American Routes Shortcuts: Arturo O'Farrill

Jan 10, 2020

Arturo O'Farrill
Credit American Routes

Pianist Arturo O’Farrill was born in Mexico and grew up in New York City, surrounded by the Latin Jazz scene in the 1960s. His father was Chico O’Farrill, the Cuban trumpet player, composer and, bandleader, and his mother, Lupe, was a Mexican singer. And while their son Arturo is now the leader of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra in NYC, he didn’t always appreciate what he called “his father’s music.” Arturo got his start playing with the Carla Bley Big Band, Dizzy Gillespie, and Lester Bowie and was music director for Harry Belafonte before returning to help his father Chico with his own Afro-Cuban Orchestra. We started our conversation with Arturo’s musical life as a kid and I asked why he became a pianist. 

Arturo O’Farrill: Yeah, no I just did it out of duty. Listen, this is that kind of life that a little Latino kid has. My father had a suit, and with the leftover material they made me the same suit. So it was a foregone conclusion that I would take piano lessons, and I did what I did very dutifully, but boy, by the time I was sixteen I wanted nothing to do with Latin Jazz. I was playing with free jazz musicians at the age of nineteen, I was touring with Carla Bley, I was a founding member of one of the early hip-hop/rap groups, J. Walter Negro and the Loose Jointz, and I wanted to stay as far away from my father’s corny music as possible.

Nick Spitzer: Now tell me about working with Carla Bley and how you met.

AO: Carla is so great. When I was in high school, we used to just play. We got a little band together and we played all over the place. We were playing in a place in Willow, NY called Billie Tripps, it’s in the middle of the Catskills. It’s basically a post office, is the town. And a bar. That’s what we were playing in, and I didn’t know that one of the people in the audience of maybe three was Carla Bley. Soon after, I got a call from Mike Mantler, her husband at the time, who invited me to tour Europe. And we would have so much fun onstage. There was a thing we used to do where she would chase me around the stage, and I would hide under the organ. There was another piece that we would play where I was the piano student and she was the piano teacher. It was just such creativity and the remarkable thing about it, the thing that impacted me to this day, and every single note I write is influenced by this, is the idea that, don’t take yourself so seriously. Love you art, love your audience, love your craft, love life.

NS: It’s hard for children to reconnect with their parents sometimes artistically and every other way, but you did that.

AO: I don’t think every child should reject everything that they’re shown by their parents, but every child should examine it carefully. And I think on some level, the natural response of children is to throw out the baby with the bath water, and I think that I did that, but then went back and kind of said, “Wait a second, holy cow, there’s some beautiful things in here that I just threw out.” Quite by filial responsibility I began to assume some of the responsibilities of running that band, and in fact it was very funny because he sometimes would resent it. He would get lost conducting, and the guys would look at me and I’d go, “No no no no, letter A. 1, 2, 3, 4,” and he’d get hip to the fact that I was cueing. And he would get offstage, and he’d be like, “That’s my band, that’s my band. You can’t do that.”

NS: Showed he had a little feistiness there.

AO: Oh it was beautiful. No, in retrospect, it happens to all of us. We all grow old; we all need to yield to the younger generations. But that’s the thing; Chico wasn’t phased by that renaissance in his career.

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