An In-Depth Conversation With Pianist, Composer, Arranger, Bandleader and Musical Director Arturo O’Farrill
By Tomas Peña – March, 2011
“Lord, I want to be on unsure footing, I want to be challenged, I want to feel like I am always and every day, not comfortable, not retreading. It’s really important to me that every time I play the piano that it is a new experience. If I walk away from writing a piece and I don’t feel that I have done something new, I feel guilty! I feel like I have shucked and “jived” my responsibility”- Arturo O’Farrill
Arturo O’Farrill is a self-proclaimed chatterbox and an interviewer’s fantasy. In this, my second interview with the piano master and bandleader we discuss his family, his art, his philosophy and his mission to bring music education back to our public schools. As you will see, Arturo is a poetic and fearless speaker who makes no bones about the “machine,” the “cookie cutters” and the future of Afro Cuban Jazz. In addition, Arturo speaks candidly about the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s “emancipation,” its current status and why he feels it is “here to stay.” With their feet in the present and their heads in the future, Arturo O’Farrill and his sons, Adam and Zack are carrying the O’Farrill legacy into the 21st century.
Tomas Peña: When your wife picked up the telephone I heard the sweet sounds of a piano in the background. Given the fact that there are so many musicians in the O’Farrill household, I was wondering if it was you.
Arturo O’Farrill: Yeah, that was me. I was practicing, practicing, practicing! Someday I am going to learn how to play the piano! The Big Band is a labor of love, but at heart, I am a pianist. It’s like putting on different hats. When I put on the Big Band hat I don’t feature myself. People get angry with me and complain that I don’t play enough but being the leader of a Big Band is more than just conducting; you have to pay attention to every detail. It’s an entirely different “head” from playing the piano with a group.
TP: Prior to calling you, I was listening to “Arturo O’Farrill, Live in Brooklyn,” which you recorded in 2005 with bassist Andy Gonzalez and drummer, Dafnis Prieto. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in sampling your music with a small group.
AO: I would like to record a “Live in Brooklyn 2.”
TP: Speaking of wearing the Big Band hat, the concert at Symphony Space (“Cuba Nola – More than the Spanish Tinge“) was terrific.
AO: Thank you. We had a lot of fun. Playing the music of Cuba and New Orleans has been done hundreds of times, but putting them together has not been done often. I didn’t want the presentation to be too academic; I wanted the music to teach the lesson.
TP: The venue was packed, the audience was supportive and energetic, your message was well received.
AO: Actually, I feel like people are just starting to cope with the fact that there is a message. You know, we are not going away (Laughs). The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra deserves to exist in a very powerful way because we are different, we are not replicating, we are not regurgitating and we are not trying to be new for the sake of being new. I have a philosophy and the older I get the more I understand it. My philosophy is this: We do not yet understand what this music is. When you insist on separating it into vanilla and chocolate or Latin and jazz, you are a fool. I feel like we are just starting to discover jazz.
TP: Was that what you had in mind when you said, “This isn’t a museum band?”
AO: The fact that you are exploring a philosophy does not necessarily mean that you have it crystallized in your mind. Sometimes I look at my message and say to myself, “What the hell am I talking about?” The original idea behind the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra was to explore the canon of our Big Band tradition. The one caveat I made from the beginning was that in no way, shape or form would we ever recreate performances of classic material. We weren’t going to take “Wild Jungle” and play it the way Machito did. Our “mission” was to take that classic music and figure out a way to play it in a contemporary fashion that respected the roots and our arsenal of culture in 2011. So the “museum band” thing is really funny because there are a lot of them now, starting with Jazz at Lincoln Center. Whose stated mission is to recreate an experience that took place one hundred years ago, which I think is unbelievably silly. Jazz was never meant to be classical music. It does not need to be validated like classical music. The same thing with Latin music, when we perform, I don’t care if we are playing “Mambo Inn” or Vijay Iyer’s “Mad Hatter,” the same spirit of exploration and chaos and newness and the same high wire kind of fearlessness has to take place.
I have to tell you a funny story about saxophonist, Bobby Porcelli. Every time we do a new concert, Bobby calls and asks, “Are we going to do anything weird?” Then we get into the rehearsal process and I will bring in some Vijay Iyer stuff, or Peruvian music or Colombian music and invariably Bobby says, “I don’t know if I can do it.” And I say “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby, just play the freakin’ music!” But there is a beautiful lesson in that, we want to be uncomfortable, I want to make big mistakes; I want to make loud mistakes, because if we are not growing as musicians then the music we are playing is dying. Nothing brings me to tears faster than seeing people play like robots. Can you imagine Chico O’Farrill pulling out the charts for the “Afro Cuban Jazz Suite” when he did? The guys in the band must have looked at him and said, “What the hell are you writing? We can’t play this stuff.” When I am writing a piece of music I look at it and I go, “I don’t know if this is going to work, I don’t know if this is going to fly, I don’t know if the guys are going to like it, I don’t know if the audience is going to like it, it’s awful.” And then I say, “Screw it! I am going to play it anyway!” (Laughs)
TP: Jon Pareles, of the New York Times described your music as, “Dizzyingly complex and earthly joy.”
AO: It is a beautiful quote and I will tell you why. That’s what I’ve been trying to do my whole life, marry this idea that the intellect is not separate from the passion. You don’t have to arrest your mind to move your body, you don’t have to let go of the future to enjoy the past. The dichotomy is that you can embrace music with everything, with your body, your mind and your heart. Some people don’t see it that way. There is a very strong notion in Western classical philosophy that the mind and the body are separate, as if there is something wrong with the flesh, or enjoying yourself. On the other side of the equation, there are artists who have enjoyed a measure of success playing very “safe” music and who worry about their ability to continue to work. I have never made a living doing this, I would rather make art. As long as I am not going to make a living I might as well make art!
TP: That’s a lesson that you learned from bandleader, Carla Bley. In a recent interview with Chip Boaz of “The Latin Jazz Corner,” you mentioned that Carla “did things for the sake of the art.” Moreover, she “cast the mold that you would follow for the rest of your life.”
AO: That’s so true.
TP: Getting back to the concert, let’s talk about the piece, “Fathers and Sons,” where your sons, Adam and Zack and friends took to the stage and jammed with the orchestra and Donald Harrison. I understand the piece also went over very big in Cuba.
AO: That’s an original composition. I’ve held many academic positions and sometimes the attitude of jazz and academic teachers is that the students are too full of themselves and don’t know anything. In my opinion, those people are scared of what the students might teach them. It doesn’t matter to me if a young person plays the right chord and the wrong note or vice versa. As long as they have passion and they are strong, that’s all that matters. When I was Adam’s age I didn’t know what the hell we were doing but we were playing as if our lives depended on it. That kind of passion is not taught. In fact, if anything the schools try to smash that passion out of you. It’s funny because when I see these young people I realize that they have never stood before an Afro Latin orchestra. Even the young kids in Cuba, they have their little conjuntos, but an Afro Latin Big Band, that’s a big edifice! For them to stand before an orchestra like that and get to play with Donald Harrison and be encouraged to use their full voice with no fear or shame, it’s one of the most beautiful things that they have ever done.
TP: Your sons are gifted musicians, you must be very proud.
AO: Yes, they are extraordinary musicians. I am very blessed. I don’t pretend to be oblivious to the fact that it could be very different. I have to credit my wife for being a beautiful mom and for raising my sons beautifully. I think that music is an honorable profession. If I was a great doctor and my kids became great doctors it would be the same thing. We love what we do. Unfortunately, my father never received the recognition he deserved.
TP: Nevertheless, Chico’s legacy speaks volumes.
AO: I don’t know why he didn’t get the recognition, I may not either, but I think it’s important that in the world of jazz the name O’Farrill be represented. He did it because of the music, not because of the “machine.” There is the music and the “machine.” The music feeds the “machine,” but the “machine” controls what goes on in public.
TP: I take it the “machine” represents the powers that be in the music industry.
AO: The whole point of the “Fathers and Sons” piece is that Cuba is one of the fathers of jazz. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. In fact, Mario Bauzá said, “I don’t think Americans realize that a lot of the music that they listen to is Cuban in origin.” It’s about Cuba and Africa giving birth to music that we have co-opted and called our creation. That’s why going back to Cuba was so important. I went back to Cuba to acknowledge and give thanks to a nation and a people that gave birth to my father and gave birth to a music that I embrace every day of my life.
TP: Speaking of your recent trip to Cuba, journalist, Larry Birnbaum did such a marvelous and thorough job of covering your trip to the island. Rather than re-hash the facts, I am providing the link to Larry’s piece:
The last time we spoke you mentioned that you and your father had a “complicated” relationship. Did that have anything to do with the trip to Cuba?
AO: That’s a very good question. I did have a very complicated relationship with my father. He was a very narcissistic human being, however his narcissism was not born out of selfishness; it was born out of his upbringing and the entitlement that came with being an upper-class white Cuban. It’s really funny because it is something that is replicated in virtually every Latin American country. There is a “gentry.” My father and his family occupied a very “moneyed” and very powerful position in Cuba. He grew up in this environment of entitlement, but he had the good sense to break out of it and to love someone who is earthy and passionate. Had he not fallen in love with music he probably would have been one of the “higher up” party members. Cuban music comes from the earth, from the ground, it pulls you and it wraps its arms around you. The real Afro Cuban folkloric music is deep. Psychologically speaking, my father and I had issues because he grew up in a patriarchal environment and he was never embraced or coddled as a child. When I was growing up he had difficulty showing emotion. On top of that he was an artist.
I can tell you from my experience that artists are narcissistic by nature. I think the world revolves around me, I know it doesn’t. But when I have a piece to write or I have to do this gig, everyone has to stop what they are doing so that I can get my agenda. Thankfully, my wife balances me out. I know that my father loved me and my sister as much as I care for my kids. We are not the product of our parents, you have to let go of the whiney bullshit and move on. When I took my mother to Cuba, it was not an epiphany for me; it was a chance to put my father to rest. I feel like I have spent a lot of time playing my father’s music. Now it’s time for me to play my own. I will play his music until the day I die, but getting him to Cuba was the responsible thing to do and a way of saying goodbye.
Getting back to the theme of “Fathers and Sons” and taking chances, my father took chances. For the most part, when my father was being creative he wrote exactly what he wanted to write and he didn’t apologize for it. That’s easy to say and it’s easy to assume that everybody does it, but it doesn’t happen that often. That’s because when you take chances it doesn’t always work out. I won’t say any names, however, I have had this conversation with the world’s number one jazz purist and he said to me, “Nobody cares about this music. We are turning out jazz graduates from our schools and conservatories and there are no jobs. No one cares about our music.” You have to think about that for a second and the responsibility that we have as artists and entertainers to the future of young people. If we don’t make an effort to make our music relevant and progressive, we are doing a tremendous disservice to these young people, because they are going to come out learning our tricks, our scales and our bullshit and have nowhere to work.
TP: To the best of your knowledge, what becomes of the students after they graduate?
AO: Many of them become teachers who perpetuate “the machine.” They become “cookie cutters.” We are trying really hard to progress the art, to make it relevant, to have people say, “Oh shit, I didn’t know you can do that. Let me listen some more.” Again, I relate a lot of this to “Fathers and Sons” because I know that my future is secure, but young people have to have a vision of their own.
TP: Your sons, Adam and Zack have a vision. I look forward to hearing their debut recording, “Giant Peach.” I understand that most of the material was composed by Adam.
AO: Adam is easily as gifted a composer as he is a trumpet player and he writes some of the most original and compelling music that I have heard from anybody. Zack is deeply ingrained in the performance of that music.
TP: During performance at Symphony Space you mentioned that you and Donald Harrison learned a lot from one another. What did you learn from one another? Beyond that, what did you learn about the musical relationship between Cuba and New Orleans?
AO: Donald is a legitimate bad ass jazz player. He did some cool jazz albums, some hip-hop. He’s not scared of any of this and all of the music that he plays, that I have heard, has its feet heavily planted in the roots. He is not just trying to play hip-hop because he is trying to make money. It’s coming from a deep place in his soul. I have always watched him play in different settings and I have always said, “Man, that’s a bad ass saxophone player,” but more importantly he has his feet planted in the past and his eyes on the future. That’s the kind of musician I want to be. I wanted to have Donald Harrison play with us a long time ago but I was scared of him because he is a very serious person. I was playing a gig and he was looking at me from the bar and I thought he hated my music! I went on tour to Indonesia and was stuck on a plane with him for hours and we got to talk and in the process I found out that he didn’t really hate me. He liked me, liked my music and was interested in what I am doing. I wanted to explore the music with someone who understood the future and I thought Donald would be the perfect guy.
TP: Having Donald as guest was an excellent choice. I am familiar with his music and the fact that he is a “Big Chief” (in the Mardi Gras tradition) but I have never seen him in a live setting, much less with an Afro Cuban Big Band backing him up. I was impressed.
AO: Another thing, people seem to think that the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra came out of Jazz at Lincoln Center and we have those long bucks.” Bullshit! We are mom and pop, we are paid so little and we work so hard. When I approach a potential guest artists I say, “We don’t have any money, all we have is love and music and you have eighteen musicians at your disposal.” God Bless Randy Weston, Vijay Iyer, Gabriel Alegria, Donald Harrison, Miguel Zenón and the long list of heroes, who when asked, never said “No.”
TP: Inside Joke: It’s not like Miguel needs the money!
(Interviewer’s notes: Alto saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón was named one of 25 recipients of the 2008 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship, an award that pays $500,000 over five years).
AO: (Laughs) I love Miguel. He is a serious bad ass. The thing about bad asses is, they don’t care about the publicity or the money. The real bad asses don’t groom themselves for fame, they groom themselves for music. That’s what all of these bad asses have in common, they are not there to get rich; they are there because they understand that we are a forward looking orchestra who is ready and willing to play their music, their way. Take (pianist) Vijay Iyer; I approached him and told him that we didn’t have any money and he wrote a beautiful, amazing piece for me titled, “The Mad Hatter.”
TP: What did you learn from Donald Harrison?
AO: Quite literally, we (the orchestra) learned a different way of counting. He wrote a piece called “Quantum Leap”…
TP: Ah yes, “Quantum Leap” was definitely one of the highlights of the evening.
AO: He showed us a different way to count that music. We figured out how to put it in notation. His group doesn’t write out the music, they just teach it to each other. He knows how to read and write music, but it was a very important moment for us because you can do that with a small group but getting eighteen guys to play together the same thing without notation is an entirely different matter. He also taught our percussionists how to play second-line percussion. The thing that we taught each other is the deep current in our music is the same. The waters that run in the deepest foundations of our music run the same. That’s not new to us, but it’s a relearning that you can never relearn enough. The patterns for second-line, Zydeco might be slightly different from tumbaos, mambos, guagancos but they come from the exact some place, it’s a “deepness” that we can’t stop rediscovering. The piece that I wrote with a little rag-time thing occurred to me when I was a student. One day I was playing a Scott Joplin piece and I said to myself, “Holy shit, my right hand is playing a montuno!” With respect to Donald, we didn’t look at him as a guest artist. We looked at him as family.
TP: While we are on the subject of learning, tell me about the work that the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance is doing. Could you give me an example of a student whose life has been impacted by the AFLJA’s music education programs?
AO: There’s a kid in the program named Brian Paz. He is already playing the bass and is quite gifted but he has no idea how gifted he is. We are in a school in the Bronx giving basic introductory lessons to a bunch of kids and this kid comes into our midst and already knows how to play, so how do we impact that kid? Well, for one thing he has very limited ideas on what it means to play Latin music, because he has that “cookie cutter” mentality,” which is how we are all taught. So we get him and we tell him to improvise and he says, “I can’t, I can’t improvise!” Brian is being challenged to do more, to improvise, and to create new bass patterns. He was thinking about going into music technology and I told him, “No bro, you are a bass player, you are an instrumentalist” and I promised to buy him an acoustic bass. You can rest assured that before we lose sight of Brian, we are going to present him with an acoustic bass. There is another kid name De Shawn Clark who is studying the drums. At the beginning of the semester, we have each student fill out a questionnaire. One of the questions is, “Why are you interested in this program?” He wrote, “I want to learn about music because it will teach me about life.” When I read that, I thought to myself, “Boy, if we are not making an impact, if we are not changing lives.” I don’t want to toot my own horn but I feel like the AFLJA is doing God’s work. We had another kid, a drummer named John who was cutting up in class and was on the way out. We switched him to the sax and man, he is playing, he’s quiet, he’s attentive, he’s interested, he is practicing, he is studying at home, and he has become a different person. I had a conference with him and I said, “We are all smiling because we are all so proud, we can’t believe that you are the same kid, you have become a serious little saxophonist. We are smiling because we are so proud of you.” Some of the academic teachers at the school come up to us and say, “I don’t know what you are doing with these kids but they are becoming better students.” I don’t mean to put other organizations down but the model is to come in, do a presentation and leave. Or, if they have residencies, they teach and leave. They are not committed to the idea that the work that we are doing is life changing. What we do is different because we are not there to impose our standards on the students. We don’t care what you play, we don’t care if you play Hip Hop, or Jazz, or Classical music, we just want you to be good musicians.
TP: Two artists who come to mind are Jerry and Andy Gonzalez. I have heard Andy speak about the impact of music education on numerous occasions. It’s worth noting that they were both playing professionally by the time they were in junior high school!
AO: I would be gratified to see these kids follow a path of music. In fact, this may sound crazy but some of the music that comes out of the Hip Hop, Rap and R & B worlds is really mediocre. I am happy to think that because of their proximity to professional musicians who work hard and practice, when they go out and create their own music it will be more sophisticated. Who knows of some of these kids will go on to become the next P. Diddy or Jay Z?
TP: Where does the funding come from?
AO: Some of the money comes from a generous grant from the Health and Human Services System (FEGS) but the school in the Bronx is completely funded by individual donors. We do not get any money from the Department of Education or the school. The program is completely dependent on the generosity of individuals. It is very important that people hear this as a clarion call to anyone who is willing to donate instruments or reeds. We also need a trumpet for a young musician in Cuba named Koli. Does anybody out there have a trumpet that they can donate to a child who is playing an instrument with a broken spit-valve and is held together with masking tape and rubber bands? Nobody is picking up the slack for these kids. By the way, you can “Google” Koli and watch the “Fathers and Sons” video on “You Tube.”
TP: Tell me about the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s new recording, “40 Acres and a Burro” (Zoho Music). I get the distinct impression that there is more to the title than meets the eye.
AO: I love Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center for giving us a platform and allowing us to become who we are today. I will forever be grateful to them and there is no rancor or bad feelings. When we left there was some hurt and admittedly, the conditions that we lived under were not optimal. I don’t fault Jazz at Lincoln Center for not treating us as a sister orchestra, even though we were. It wasn’t a malicious or thoughtless thing. It is just the culture of the institution. I think it was very generous of Wynton to invite us to be a part of his world. I have to credit the man for being a visionary. No one in the world from an institutional viewpoint was thinking, “I think this is different music, it deserves its own expertise. I think it deserves its own vehicle.” Economics being what they were, they had to streamline and when you streamline you have to do whatever it takes to survive. I probably would have done it differently but, again, every time I perform a concert I thank Wynton and Jazz at Lincoln Center, because without that cache we would not be able to do what we do now. So, the very last piece of music we ever played at Jazz at Lincoln Center was “40 Acres and a Burro” and it’s funny because Wynton was there and I made it a point to be very clear about the fact that, this is humor, this is satirical, it makes a point with love. We are leaving on good terms but we are being emancipated so to speak, because we are leaving the expensive glass building. The lesson behind “40 Acres and a Mule” is that you can’t pay for a man’s soul; you can’t value a man by giving him land and an animal, you could strip a man of his dignity, you could steal a man’s freedom, but you can never steal his freedom inside. The point of the emancipation was that they felt that they had to give a man a plot of land and a mule to work it. When we left Lincoln Center we were given our repertoire, our suits and a party, but they could never give us what we gave to them. The whole point of “40 Acres and a Burro” is, here’s the parody of the drunken Mexican, here’s the parody of Stravinsky meets Tito Puente and here’s the section of Latino white noise. The point of the white noise is, Latinos do everything, we blow your leaves, we cook your food, we take care of your children, we deliver your pizza, make your sushi, drive your gypsy cabs, but we are white noise because we are in the background. So, here’s your little minstrel show, we came, we kicked much ass, we showed you but we said it with tremendous love and respect. Wynton embraced me and thanked me and for leaving in a dignified manner and I hugged my brother and said, “Thank you for the opportunity, we will never forget it.” To this day, Wynton Marsalis is one of my heroes because he said to me, “What you have is different” and he shared his stage with me.
TP: Some time ago I saw Wynton perform with your father’s orchestra and I had the impression that he wasn’t quite comfortable with Latin music. More recently, I had the pleasure of seeing him perform with Chucho Valdés and he was totally in his element.
AO: Wynton is like me. Lord, make me uncomfortable, I want to be on unsure footing, I want to be challenged, I want to feel like I am always and every day, not comfortable, not retreading. It’s really important to me that every time I play the piano that it is a new experience. If I walk away from writing a piece and I don’t feel that I have done something new, I feel guilty! I feel like I have shucked and “jived” my responsibility.
TP: Returning to “40 Acres and a Burro,” what kind of a reception has the recording received thus far?
AO: I feel that this album, this Afro Cuban Big Band, is the beginning of an impression of a larger picture, of what jazz is. I read a review in “All About Jazz” and the writer said something at the end of the piece that bugged me. He said, “This is a beautiful album but it does a poor job of illustrating the point that Latin and jazz are not separate.” I really took exception with that because that is exactly what this album does, play pure unabashed jazz and 100% unabashed Latin and it melds them beautifully, and it does it from the perspective of Perú, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Ireland. Now, I have to find a way to bring Japan into the fold (Laughs).
TP: Japan loves Latin music. When I was in the military I spent some time in Japan. The jazz scene, particularly in Tokyo, made a big impression on me.
AO: The message of “40 Acres and a Burro” is that jazz is a very big picture and we are all beginning to understand Latin America’s impact on jazz. Larry Blumenthal put it very nicely when he said, “Let the conversation begin.”
TP: It’s a deep topic and it’s about time, let the conversation begin.
AO: The orchestra traveled all over the world this year, we played in Japan, Taiwan and Indonesia and you are right, the East Asian people love Latin music.
TP: What are your plans for the immediate future?
AO: I am writing a piece called, “A Still Small Voice,” and it’s taken from a biblical reference that talks about conscience. It is taken from a piece of scripture where God speaks to Elijah in a still, small voiced deep within him. It’s about the conscience of listening to that voice inside of us that knows to do right. I draw on Buddhist texts, Hindu texts, Muslim texts. But here is the beautiful thing about it. It’s a piece for the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and a hundred and fifteen voice choir. It is going to be astonishing! We have the La Guardia Senior Chorus, from the La Guardia High School for the Performing Arts. It is one the best choruses I have ever heard in my life. The woman who directs the chorus, Janna Ballard, is a master. I don’t know how we are going to fit that many people on the stage but it is going to be amazing. I am employing all kinds of different techniques that I don’t think anyone has used in Afro-Latin Big Band music. We are using techniques from contemporary 20th century avant garde music. We are also looking forward to the next season, where we are going to pay a heavy tribute to bassist, Andy Gonzalez. We are going to include Jerry Gonzalez with Michel Blanco and the whole evening is going to be a tribute to Andy. I still think and feel that Andy is one of the heaviest musicians on the planet. He is one of those rare human beings whose feet are firmly planted on many streams of musical currents. In addition, we are going to have an evening with Claudia Acuña and Herman Olivera, our traditional “Musica Nueva” concert and a celebration of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s tenth anniversary.
TP: Congratulations, sounds exciting. I look forward to being there.
AO: I don’t even know how to thank you for taking such an interest in our lives, it means a lot to me.
TP: The pleasure is mine. I urge everyone who reads this to visit the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance’s website and consider making a tax-deductible donation.
Arturo O’Farrill, Live in Brooklyn (Zoho Music, 2005)
Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra – Una Noche Involvidabe (Palmetto, 2005)
The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra – Song for Chico (Zoho Music, 2008)