NYC Pianist Arturo O'Farrill Finds Himself In Cuba, and Brings His Father Home

Chico O'Farrill never made it back. His music did.

NYC Pianist Arturo O'Farrill Finds Himself In Cuba, and Brings His Father Home
Jesse Lefkowitz

When the steel door to Kennedy Airport’s Gate 8 slammed shut, Arturo O’Farrill was on the wrong side. With his wife, sons, and mother in tow one Monday in December, he was bound for Miami, then for Havana via charter flight. And though far from early, the O’Farrills weren’t exactly late—the plane began rolling toward the runway 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Inside the cabin of American Airlines Flight 1141, Eric Oberstein—the earnest, babyfaced executive director of O’Farrill’s four-year-old nonprofit organization, the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance—asserted himself.

“You’ve got a Grammy-winning pianist and his family out there waiting to get on this plane,” he pleaded to the crew. “All 18 of the musicians in his orchestra are here. . . . He’s waited eight years for this trip, worked with the American and Cuban governments . . . headlining the Havana Jazz Festival . . . bringing his father’s music back to Cuba. . . .”

None of it worked. Off the plane went, with a faint apology from a flight attendant. Out on the next flight, Arturo made it to Miami in time, his family intact: his wife, Alison, a classical pianist; his two sons, 19-year-old drummer Zack and 16-year-old trumpeter Adam; and his mom, Lupe, the widow of Chico O’Farrill, a Cuban-born composer, arranger, bandleader, and longtime New York resident who was a towering musical figure in both places. Arturo shrugged off the airport fiasco. It was just the latest and, frankly, the least forbidding of doors to slam in his face.

Arturo O'Farrill
Erika Goldring
Arturo O'Farrill
On the final night of the Havana International Jazz Festival, the Chico O'Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra played an emotional set at the Mella Theater.
Erika Goldring
On the final night of the Havana International Jazz Festival, the Chico O'Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra played an emotional set at the Mella Theater.

The dream was simple, really. Through the support of his Alliance organization, Arturo wanted to bring the orchestra he leads in his father’s name back to Cuba, which Chico left for good in 1959. He had toyed with the idea for some time, but it became a firm goal, a mission, in 2002, after his own first visit to Cuba. “I’m going to do this,” he’d told me toward the end of that trip. “And even though Chico never made it back to the island physically, his music will be played there. I feel like he’ll be there with us. The people will embrace his music. And somehow, to some degree, all will seem right with the universe to me for just a split-second.”

Within a year, such momentary righteousness was politically wrong and, in practical terms, impossible. After Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés headlined Manhattan’s Village Vanguard in December 2003, no Cuban musician wishing to return to his country performed in the U.S. until 2009; meanwhile, American musicians who would regularly travel to Cuba were denied the necessary license from the U.S. Treasury Department. The Bush administration had effectively shut down all cultural exchange. The Havana International Jazz Plaza Festival, which, a decade ago, hosted American musicians from pianist Herbie Hancock to Arturo O’Farrill himself, was off-limits.

Since the U.S. embargo of Cuba began in 1961, the ability of Cuban and American musicians to travel back and forth has shifted with the political winds. In 1985, President Reagan took a hard line. In 1999, under Clinton, the doors opened again, especially for artists, in an effort to encourage “people-to-people exchange.” Bush reversed that policy; artists protested. In a widely distributed 2007 letter, Alicia Alonso, director of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, wrote, “Let us work together so that Cuban artists can take their talent to the United States—so that a song, a book, a scientific study, or a choreographic work are not considered, in an irrational way, a crime.” Soon after, on “Democracy Now!,” Arturo told host Amy Goodman, “For us to be denied access to this source of cultural sustenance is absolutely insane.”

By 2009, the U.S. had loosened those travel restrictions once again. “Almost immediately after the Obama administration took office, there were folks at the State Department willing to work with us,” said Bill Martinez, an attorney who specializes in such matters, and who handled the details of Arturo’s December trip. “It was still a minefield—there is still an embargo—but Obama was beginning to come through with his commitment to cultural exchange.”

In November, a group of dancers from New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theater performed at the 22nd International Ballet Festival in Havana, with Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s Alonso holding court. A month earlier, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis had brought his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to Havana for a five-day residency, working with Valdés, who then came to New York to perform. And now, Arturo was on his way to Havana for six days, as Valdés’s guest, for a Jazz Plaza Festival dedicated to Chico’s memory, and with official sanction from both countries. It took a little less than a decade.

“I wasn’t sure about making this trip,” said Lupe O’Farrill as she waited in the customs line at Havana’s José Martí airport. Arturo had to convince her. It had been a half-century since she last set foot on Cuban soil. She didn’t know what to expect, how to feel. Yet she smiled, her thoughts drifting back to how she, then a young singer born in Detroit and raised in Mexico City, met Chico O’Farrill. “Love at first sight,” she said. At the time, she didn’t know that Chico had earned a reputation as a first-rate trumpeter and bandleader in Cuba, and that, after forgoing the trumpet to focus on arranging and composing—the jazz orchestra was Chico’s real instrument—he’d risen quickly through the ranks of American jazz upon his arrival in New York in 1948. She was unaware then that Chico’s composition “Undercurrent Blues” scored a hit for clarinetist Benny Goodman (who’d given Chico his enduring nickname), or that work with Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, and Frank “Machito” Grillo soon followed, including the masterful “Afro Cuban Jazz Suite,” a 10-section extended piece recorded by Machito’s orchestra and featuring alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips, and drummer Buddy Rich. By then, Chico had made six landmark 10-inch recordings (since reissued on Verve as the two-CD Cuban Blues) of his own. She’d find all that out soon enough, and would even sing with his band in Mexico. But at first, “He was just a gentleman who became my hero.”

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