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


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.

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.”

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 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.

If the U.S. was never quick to accept Latin jazz as its own, neither was Chico’s son Arturo. Born in Mexico, raised in New York, and educated at, among other institutions, the Manhattan School of Music, Arturo toured Europe in the big band led by avant-garde composer Carla Bley while still in his teens. “When I first began to play music, I rejected my father and my inherited culture,” he said. “I didn’t want to play no clave,” a reference to the elemental five-beat pattern that grounds Afro-Cuban music. “But a magical thing happened when my father got elderly and he needed help. I got past all the resistance and the fear, and I heard the music as if it was new to me.”

In the mid-’90s, Arturo approached Marsalis with the idea of creating a repertory group specifically for Latin jazz. In 2002, Marsalis took him up on it. Much like Jazz at Lincoln Center’s flagship group, the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra (a separate ensemble from the one in Chico’s name) was a working band meant to reinforce and extend historical repertory, including Chico’s own ambitious works. But after five years, the two groups parted ways—Arturo created his own organization, with a performance season hosted at the Upper West Side’s Symphony Space. He still feels pride and debt toward Marsalis and Lincoln Center, “But ultimately, as in the larger American culture, the Latin group became nothing more than a stepchild,” he said. In the liner notes to the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s new CD, 40 Acres and a Burro, he writes, “We are grateful to our hosts for our birth home, but it is definitely better to be the master of your own tidy cottage than a guest in someone else’s mansion.”

The 19th-century neoclassical building on the corner of Cuba and Chacón streets in Old Havana was once a mansion, built by Ricardo O’Farrill’s grandson, Rafael, and now refurbished as the Palacio O’Farrill hotel. When Arturo showed up in 2002, “I just assumed that since my father is an expatriate, the people of Cuba would bear resentment toward him,” he recalled. “Or maybe that Castro had filtered out his memory.” The last thing Arturo expected was a royal reception, but hotel staff lined up in the street to welcome him. The warmest greeting came from Rafael Fernández Moya, a dark-skinned man with a warm smile and an air of authority—the author of such studies as The Irish Presence in the History and Place Names of Cuba.

In front of the Palacio on Wednesday morning, the O’Farrills pack into a small bus with Moya, heading out of Havana proper. As a tour guide describes points of interest—“Here’s the house Ernest Hemingway bought in 1940”—Moya delves into more focused history. The first O’Farrill in Cuba was Ricardo O’Farrill O’Daly, whose ancestors were from County Longford in Ireland. Born on the island of Monserrat, he arrived via Jamaica, and worked for the South Sea Company—a slave runner and, later, a sugar-plantation owner.

The bus stops. Suddenly, Moya and Lupe exchange heated words. “This can’t be right,” Lupe insists. “It looks different.” Of course it does. The lovely house on what once was Casañas—or, as they’d call it, simply la finca (the farm), where Chico and Lupe spent most of their first year of marriage—is now a tannery’s headquarters. Gone is the bell atop the central house that distinguished the place. Most of the walls are now in ruins; one is covered by a pro-Castro mural.

We head to the town of Tapaste, where Arturo gets a tour of the church built by another O’Farrill ancestor. By the time we get to San José de las Lapas, his orchestra is warming up around a cement gazebo filling up with plastic chairs. Bassist Gregg August sandpapers the fingerboard of his borrowed instrument. Children fresh from school, dressed in white shirts and tan pants or skirts, mill about. “Chico’s father was born here,” Moya says, “and Chico’s grandfather is buried here.” Before long, the town’s historian has unfolded and laid on the ground a handwritten genealogy tracing eight generations of O’Farrills. Soon, a crowd of some 200 assembles and, just like that, a concert commences, the orchestra jammed into the gazebo, with Arturo on a Korg electric keyboard. The hour-long performance ends with “Afro Cuban Jazz Suite.” Afterward, Oberstein sets off to connect with his own personal history. A cousin of his leads us to the teal-colored house nearby, where his mother was raised (she moved to the U.S. as a child). It was built by his grandfather, whose father had owned tobacco farms in the area.

“I’ve played that suite so many times,” drummer Vince Cherico says during the bus ride back to Havana. “But when we went to that town, I saw some old women who clearly have lived through it all—the revolution and everything since. They had their eyes closed, and they were swaying. I felt like I understood something new about the music.”

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.

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.

Just then, Chucho Valdés, an eminence among Cuban musicians—and, at six-foot-four, an imposing figure—arrives. Arturo yields the piano bench as Valdés sits down to look over the piece, which includes sections during which he can improvise.

“Anyone have a pencil?” he asks.

Valdés begins sketching in chords and harmonic ideas for his cadenzas and solos. Meanwhile, at the other end of the stage, Arturo reviews musical cues with the young horn players. When Valdés starts playing, the saxophonists hold up cell phones and cameras to capture the moment.

Later that night, the 1,500-seat Mella Theater is packed, up through the balcony formed from an organic sweep of rough plaster. “Fathers and Sons,” the last piece played on this, the final night of the trip, is introduced by an angular, vaguely classical-sounding melody, played rubato, which then gently gives way to a clave-based rhythm, and finally forms the basis for individual improvisations. Each young trumpeter takes a different approach: Rodríguez, pensive and fragile; Delgado, fiery and bright; Adam O’Farrill, confident and in search of harmonic adventure.

These same Cuban musicians, including Valdés, had performed in October with Marsalis to the crowd’s delight. Then, Rodríguez expressed wit and concision on a bluesy bebop number. One of the saxophonists, Emir Santa Cruz, had traded phrases elegantly, as if in conversation, with Lincoln Center tenor-sax player Walter Blanding on a Count Basie tune. But here, Arturo was inviting Valdés, an elder master, and these young players, including his sons, into the final form of his newest piece—spanning borders and generations to create something new, in real time, just for this Havana audience.

Back home, Adam and Zack are up-and-comers on New York’s jazz landscape—deservingly so, based on the assured new CD, Giant Peach, from their jointly led band. Arturo’s new Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra album, 40 Acres and a Burro, is more ambitious and better than its Grammy-winning predecessor, Song for Chico. With his February 26 Symphony Space concert featuring alto saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., his orchestra will highlight New Orleans as an essential influence on whatever “jazz” and “Afro-Cuban” mean in this country. From its roots as a repertory group, the orchestra has grown to embrace wide-ranging new works. Meanwhile, Oberstein wants the Alliance to create a jazz-education exchange involving Cuban and American faculty, plus students from both countries. That goal is well served by the Obama administration’s formal announcement, published in the Federal Register last month, of a renewed “people-to-people” policy, specifically enabling such programs.

Two months later, Arturo’s orchestra members are still processing the trip to Cuba. Percussionist Roland Guerrero feels “humbled, in the best of ways, in terms of the things I know about this music.” Trumpeter Jim Seeley was inspired not just by the sight of his good friend Arturo realizing his dream, but by the sheer tenacity of young musicians who triumph over the flaws of instruments in awful disrepair. Zack O’Farrill has “grown to appreciate a little more what went into my grandfather’s music and who he was, since I never really got the chance to know him.”

Arturo is still sorting out his feelings. “I’ve been thinking long and hard about this,” he says. “The reason I went was not to canonize my father. I did want to hear his music in Cuba and to see my mother there. But there’s another thing: I want jazz to stop dying this awful death, this strangulation. I think the future of this music has to do with the acceptance of a larger picture of it, which has always been the deeper truth anyway.

“I think it would be arrogant to call myself Cuban. I didn’t grow up in Cuba. I was born in Mexico, but I’m not Mexican. Raised in New York, yet I’m not exactly American. My father never quite found his home, either. He was a little pink Irish-German-Cuban guy without any directly Hispanic features who nevertheless was thrown in the Latin heap. He loved New York, but he wept for Cuba. He loved jazz, and he wrote incredible Afro-Cuban music. There’s got to be a way to define those of us who don’t really have a home, those of us who don’t have but who insist on having an entry point into the conversation—which is most of us, really.”

That final Sunday night in Havana, after the premiere of his new piece, the Mella’s massive brown curtain drew slowly shut, until finally only Arturo was visible. He was speechless. He simply waved. The curtain closed. The door had been thrown open, the larger conversation to come.