PARENTS INTERVIEW WITH ARTURO O'FARRILL
In February, 2009 Arturo O'Farrill & The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra
won the Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album for "Song For Chico"
with Chico became an artistic journey for me."
Pianist/composer/arranger Arturo O'Farrill conducts the Afro-Latin Jazz
Orchestra which is part of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the Chico O'Farrill
Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra which performs at Birdland and other venues.
Born in Mexico and raised in New York City, Arturo studied at the Manhattan
School of Music and the Brooklyn College Conservatory. He is married to
pianist Alison Deane, and the father of two school-age children. Arturo
performed and taught many forms of jazz before working with his late father,
composer Chico O'Farrill, a luminary in the world of Afro-Cuban jazz.
In this interview Arturo discusses his relationship with his father and
his own perspective on music and parenting.
When did you start playing jazz?
At 12 I discovered jazz and was able to play with great facility. I started
playing with a composer named Carla Bley who wrote strange, atypical jazz.
I was into rags, funk, strange jazz, and started working as a professional
musician at 17.
Was your father an influence when you were growing up?
I was into a different type of jazz than my father. He grew up in a different
era and couldn't get past Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix. My father didn't
see me play until he heard me at Carnegie Hall with Carla Bley when I
was 17 or 18.
Through my early and mid-teens, we were unaware of each other musically.
Yet in spite of our lack of musical contact, we were both intrinsically
musicians and consequently understood each other's commitment and obsession
What was it like growing up with Chico as your Dad?
My father loomed large in our lives; he was the center of our family.
Our household revolved around him. My sister Georgina and I weren't allowed
to disturb him. He was specific about his comforts -- his food and need
How did you react to this when you were growing up?
I liked Chico as a person, and loved him as a Dad, but also saw him as
frail. He always had health problems. One of my biggest fears was that
he would die. We come from a family of worriers, hypochondriacs. He also
had a great, sarcastic, sense of humor and was a very funny man in his
What do you think shaped your Dad's way of being?
He grew up in a culture that emphasized the centrality of the father figure.
He also had a career that was ego-centered. So there were parallel cultural
and emotional structures that set up a situation where children were seen
but not heard.
He cared about
us and loved my sister and me, but didn't have the words to express those
feelings, and was tortured by not being able to express his love. He came
from an upper class Cuban family with butlers and chauffeurs where there
was not a lot of expression of feelings.
How are you different as a parent?
As a couple, our parents were good gentle people with an almost childlike
wonder about the beauty of life. However, our parents didn't discipline
us. They weren't really aware of it when, for instance, I dropped out
of high school.
I want my kids
to see the results of practicing with them. I get my son to play what
he has practiced. And both my kids are honor students. I tell them every
day that I love them. My daddying skills come from my mother. She's a
very empathetic and nurturing person.
How did your heritage influence your life?
O'Farrill: There's a lot of pain and confusion in being a Latino
in an Anglo society. Being Latino stigmatized my career. I was futher
stigmatized by being neither black nor white. It was confusing for me
to go on stage. I go on stage and am treated like royalty, but off stage
it's a hard life.
There's a story to how you and Chico started working together.
Here was Chico, a man who had created a whole genre of music, but in the
1980's and early 90's was struggling to get jingle work. Writing jingles
had become the domain of the 20 somethings, and Chico was in his 60's.
Chico wanted to revive his artistic career, but the bills kept coming
and he didn't have pay checks or health insurance.
Todd Barkan asked
me what my father had been doing. Todd went to Fantasy Records and convinced
them that Chico was worth investing in. At that point Chico was getting
more frail. I couldn't imagine him putting a band together. His solution
was to get some session player to do a pick up band. Much to my chagrin,
I pulled the pieces together.
What did working with Chico mean for you?
Working with Chico became an artistic journey for me. The closer I got
to him the more I realized he deserved the accolades. It became an evangelical
mission as a son and artist to see Chico receive the recognition that
was rightfully his. What's interesting about the journey is that it forced
me to confront things I hadn't before. I had been rejecting my father's
world for a long time.
How did this turn of events affect your career and perspective?
People saw me as Chico's son, which changed, and in some ways stigmatized,
my career. If you read the reviews and obits its all about Chico at 80
being so dynamic, but the reviews marginalized me.
I saw Chico go
to Spain and get a standing ovation that brought tears to his eyes. It
was a great relief to me. That proximity reminded me of the inconsistencies
in how I was raised. I realized that my sister and I were not the center
of attention. I saw the behavioral patterns return. It was a curse and
a blessing. I was a proud son, but I also found it hard.
You are being very candid about your relationship with your father; the
complex relationship between a father and son.
There's a lot of tension between parents and children. You love people
unconditionally. God gives us the opportunity to love human beings, but
sometimes you need to make a decision when you love somebody. With my
parents I fought that decision, but sometimes you need to eat humble pie.
I have to take the things that I appreciate about them as human beings
and focus on them.
You mentioned earlier that musicians are born, not made. What do you mean?
There's a natural aptitude that makes music flow. But you can learn stuff,
and some of the better musicians are the ones who have to work at it.
Becoming a good musician takes so much training and practice that you
have to decide very early on that that's what you want to do. A musician
is a musician in his mind. Even without the use of his faculties, his
hands, he's still a musician. All good musicians are intellects. They
read and think.
How do you see the difference between being an instrumentalist and a writer?
Becoming an instrumentalist takes years of practice and repetitive work.
There's a gestation period for creative facilities, a gap. It's hard to
be a great writer and a great player. You need to make a choice. Chico
became a writer early on. I wanted to be a great instrumentalist.
How do you feel about encouraging talent?
Some people believe that being a harsh task master weeds out the weak.
I don't agree. Non-nurturers destroy talent. I like to teach as a nurturer.
For some, being a good student comes naturally. But sometimes those for
whom it comes easily don't own it, they take their talent for granted
and don't work hard. Others are able to overcome their limitations by
being very conscientious.
Where do you want to focus your energies now?
My career is doing well. I have been conferred/stigmatized as a representative
of a generation of Cuban-inspired musicians. Latin jazz is extremely important
and African music is extremely important. It's a recognition of a whole
people and genre and it's a huge honor to be involved. Music can't be
with Chico and his contribution has come full circle. I want to take his
music to Cuba. When that happens I think I'll be ready to separate myself
from that part of my career.
What will always be with you from your father?
The other day I called up my wife and told her that my father's hands
came back to me. I remembered his pinky, how it twisted and turned up.
That's what our parents are to us. They are physical, viable, human beings,
not jazz legends.
2003, Dr. Istar Schwager
Back to Top