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

Latin Jazz Finally Gets Its Due

Back in Havana in December, O'Farrill filled in his own personal story. One morning, Arturo piled into a van with some friends and a historian, headed to the O'Farrills' former home in the countryside outside Havana. In San José de las Lajas, they visited another historian, an affable man surrounded by card catalogs, dusty notebooks, and boxes filled with memorabilia. As tiny birds flew in and out of the large but somewhat decrepit office, he pulled out five pages of carefully handwritten notes, "Genealogía de los O'Farrill." He read for some time, beginning with an account of Don Ricardo O'Farrill, who came from County Longford in Ireland, and who owned sugar mills and plantations.

"We were slave runners!" O'Farrill said.

"Yes, but more," the historian continued. The O'Farrills were credited with a few notable advances in early agricultural technology, he explained. Some members assumed titles of nobility. They had built churches and palaces. They were patrons of the arts.

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.

"From slave runners to sugarocracy to benefactors," O'Farrill said. "Were there any musicians?

"Ellos compraron la música" (they bought music) was the answer.

When O'Farrill got to the original family plantation house, now in semi-ruins, he was reminded of his father's stories of bringing musicians to the house for jam sessions. Within the family, Chico O'Farrill was a rebel, more interested in music than agriculture and business. He was born into Cuba's countryside, and he soaked up traditional music along with the more urbanized Latin jazz of his day.

If the United States was not quick to accept Latin jazz as its own, neither was a young Arturo O'Farrill. "When I first began to play music, I very much rejected my father and my inherited culture," he says. "I was into John Coltrane's music. I was hanging around Manhattan's downtown loft scene, and as far from my father's scene as possible. I didn't want to play no clave! But a magical thing happened when my father got elderly, and he needed help. I got past all the crap and the fear, and I heard the music as if it was new to me."

Chico O'Farrill died in 2001 at age 79. Toward the end of his life, with his son's help, his music was played at Lincoln Center, his arrangements published and distributed. His own signature orchestra began weekly performances at Birdland, which continue under Arturo's direction.

But others keyed the younger O'Farrill's embrace of his roots. Andy Gonzalez is the bassist in O'Farrill's trio, as well as for the Lincoln Center Afro-Latin Orchestra. A New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, he is the pulse and the anchor for an astounding number of Latin recordings during the past 25 years. He pushed O'Farrill to do some remedial work.

"I remember telling Arturo that it was OK for him to play clave, that it was part of him," Gonzalez says. "And I urged him to check out the long line of great Cuban pianists who have established a great tradition."

The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra at Lincoln Center fulfills some long-held ambitions, and it grew out of specific needs. O'Farrill recalls being impressed by Wynton Marsalis's championing of jazz repertory. In the mid '90s, he approached a Lincoln Center assistant with the idea of creating a repertory group specifically for Latin jazz.

"There was a benefit performance a few years ago pairing Wynton's orchestra with Tito Puente," he says. "Wynton had me lead a rehearsal of the Latin numbers. I wanted them to play a Cuban phrase but they just could not articulate it authentically. They would 'jazz' it up. They could not Afro-Cubanize it. Wynton had this faraway look in his eye. I think that's when he realized that it takes a specialized group of musicians. It's a different approach—artistically, mentally, and emotionally. It's a different approach in terms of your embouchure and your tonguing." Not long after, according to O'Farrill, Marsalis told him, "I'm going to do your idea, put a Latin group together. And I want you to lead it."

For now, O'Farrill says, he's focusing on creating the band's "book." He's essentially canonizing the core Latin-jazz big-band compositions and arrangements—a process not that different than the treatment given to Ellington and Armstrong's works in early seasons of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

"Latin jazz is not just a branch off the jazz tree," O'Farrill says. "It's a separate tree entirely, but they grew up connected."

The Smithsonian exhibition should help spearhead this new consciousness about Latin jazz, with its companion book (Chronicle Books), CD compilation (Smithsonian Folkways), and 12-city tour, and despite some curious curatorial decisions: for instance, the omission of Brazilian influences. For New Yorkers wishing to learn more, a logical next stop might be Raices Latin Music Museum at East Harlem's Boys and Girls Harbor. Its collection of some 15,000 objects documents Latin music, from mambo to modern salsa, and especially highlights the ways in which those of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent have largely been the caretakers of Cuban musical traditions in New York.

For musicians, there's an aesthetic charm to the newfound focus on Latin jazz. American jazz grew more abstract during the second half of the 20th century; it shifted from being a social music to an art music. In Cuba and the rest of Latin America, the orientation toward dance has never been de-emphasized.

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