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

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

Like so much in Cuba, Havana’s Amadeo Roldán Conservatory seems a study in former glory and present decay. In the lobby sits a bust of Chico’s great-great-uncle, Dr. Juan Ramón O’Farrill, once the city’s mayor and the school’s founder. “It’s funny I didn’t know about this,” Arturo notes. “But I guess I’m doing now the same thing he was doing.”

Roughly 100 students, some holding instruments, file into a cavernous auditorium. “How many of you improvise?” Arturo asks. Not many raise their hands, but several take the stage and flash their chops admirably. Finally, Arturo coaxes 15-year-old Tama Zulveta, who wears a pink sweater and fuzzy headband, into playing a bass solo. But the empowerment soon runs deeper, and toward something that might seem radical to his American colleagues. He leads them in a chant: Jazz no es norteamericano, es panamericano!

Thursday night, the orchestra plays its first formal jazz-festival concert at the Teatro Nacional. The crowd is a little sparse, owing to late schedule changes. Yet the show is stirring, working through several of Chico’s classics, and one of Arturo’s compositions. Though distinct, Arturo’s “40 Acres and a Burro” extends an often overlooked aspect of Chico’s musical legacy—the humor embedded in his music. But this trip is first and foremost about Chico’s works. During “Manteca Suite,” Chico’s expansion of a tune made famous by Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo, Arturo puts his whole body into his father’s arrangement, his arms stretched wide in the final brass exhalation.

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 performance grows more masterful and emotional with a closing rendition of “Afro Cuban Jazz Suite.” It’s an astounding piece, introduced with stark, slightly dissonant horn hits, followed by a tender melody set atop an ambling bolero rhythm. As it walks through various styles, it toys with the clave beneath a mambo, winks at Stravinsky’s harmonies, and touches on 12-tone serialization. It manages to sound both personal and grandiose without ever losing its flow.

“My father spent a lot of time bent over a table putting dots on paper,” Arturo said later that night at a reception. “And he taught me to appreciate those who bring those dots to life.”’

Musicians revere those dots in turn. “Chico was a stone genius, on the level of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus,” says trombonist Sam Burtis, who was a member of the earliest iteration of Chico’s final orchestra. “He’s really one of the masters of American composition and Cuban music in any genre. And he’s different from all the rest.”

The next day, during a stop at Varadero Beach—once the getaway for wealthy Cubans, now dotted with hotels catering to foreigners—Arturo stops to admire the view. “My father didn’t express his feelings much,” he says. “But I remember him weeping openly at the memory of this beach.” He reflects on his reasons for going on this trip, and on the criticism he has received—some pointed and personal—for having gone.

Saxophonist and clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, who left Cuba for the United States in 1980, had authored a widely circulated email before the Jazz at Lincoln Center trip. “You should know by now that every single activity there is related and connected to a political goal,” D’Rivera wrote, “and relevant names like Wynton Marsalis will be used, no doubts about it, for propaganda matters, to help legitimize the 50-year-plus-old dictatorship.” Subsequently, he contacted Arturo directly, insinuating that his trip to Havana would forever tarnish Chico’s legacy; for D’Rivera, these are unshakable points, and yet not connected to the music itself. He joined the Lincoln Center orchestra in Mexico, right after their Havana residency, and he is a guest soloist on Arturo’s new CD.

Arturo squints into the sun and explains that, late in his life, after his father’s career had revived, Chico was ready to go back and play his music. He wanted to return. “But then his health took a really bad turn,” Arturo says. “It became impossible. So I’m completing that trip for him.” But this isn’t just a personal matter, he explains. “I’m not interested in making light of the fact that Cuban politics is rife with corruption and political imprisonment. I’m also not delicate about communicating that America is a nation built on tremendous bloodshed and continuous imperialism. I don’t think those are things that should be run from or ignored. They’re just historical facts. Anybody who’s half-awake in the world will understand the brutality of both sides. Music courses through and above all that. We need to connect, not disconnect.”

On Sunday afternoon, his final day in Cuba, Arturo is in Havana’s Mella Theater, working on the piece he’d composed especially for this trip, “Fathers and Sons: From Havana to New York and Back.” Cuban trumpeter Alejandro Delgado is practicing the opening section with Adam O’Farrill. Two Cuban saxophonists and two trombonists from the conservatory take the stage; 18-year-old trumpeter Kalí Rodríguez shows up, too. “More young musicians!” Arturo shouts from the stage.

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