Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Clave

Latin Jazz Finally Gets Its Due

When Arturo O'Farrill visited Cuba last December, he had no idea how he'd be received. He's the son of a towering cultural figure, composer and bandleader Chico O'Farrill, but his father left Cuba in the late 1950s, never to return. Just months earlier, he'd been appointed music director of Lincoln Center's new Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, which makes its Alice Tully Hall debut on May 9. But the 42-year-old pianist, who was born in Mexico and raised on Manhattan's Upper West Side, had never been to Cuba himself.

"I just assumed that since my father is an expatriate, the people of Cuba would bear resentment toward him, or not really know who he was," he says. "Or maybe that Castro had filtered out his memory."

The last thing O'Farrill expected was to be received as royalty. But the staff of the Palacio was lined up in the street to welcome him when he showed up to play the Havana Jazz Plaza Festival, at which he and other American musicians sidestepped the American embargo and performed for free. That 19th-century neoclassical building, on the corner of Cuba and Chacón streets in Old Havana, was in fact once a palace, built by one of the pianist's ancestors.

Arturo O'Farrill, music director of Lincoln Center's new Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra.
photo: Aaron Diskin
Arturo O'Farrill, music director of Lincoln Center's new Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra.

These days, it's a hotel—one of several buildings refurbished by Cuban government agencies to preserve history and promote tourism.

That evening, O'Farrill was seated at the piano in the Palacio's newly dedicated "Chico O'Farrill Snack Bar," under a framed photo of his father and friends, circa 1959. "We are products of our childhood. My father captured his childhood in Cuba with his music, and passed that down to me," he said, as he began to play his father's "Afro Cuban Jazz Suites," among the more seamless fusions of Cuban folkloric styles with American swing.

O'Farrill played his father's composition again, this time in New York, with the Afro-Latin Orchestra, to inaugurate its first full season as a resident ensemble of Jazz at Lincoln Center. It wasn't quite the Palladium in its heyday, but you'd still have a hard time believing that the scene at Manhattan's Copacabana—an 18-piece Latin jazz band playing mostly classic mambos and cha-chas, surrounded by enthusiastic dancers—had anything to do with Lincoln Center. That ringing trumpet wasn't Wynton Marsalis, either; it was Michael Philip Mossman, one of several top-rank players plucked from New York's Latin-jazz scene.

Just a few nights later, O'Farrill turned up on the stage at Flushing Town Hall, performing with his trio to celebrate "Latin Jazz: La Combinación Perfecta," a four-year traveling exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution, on display in Queens through June 29. Both developments signal that at last the story of Latin jazz is being told—in detail, and without caricature. And the context to jazz's story is being recast in the process, in concert halls and classrooms and museums from New York to Havana.

Jazz itself won recognition and funding from American mainstream cultural institutions only within the last two decades. But as new jazz programs at Lincoln Center, the Smithsonian, and elsewhere began to pop up, and as jazz studies programs took root at major universities, the lineage and influence of Latin jazz drew only passing mention.

Most jazz musicians, listeners, and critics in the United States recognize some basic signposts to the intersections of Latin music and American jazz: trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's work with the Cuban bandleader Frank "Machito" Grillo and with percussionist Chano Pozo in the 1940s; Louis Armstrong's 1930 recording of the Cuban song, "El Manisero"; Creole pianist Jelly Roll Morton's even earlier assertion that jazz had to have a "Spanish tinge" to be authentic. Still, Latin culture has widely been regarded as an exotic "other," despite its elemental value to so much of American music.

"I've heard people give lip service to Latin jazz for many years," says Bobby Sanabria, a percussionist of Puerto Rican descent, who teaches at the New School University and the Manhattan School of Music. At the Smithsonian exhibition, a video shows Sanabria demonstrating aspects of clave—the rhythmic building blocks of twos and threes that undergird nearly all Latin American music. But rhythmic literacy, the first prerequisite for anyone approaching Latin jazz, is not the entire point of the exhibition's conga-shaped kiosks. "After Ken Burns's jazz documentary aired on PBS two years ago, I felt like I needed therapy," Sanabria adds. "It was as if Latin jazz had never happened. And that's deeply ironic, considering that American jazz was written out of history books for so long."

Marquee at the Hollywood Palladium, late 1950s. From the Smithsonian exhibition's collection
photo: courtesy Chico Sesma
For Chris Washburne, a trombonist who has played with Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, and other Latin-jazz stars, and is an assistant professor at Columbia University, "The thing that's so sad about that situation is that it mirrors the plight of the Puerto Rican or the Cuban in American culture. A lot of times, the discussion gets bound by this black/white dichotomy. When you start to throw in a third nationality or culture, it gets too complex. We're missing a portion of the story."
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