October 27, 2010
by Felix Contreras
When Cuban-born jazz arranger Chico O'Farrill died in 2001, his one
great lament was not being able to return to the island of his birth,
according to his son, pianist/bandleader Arturo O'Farrill. The younger
O'Farrill will close the musical and familial circle next month when he
takes the New York-based orchestra his father created to Cuba.
The week-long visit will be filled with performances, instruction and
musical diplomacy. The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, the non-profit
organization that maintains the Chico O'Farrill Afro Latin Jazz
Orchestra, announced the trip in a news release on Monday.
The performance highlight will be a gig at the Havana International Jazz
Festival, curated by Cuban pianist/composer Chucho Valdes.
"It's been a dream of mine to take Chico's music back to Cuba," Arturo
O'Farrill told me by phone this morning. "It's a chance to really
connect, in a greater way than anyone else, Cuba with one of its
greatest musical heroes — and also connect the idea that Afro-Cuban
music and jazz are not separate musical forms."
The emotional highlight will no doubt be the opportunity to hear Chico's
music finally performed in Cuba by, in essence, his own orchestra. "This
is a spiritual, artistic and familial quest: My mother, my sister and my
sons are coming to help give my father's soul some peace by reconnecting
him to homeland," O'Farrill says. Arturo O'Farrill has been to Cuba in
2002, but not with the ALJO.
When Chico (whose given first name is also Arturo) arrived in the U.S.
in the 1940s, he went right to the row of jazz clubs along 52nd street
and to the Latin dance palace right around the corner on Broadway, the
Palladium Ballroom. He quickly found work writing big band charts for
Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Count Basie and countless others.
It was his work with the orchestras of Machito and Dizzy Gillespie that
secured him a place in the pantheon of Latin jazz pioneers. His
Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite for Machito's band and The Manteca Suite for Dizzy
Gillespie were extended works that sound as innovative today as they
were in the early and mid-1950s.
Just two weeks ago, the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra under the
direction of Wynton Marsalis also made a trip to Cuba during which it
gave concerts and workshops, and sat in on jam sessions. But the
upcoming trip by the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra has a deeper musical and
emotional resonance, considering the O'Farrills' family history in Cuba
and the presence of other musicians in the band with cultural and
familial connections to the island nation.
In fact, Chucho Valdes, in his role as Artistic Director of the Havana
International Jazz Festival, has dedicated the entire festival to Chico
O'Farrill and is coordinating a big final concert called Fathers and
Sons: From Havana to New York And Back. A third generation of O'Farrill
musicians will perform on that gig: Arturo's sons Zachary (19) and Adam
Do you wish you could tag along for the trip? No worries. Documentary
film director Diane Sylvester will be going along to make Oye Cuba! A
Journey Home, about the music and the tears.