The Jazz at Lincoln Center Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra is led by pianist/music director Arturo O'Farrill. He is a well-spoken jovial man with a huge aura of energy about him.
O'Farrill, winner of the Latin Jazz USA Outstanding Achievement Award for 2003, was born in Mexico and grew up in New York City. Educated at the Manhattan School of Music, Brooklyn College Conservatory, and the Aaron Copeland School of Music at Queens College, he played piano with the Carla Bley Big Band from 1979 through 1983. Arturo then went on to develop as a solo performer with a wide spectrum of artists including Dizzy Gillespie, Steve Turre, Freddy Cole, The Fort Apache Band, Lester Bowie, Harry Belafonte and Jazz at Lincoln Center Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis.
In 1995, O'Farrill agreed to direct the band that preserved much of his father's music, Chico O'Farrill's Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, which has been in residence at Birdland, New York City's famed nightclub, for the past six years. O'Farrill was a special guest soloist at three landmark Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts - Afro-Cuban Jazz: Chico O'Farrill's Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, November 1995; Con Alma: The Latin Tinge in Big Band Jazz, September 1998; and the 2001 Jazz at Lincoln Center Gala: The Spirit of Tito Puente, November 2001.
In 2002, O'Farrill and Marsalis created the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra for Jazz at Lincoln Center. They will get national exposure October 18, 2004 on the PBS "Live From Lincoln Center" broadcast of the Jazz at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall Grand Opening. (Check your local listings.) Jazz at Lincoln Center's new home, Frederick P. Rose Hall, located on Broadway at 60th Street in Manhattan, is the world's first performing arts center designed for jazz.
I recently spoke to O'Farrill about his work with Jazz at Lincoln Center as Music Director and pianist for the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. "The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra is a hand-picked sister ensemble to the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra that represents the music of the Afro-Caribbean genre. It's really as inclusive and wide-ranging in its scope as anything we have in contemporary jazz. A lot of people think of Latin jazz as a subset of jazz, but it really isn't. Latin jazz is a sister, a sort of sibling. They grew up in different continents, but they follow a very similar timeline. So the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra has as huge a repertoire, in its specificity, as any modern day jazz orchestra."
He says the seeds for the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra were planted a while ago, "We got together about nine or ten years ago, the Chico O'Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra played a concert at Alice Tully Hall with Marsalis. At the time I thought to myself, it would be really nice if the Latino jazz tradition had a similar set up. So I approached Wynton and asked if he could direct us towards foundations or institutions that might want this sort of orchestra to be a part of their ensembles. Wynton was very intrigued. Of course I never would have imagined that he, himself, would have embraced this orchestra and we're very proud of the fact that he did. It shows a lot about Wynton and his openness and the scope of his imagination. So he invited me to direct a resident Latin jazz orchestra, specifically an Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Cuban jazz orchestra as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center family."
O'Farrill continues the discussion on this musical family, "Jazz and Latin have their roots in dance. Much of the turn-of-the-century New Orleans jazz was born in dance halls and bordellos and speakeasys. The same thing was happening in Latin music around the same time period in Havana. The music that was later to become the equivalent of jazz in Latin America was being born in bars, cafes, and bordellos."
He thoughtfully continues, "Dance music is very powerful because it unites the brain with the body. It really does. When it's well-crafted, dance music, in a very clever way, is the most consistent response to the dichotomy of mind and body. So when you listen to Latin music, Latin jazz especially, its a real synthesis of so many worlds. It's a synthesis of Africa and Europe and Spain...of intellect and body and mind and spirit. We need to let go. Latin music is a really good conduit for us to engage our feet without losing our mind."