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In 1947, American bop luminary Dizzy Gillespie and his big band performed with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo as a featured guest. Though rightfully cited as a significant pivot point in the evolution of the form known today as "Latin jazz," this moment is one of many in which jazz and Latin music crossed paths.
Fast-forward to the present day and Arturo O'Farrill, pianist and director/bandleader of Lincoln Center's Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, a sister group of the Wynton Marsalis-led Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. As the son of late Cuban composer and big-band impresario Chico O'Farrill, he grew up in a home where jazz and Latin collided head-on.
O'Farrill is a warm and jovial fellow. Occasionally, and without warning, his voice switches from a normal, conversational tone to animated and boisterous. The kicker is that his timbre goes up to emphasize one word or phrase, and then it's back to business as usual. "When you look at this stuff," he points out, "these rhythms really come from Africa, and they come from very specific regions in Africa. [When] you look carefully at the music, especially of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, these are rhythms that are very much in practice today. Jazz and Latin, you know, they both come from the same place... So, it's the most natural thing in the world for [them] to counterinfluence each other."
Though O'Farrill is insistent on taking a "pan-Latin American" approach with the orchestra, right down to the name, Cuba is often regarded as the central hub of musical integration. Hence the term "Afro-Cuban," which is often used interchangeably with "Latin."
"In the '20s, and teens even, there was always a cross-pollination," he explains. "Before Castro, there was a lot of commerce; there was a lot of intercountry travel. So jazz musicians were always going down to Cuba and Cuban musicians were always coming to New York or to the United States... During Castro's regime, jazz was not allowed. But musicians always found a way to get [albums]. It's really interesting, because a lot of times, they have cassette copies of records that you and I have grown up with... Cubans are jazz fanatics. Some of the best jazz musicians I've heard are in Cuba right now."
And on the topic of fanaticism, O'Farrill strongly emphasizes the fun that comes with seeing the ALJO. When it comes to the show itself, he would have you follow your hips, not your head.
A trained musician since the age of 5, he is refreshingly unpretentious and unimposing when talking about music. Though jazz was once the most popular form of music in this country, it often carries with it the unfortunate stigma of music snobbery.
But O'Farrill begs to differ.
"A lot of people might dispute this," he says, "but jazz is very much folk music. It's music that is made for people. It's not elitist. It's not commercial. And it comes from the heart, so jazz tends to hit people hard. You don't have to be a musician to understand it. You don't have to be a connoisseur."
Latin music, though, still retains its down-to-earth quality while throwing in a little flavah as well.
"One of the things you're immediately drawn to -- and this is a very important factor -- is the danceability," he explains. "So much Western music, popular music, has to do with getting people to move. And that's also an aspect of its folk quality. All great folk music is dance music, if you check it out carefully."
Though he was well under way with lessons when it happened, O'Farrill's true discovery of music occurred when he stumbled across the music of Miles Davis in his father's library. "I found a record in my father's library called Seven Steps to Heaven," he recalls. "I put that record on, and I heard the opening solo by Miles, and all of a sudden... like the lights got turned on. That stuff sounded like poetry to me. The sheer poetry of the way that particular group played is magical. If you have nothing else, no framework, no reference point, listen to Miles."
Not surprisingly, O'Farrill's father would have preferred that Arturo not pursue music (though he did encourage lessons). "It was difficult because being a musician is always a harsh lifestyle. My father was always very busy. As a composer or any kind of creative writer, you have to spend hours and hours sitting at a desk essentially being antisocial," he admits with a hearty laugh.
For the past six years, O'Farrill has led Chico O'Farrill's Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra in its residence at the hallowed New York City nightclub Birdland. The ALJO repertoire includes some of his father's work, but he is most excited about the roster of composers overall: Tito Puente, Machito, Ray Santos, Rene Hernandez, Mario Bauza, and modern composers Papo Vasquez and Tom Harrill.
"We're just starting out," he says. "My goal is to create a vehicle in which we can go and play. Believe it or not, there's a book of Dominican big-band music. I've heard it. We need to play that music. We need to play the music of Hermeto Pascoal, Antonio Carlos Jobim, great composers of Colombia, Ecuador. There's a huge, huge jazz movement in Ecuador. We haven't even begun to tap that."
Though he talks about the difficulty of leading a musician's life, which his father knew well, his Cuban background allows him to reflect more profoundly. This is where his voice suddenly leaps out of the phone like a jack-in-the-box. "In Cuba," he says, "we have people who have no chance of making a lot of money. No chance of seeing their name in lights, and yet they love it. The reason that they're such great musicians is because their love is profound. They're not looking for the sacred contract or the big money-making gig. I personally know that music gives me joy in a profound way that nothing else can. On the other hand, I don't want to make it sound like being a musician is a death sentence for financial security, because it's not."
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