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

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

Jazz is full of heroes, and requisite hero-worship. Marsalis certainly received such a welcome in Havana. Halfway through his October visit, barricades stood before the Mella Theater to handle an overflow crowd; the JALC Orchestra’s grand gesture of cultural exchange had become a popular phenomenon. And yet it all came down to intimate encounters. “This is all personal,” Marsalis said then. “Chucho Valdés came to my house in 1996 and became like a father to me.” Referring to a young Cuban trumpeter who had spent a year at Juilliard, he added, “Yasek Manzano came to my house, and now he’s like a son to me.” Marsalis’s visit was touching and significant—heroic, even. But, as the trumpeter repeatedly insisted, it was “strictly about music, not political in any way.”

Marsalis was trailed throughout his trip by both a documentary team and a 60 Minutes crew. In December, Arturo also had filmmakers in tow. Diane Sylvester, an Afro Latin Jazz Alliance board member, is producer and director of Oye Cuba! A Journey Home, a documentary she decided to make the moment after Arturo told her of his plans for the trip. “The most important part of this story has always been personal,” she said. “It’s about an artist seeking his own understanding of where his art comes from, and about his making a political and social statement about what that art means to him.” Arturo was talking about literal fathers and sons. And he had pointedly political messages to share—about cultural exchange, U.S.-Cuba relations, and even jazz’s provenance. That became clear just hours after landing in Havana, during a reception at the home of Charles “Chip” Barclay, deputy chief of the United States Interest Section, our rough equivalent of an embassy.

“I needed to complete a musical, spiritual, and cultural journey for my father,” Arturo said as he stood before the small crowd seated in Barclay’s living room. “In some ways, the relationship between jazz and Afro-Cuban music has still not been understood. We’ve only begun to uncover the relationship between these two places. And there are those who will pay lip service to this, by performing it one or two times a year, or who will write a paragraph about it, or a chapter, or a page. But the truth of the matter, which I think my father exemplified, is that these relationships are inexorably tied together. The thing that made my father such a misfit, and the thing that has made me such a misfit, is that we are still looking to find where we belong.”

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.

Arturo further spoke of “a particular allegiance to a yearning, and a search for the home where all great musicians should occupy. So coming back and bringing some of my father’s great music, it also raises the question: Who is Chico O’Farrill?”

Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill was born in Havana in 1921, son of a lawyer, in a family of means with Irish and German roots. For all his later renown, Chico’s first arrangement was “Tuxedo Junction,” prepared for the Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Georgia. It was something of a fashion at the time for prominent Cubans to send misbehaving boys to American schools. He’d listened to the sounds drifting from a dancehall down the street in his Vedado neighborhood, soaked in the rhythms present everywhere in Havana. But it was in Georgia, while listening to radio broadcasts of American swing bands, that Chico decided to take up trumpet and began turning his attention away from the law career his parents expected, and toward music.

Chico’s music is, in some ways, definitive of the marriage of American jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms, which makes sense given the criss-cross of his life experience. Really, his music combines those elements in novel ways, as well as wide-ranging European classical influences, and is marked by what earns distinction in all those realms: mastery of form, an ear for stirring melodies, and the spark of pure innovation. More than fusing the sounds of two nations, Chico O’Farrill revealed innate connections imagined anew.

He moved to Mexico in the 1950s, then back to Cuba, then to Mexico again. He performed in Havana in April 1959 at the theater of the Confederacion de Trabajadores de Cuba, then left Cuba for good. (“After the revolution, they told us one thing,” he explained to his daughter, Georgina, years later, “but did something else.”) He moved with his family back to New York in 1965. And though Chico would do more high-profile music (most notably with Count Basie), by the 1980s he had settled into mostly television and advertising work. His was the musical voice behind Latin-market ads for McDonald’s and Bumble Bee tuna. He made no recordings under his name from 1967 to 1995. Still, musicians admired Chico, and he had much music left in him. Bassist Andy Gonzalez—anchor for an astounding number of Latin recordings over the past 25 years, and a close friend of Arturo’s—brought Chico to Todd Barkan, a record producer and Jazz at Lincoln Center adviser; the 1995 Milestone album Pure Emotion was the beginning of Chico’s final, triumphant chapter. Arturo began championing his father’s work. Marsalis invited him to Lincoln Center. And in 1996, the Chico O’Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra began the Sunday-night sets at Manhattan’s Birdland club that continue today under Arturo’s direction. Chico O’Farrill died in 2001, at age 79, of congestive heart failure.

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