Arturo Chico O’Farrill 1921-2001
Widely regarded as one of the master architects of Afro Cuban Jazz, Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill almost became a lawyer. Born into an Irish-German-Cuban family in the Havana region of Cuba, Chico was slated to follow in the family tradition and enter into law practice. Luckily, as a teenager he was sent to study in the United States, where he heard the sounds that would change his life and revolutionize jazz, the trumpet, and the big band. After studying at the Havana Conservatory and performing in nightclubs Chico moved to New York, where he continued his musical studies with Stefan Wolpe of the Juilliard School and gradually integrated himself into the New York Jazz scene. It was there that Benny Goodman (who had trouble pronouncing his name and dubbed him “Chico”) hired him almost immediately as a staff arranger. During his tenure with Goodman, O’Farrill penned one of Benny’s biggest big band hits, “Undercurrent Blues.”
The 1940s and ’50s were a prolific and important era in Chico’s career. It was during this period that he composed what is universally regarded by critics and fans throughout the world as the crown jewel of the Afro Cuban Jazz Genre, the extended multi-movement work “The Afro Cuban Jazz Suite,” recorded with Charlie Parker, Flip Phillips and Buddy Rich. He also wrote countless other works for Machito, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, and for many others, including his own orchestras.
With the advent of rock and roll and the seeming death of the big band in the sixties and seventies, Chico turned his attention to commercial writing, including jingles, film scores and industrials. However, he maintained a creative presence contributing brilliant compositions and arrangements for the likes of Count Basie, Ringo Starr, David Bowie, Gato Barbieri and countless others. He also wrote another important extended multi-movement work for Art Farmer, “The Aztec Suite,” another critically acclaimed masterpiece.
In 1995 after 30 years of not recording under his name, O’Farrill came out with the Grammy nominated “Pure Emotion,” soon followed by the also Grammy nominated “Heart of a Legend,” and finally “Carambola,” all of which were hailed by jazz critics and fans throughout the world as the renaissance of a true American Jazz genius.
His memorial in 2001 at the Church of Saint Peter in New York City (the jazz church) was filled to overflowing with lines around the block as musicians and fans celebrated the life and work of this quiet, dignified Cuban gentleman who adopted New York City as his new island home. His music is celebrated to this day, performed by the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, in residence at New York’s famed jazz nightclub Birdland, and directed by his son, the composer, arranger and pianist, Arturo O’Farrill.
The Chico O’Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra remained a direct link to Afro Cuban Jazz’s greatest composer. Every member of this world-class ensemble sat under the beloved Maestro. When Chico O’Farrill passed away in June of 2001 the baton was passed to his son, Arturo.
The Orchestra had performed at every major jazz festival in the world, including The JVC festival in New York, the North Sea Jazz festival in Holland, the Pori Jazz festival in Finland, and the Marciac Jazz festival in France, among many others. The orchestra has also toured throughout Spain and the United States. They performed in some of the most prestigious concert halls in the world, including Alice Tully Hall in New York, Chicago’s Symphony Hall and the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.
The greatest stars in jazz were featured as soloists with the orchestra, including Wynton Marsalis, Paquito D’Rivera, Randy Weston, Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barreto, Gato Barbieri, and many others. Many of these artists can be heard on three Grammy nominated CD’s recorded by the Chico O’Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra for the Milestone label, “Pure Emotion,” “Heart of a Legend,” and “Carambola.” The orchestra was also featured in two major motion pictures, “Calle 54” and “The Thomas Crown Affair” (for which they also contributed to the score).
The Chico O’Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra included some of the finest Latin jazz practitioners on the scene. Some are leaders and recording artists on their own including trumpet soloists Micheal Phillip Mossman and Jim Seeley, trombonists Gary Valente and Reynaldo Jorge, saxophonists David Bixler, Peter Brainin and Michael Migliore. The rhythm section included such groovemeisters as bassist Andy Gonzalez and percussionists Roland Guerrero, Joseph Gonzalez and Phoenix Rivera.