a strategy to broaden the band's exposure in the U.S. and abroad.
For five years, Jazz at Lincoln Center provided a home base for O'Farrill's group. But the glitzy, big space proved to be a poor fit, so he secured a new venue, Symphony Space, to showcase the music his father pioneered.
Building an Audience
O'Farrill's Alliance will provide members of the band to schools and venues like Symphony Space for music instruction and seminars about Latin jazz and Chico O'Farrill's contribution to the music.
``You have to give this music away to kids,'' he said. ``That's the way you build audiences and spread this music to others in the future.''
Chico O'Farrill, who died in 2001 at 79, was a native of Cuba who came to New York in the 1940s and apprenticed with Benny Goodman. He composed music for other jazz giants like trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Buddy Rich.
What put Chico O'Farrill on the jazz map, however, was his 1950 landmark recording, ``Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite,'' that presented Latin rhythms and improvised solos in movements like a classical work. Joining him on the record were jazz legend Charlie Parker on alto saxophone, Rich on drums and Machito, the Grammy Award-winning Cuban maracas player and bandleader who died in 1984.
For Chico O'Farrill, who focused on composing and orchestration as a bandleader instead of forging a solo career, the broad name recognition won by peers like Parker, Gillespie and John Coltrane, proved elusive.
``My father didn't quite get his due,'' Arturo O'Farrill said. ``I always felt he was one of the great composers of the genre, not just in Latin jazz. His commercial success wasn't quite what it should have been.''
Arturo O'Farrill took over the Afro-Cuban Orchestra from his father in 1995. He thought the band's visibility problem had come to an end when Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, offered the group concert dates and a promotional boost.
Last year, though, O'Farrill said he called off the marriage when his band got only about three concert bookings a year at Lincoln Center's state-of-the-art Allen Room and Rose Theater. O'Farrill wanted more dates for the band.
He said Lincoln Center wouldn't pay his band members salaries the way it does for its resident group, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Members of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra were paid an appearance fee for their Lincoln Center gigs.
``It was Wynton's house, and man, I am grateful that he let us into his house, but it came time to build our own opportunities,'' O'Farrill said.
The orchestra appears tonight through Sunday at the Jazz Standard, 116 E. 27th St. in Manhattan. Show times are at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. (with additional sets at 11:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday). Information: +1-212-576-2232.