Arturo O'Farrill: Upholding the Latin Tinge
"In my late 20s, I started understanding how graceful, elegant and really complex Latin music is. It was an epiphany for me. I credit Andy Gonzalez, Pablo Vasquez and my father, and people who opened up that world to me. They played me a lot of music and talked to me about ... the uniting of mind and passion. Those two things are not separate.
"There's a beautiful grandeur in music that comes from a very simple, but not simplistic, approach to rhythm. Very difficult music to play well. If you write out the rhythms to this musicexactlyand hand them to a professional percussionist, they'll play rhythms but they won't swing. If you give them to guys that really do this, it's marvelous. That always intrigues me, the idea that in the hands of one person, the rhythm can groove like crazy. But that same rhythm played exactly correctly, in the hands of another person, can sound stiff as a board."
O'Farrill played piano with the Carla Bley Big Band from 1979 through 1983. He also performed with a variety of others, including Gillespie, Steve Turre, Freddy Cole, Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, Lester Bowie and Harry Belafonte.
"I've played with a lot of great jazz musicians with tremendous, tremendous joy. Yet the older I get, the more I realize there is no Latin jazz. There is no jazz. It's music born out of joy. It's improvisatory. It comes from the diaspora experience. There's a common thread from Albert Ayler to Gerry Mulligan to Louis Armstrong. There is a common cultural aesthetic value. It hasn't really been defined yet. But Tito Puente had it. Sonny Rollins has it. Freddie Hubbard had it. It's a miraculous thing. This music is part of the gift for the new world that was borne out of so much suffering and oppression and socio-economic trial and tribulation."
He adds, "Jazz institutions, jazz educators have a very monochromatic view of what jazz is. They preach that. It helps them maintain their jobs, their revenue streams. That's a harsh accusation, but I don't think it's done out of maliciousness. I just think they aren't open ... I go out and do clinics all over the country and all over the world and band directors go to me, 'Wow. Why isn't this music readily available. Why do we have access to eight hundred Duke Ellington charts, but we don't have access to one mambo?'"
Jazz, in all its forms, regardless of how one labels it, has had difficulties in the U.S. market and its geniuses have always been undervalued and appreciated by the general public. It's something the greats of the past have endured and taken in stride.
Says O'Farrill, "One of the reasons [jazz] has trouble is because we've made it irrelevant. We've made it culturally elite, socio-economically elite. As educators and spokespeople, we have not made it accessible. We've defined it as art music. One of the big controversies is: We made it to Lincoln Center. We are now a culturally-institutionalized art form and that has validated us. Let me tell you the truth. We didn't need that validation. We didn't need to be treated like classical musicians. Because we already had one of the rarest, rarest of gifts: a living art form. All we've really tried to do by putting it in that setting is tried to sterilize it.
"That's just my opinion, but a living art form does not need validation. Ask young jazz musicians across the country. They're alive; they're trying to move the agenda forward. They're trying to mix it up. They're trying to create new art forms. They're trying to distinguish themselves. They're not interested in classicization. They're interested in making their music accessible to their fellow musicians and friends and family and people they love. I think they're going to be the wave of the future. Jazz, at any point, could become very popular again. It's just that the powers that be control so much of the public perception of jazz."
O'Farrill is involved in education and hopes to do what he can to present the music as art in an accessible fashion.
"The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance has residencies in the New York City public school system. I travel all over the country. We do a lot of educational work. I'm also a professor of jazz studies at Purchase University, the State University of New York. I'm very committed to education. Not jazz educationjust education of the mind. I challenge students. I give them different interpretations of the history of jazz. I tell them they are living pages in the history of jazz. Jazz was not invented by one person. It was not limited to one geographic area."
But he continues to push for the recognition and appreciation of the Latin elements that are part of his heritage, and the heritage of the music.