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


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.

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.”

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.

“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.

But the flurry of high-profile recognition for many Cuban musicians also dances around some troubling political developments. The story of cultural exchange between the U.S. and Cuba has long been told along lines of political turmoil. Over the past two years, due to anti-terrorism initiatives as well as some specific anti-Cuban sentiment, the American government has tightened border restrictions. The standard-bearing Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés was forced to cancel a North American tour last fall due to a visa denial. This spring, the Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets tightened the regulations regarding travel for educational purposes between the U.S. and Cuba.

O’Farrill has begun to get e-mails and calls from anti-Castro Cuban Americans, some of them musicians, to make sure he’s aware of the recent jailings of dissidents in Cuba. Still, like many musicians on both sides of the situation, he tries to maneuver around it. “People are always attaching political agendas when people visit Cuba,” he said from his home in Brooklyn. “When I went to Cuba it had nothing to do with pro- or anti-Castro, pro- or anti-embargo. It was about culture and family, about my roots.

“And the turning point came the day we went to my father’s house in the country. I remember first turning off the main road onto a dirt road, and looking at the rolling countryside, dotted with palm trees and some mangy-looking cows. I remember thinking that this is where it began, this is really what it’s about: Here was a little white boy, basically, growing up in the Cuban countryside and falling in love with these rhythms and these sights.”

If the political climate does not prevent it, O’Farrill is planning to bring his father’s orchestra to his family’s Cuban hometown. “Even though Chico never made it physically back to the island, his music will be played there,” he says. “I feel like he’ll be there with us. The people will embrace his music, and it will be played and embraced here. And somehow, to some degree, all will seem right with the universe to me for just a split second.”