For over half a century, he was one of a pantheon of innovators who fused the soul-wrenching rhythms of African Cuba with the sweet harmonies of American jazz. Longtime admirers of the Latin jazz genre know O’Farrill as a master of sweeping, symphonic compositions that embraced his love of Debussy, Stravinsky, and the mambo; and as a bandleader who keeps alive the roar of a full dance band, as conductor of the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Big Band, which played New York’s Birdland every Sunday night.
For much of his career he worked quietly in the background, crafting music that became a showcase for others: "Undercurrent Blues" for Benny Goodman; “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite” for Charlie Parker and the Machito orchestra; “Trumpet Fantasy,” premiered at Lincoln Center in 1996 with soloist Wynton Marsalis; and more than 80 arrangements for Count Basie.
His life began in Havana in 1921, where O’Farrill was born into a genteel Irish-German-Cuban family. When Chico was in his teens, he was expected to follow his father into the family law firm, with a short detour for training at a U.S. military school. "In the States, I started listening to big bands on the radio-Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey," Chico recalls. "And somewhere I got hold of a trumpet and joined the dance band in the school, and that sealed my fate."
His father arranged for his son to study with Cuban composer Felix Guerrero. By 1945, the young trumpeter was playing with the popular dance band Orquesta Bellemar and teamed with guitarist Isidro Perez. He moved to New York in 1948, where he worked as a ghost writer for arranger Gil Fuller and wrote for his hero, Benny Goodman. O'Farrill’s compositions for Goodman, like "Undercurrent Blues" and "Shiskabop," gained attention among other Latin jazz artists, and he went on to work for Stan Kenton, Noro Morales, and Dizzy Gillespie, for whom he wrote “Carambola. He also did the charts for Stan Getz’s “Cuban Episode.”
A Machito recording session that included Charlie Parker, and Buddy Rich, "The Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite," the piece they recorded on Dec. 21, 1950, was Mr. O'Farrill's successful blend of Latin and be-bop, an ambitious work that took a set contrasting themes and sophisticated harmony and infused them with a strong Latin rhythm that built up to a climactic crescendo. This was produced by Norman Granz, and Chico went on to record a number of albums for Granz's Clef and Nogran labels between 1951 and 1954. These were recently reissued on a two-disc set, "Cuban Blues: The Chico O'Farrill Sessions," on Verve/Universal.