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The Musical Return To Cuba His Father Couldn't Make

The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, led by Arturo O'Farrill (center-right, leaning on white box). John Abbott hide caption

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John Abbott

The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, led by Arturo O'Farrill (center-right, leaning on white box).

John Abbott

When Cuban-born jazz arranger Chico O'Farrill died in 2001, his one great lament was not being able to return to the island of his birth, according to his son, pianist/bandleader Arturo O'Farrill. The younger O'Farrill will close the musical and familial circle next month when he takes the New York-based orchestra his father created to Cuba.

The week-long visit will be filled with performances, instruction and musical diplomacy. The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, the non-profit organization that maintains the Chico O'Farrill Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, announced the trip in a news release on Monday.

The performance highlight will be a gig at the Havana International Jazz Festival, curated by Cuban pianist/composer Chucho Valdes.

"It's been a dream of mine to take Chico's music back to Cuba," Arturo O'Farrill told me by phone this morning. "It's a chance to really connect, in a greater way than anyone else, Cuba with one of its greatest musical heroes — and also connect the idea that Afro-Cuban music and jazz are not separate musical forms."

The emotional highlight will no doubt be the opportunity to hear Chico's music finally performed in Cuba by, in essence, his own orchestra. "This is a spiritual, artistic and familial quest: My mother, my sister and my sons are coming to help give my father's soul some peace by reconnecting him to homeland," O'Farrill says. Arturo O'Farrill has been to Cuba in 2002, but not with the ALJO.

When Chico (whose given first name is also Arturo) arrived in the U.S. in the 1940s, he went right to the row of jazz clubs along 52nd street and to the Latin dance palace right around the corner on Broadway, the Palladium Ballroom. He quickly found work writing big band charts for Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Count Basie and countless others.

It was his work with the orchestras of Machito and Dizzy Gillespie that secured him a place in the pantheon of Latin jazz pioneers. His Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite for Machito's band and The Manteca Suite for Dizzy Gillespie were extended works that sound as innovative today as they were in the early and mid-1950s.

Here's Chico conducting part of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite, from the film Calle 54.


Just two weeks ago, the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra under the direction of Wynton Marsalis also made a trip to Cuba during which it gave concerts and workshops, and sat in on jam sessions. But the upcoming trip by the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra has a deeper musical and emotional resonance, considering the O'Farrills' family history in Cuba and the presence of other musicians in the band with cultural and familial connections to the island nation.

In fact, Chucho Valdes, in his role as Artistic Director of the Havana International Jazz Festival, has dedicated the entire festival to Chico O'Farrill and is coordinating a big final concert called Fathers and Sons: From Havana to New York And Back. A third generation of O'Farrill musicians will perform on that gig: Arturo's sons Zachary (19) and Adam (16).

Do you wish you could tag along for the trip? No worries. Documentary film director Diane Sylvester will be going along to make Oye Cuba! A Journey Home, about the music and the tears.