Arturo O’Farrill: Pianist, composer, educator, founder/director and performer of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, founder of the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, recipient of 6 Grammy Awards, a multitude of commissions and grants, performer with orchestras, bands, ensembles and artists including Carla Bley, Dizzy Gillespie, Howard Johnson, Steve Turre, Lester Bowie, Wynton Marsalis, musical director for Harry Belafonte, composer and performer of compositions for dance companies, professor at Manhattan School of Music, the School of Jazz at the New School, builder of musical/cultural bridges between Cuba and the States; who is the son of the brilliant musician and composer Chico O’Farrill and gifted singer, Lupe O’Farrill shares his thoughts and recollections with me.
When I was in high school, I had a band called the “Untouchables,” but we also called ourselves the “Afroholics.”
We’re playing in some bar in the middle of nowhere upstate New York and there are but 3 people in the audience. It turns out that one of them was Carla Bley, though I didn’t know who she was at that time. I got a call from her manager to join her band and the next thing I know is I’m playing at the Berlin Jazz Festival on the same bill as Chick Corea.
Carla had a career by that time doing exploratory, progressive, free jazz. She’s a brilliant woman. All of a sudden she meets up with Nick Mason of Pink Floyd and she falls in love with writing songs. She writes a whole album of really quirky music. One piece is about peeing on people, called “Hot Rivers.” It’s a strange thing to write a song about. She wrote another piece called “Werving,” about speeding in a Porsche about 120 miles an hour, upstate. Her fans were expecting free jazz and here she comes doing strange rock songs. We’d be playing some jazz festival and they’d boo her. They expected her free jazz and hated the “rock” songs.
I’ll never forget this as long as I live - her response to this was to write another song called “Boo to You Too,” so when people would start to boo her we’d start playing this song. I thought that was so brilliant. I loved it so much. Not only was she not afraid to take chances with her career, but she embraced the idea of risk and so a lot of my thinking my whole career has been, I don’t know if this is going to destroy my life or make it work but I’m going to do it.
I was very thankful to serve that “apprenticeship” with Carla cause she taught me the basic principals that art is worth fighting for as much as it might trade on your success and notoriety. She and my father taught me this as they both took great risks with their careers. My father would take any writing assignment and push the art, not the safety and that became my model from both Chico and Carla.
Art is not replication, art is progressive. It challenges, so I create rather strange and different combinations of music that I hope progresses the art and not the safety. For many, the model for success is to grin, tap dance and if that works - do it again. If you don’t try new things or change conversations, you’ll always be relegated to tap dancing. There’s nothing dangerous or alluring about that. If you face your fear you’re able to explore.
As performers, we live in that realm where we want that applause, we want the critical review, the five stars, approval, but it’s a false value system and the really great ones understand that. We live in an era of hyper virtuosity and some musicians are so phenomenal that they dazzle you with that. But the ones like Martha Argerich and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli played in a way that makes you feel like they’re exploring a piece of music for the first time. They’re not doing it to show off how fast or how accurate they play. Sometimes I practice one note at a time. My piano teacher taught me that. He said, “stop and start from scratch and every day re-learn the instrument." Take the risk and be willing to do whatever it takes to be excellent, though it’s a lot easier to be worried about your life.
The great Broadway actor, Alan Cummings said, “the person you really have to impress is yourself.” At the end of the day, you have to love what you do. Just produce work and stop trying to beat yourself up cause not everything you create is going to be genius. I have sketches in my brain of entire works. Once I’ve figured out what I’m going to write about then I have to get it out. I try to know how long my pieces are before I write them. This piece will be an hour and 48 minutes or 13 minutes or 7 and a half minutes. Most of the time they don’t end up being as long or as short as I intended but I create a frame work of what I want accomplished, what it’s about and then I try to fill in a lot of the blanks. There’s that terrorism game of is this good or bad. This is the worst question you can ask yourself.
My father was also a commercial musician and wrote music for companies like American Airlines, Dunkin' Donuts and Howard Johnson Hotels. He felt like a prostitute with his art, and it would torment him. Periodically after a party or a bout of drinking he would lament this. I thought, I’m not going to do that. It made him unhappy and consequently when you’re unhappy it makes others unhappy. I want to play music I love, with people I love, for people I love.
A person is not defined by what they do, their success or lack of. The journey inward is more important than the journey outward. The journey inward is about loving and accepting yourself and that is where you need to be. You need to look at your life and if you really do that, then you’ll be constantly growing and changing and that to me is the whole point.
Things are not black and white. Your blood is not one thing or another, nor your gender, your thought processes. There’s no one interpretation of religion, no one discipline, you’re not just a musician. People need to stop thinking that they need to define themselves in a very concrete way. There are few points that matter but the day you enter and the day you leave. Everything else you should value, love, and be fluid about.
The lesson of jazz is that a brutal cataclysm called the Slave Trade took place in which White people imprisoned Black people and brought them to foreign shores to toil and labor, and in return for that horrendous and unforgivable experience, they give us incredible culture and joy and divine forgiveness and that is the message of jazz.
An Espresso with Arturo O'Farrill Futorian Reportage Jazzespresso Jazz Magazine - copyright 2019
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