Born: October 28, 1921 | Died: 2001 Primary Instrument: Composer/conductor
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.
His best-known piece of the period, Manteca, was written with Dizzy Gillespie and has become perhaps the signature number of Latin jazz. At the height of the mambo craze, O'Farrill formed his own band and played in the U.S. and Cuba. Around 1955, he moved to back to Havana, and then to Mexico City, in part to avoid various legal and romantic entanglements. He did whatever writing and conducting jobs it took to get by, although he did manage to composr another of his major works, The Aztec Suite, for the trumpeter Art Farmer, as well as Six Jazz Moods, a 12-tone piece. He also worked with pianist Bola da Nieve and the Cuarteto D'Aida. He returned to the States in 1965, where he continued to arrange for Gillespie, Basie, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and Gato Barbieri.
He also delved into the commercial market. With military precision, he turned out an astounding array of TV background music and consumer jingles-melodies that paid the bills faster than jazz could. He recorded several albums of big band jazz under his own name, but he grew frustrated at being viewed as just a Latin jazz artist. He reunited with Gillespie and Machito in 1975 to record Afro-Cuban Moods for Granz' Pablo label, but he spent most of the next 20 years working solely as a commercial composer for advertising and television.
It was not until the critically-acclaimed 1995 release, Pure Emotion, that O'Farrill really emerged from obscurity. Pure Emotion was nominated for a Grammy, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center program commissioned him to write a piece, “Trumpet Fantasy,” featuring Wynton Marsalis.
O'Farrill recorded two albums for Concord with his Afro- Cuban Jazz Big Band Heart of a Legend in 1999, which features a long list of guest stars, all major names in Latin and jazz: in addition to Gato Barbieri, there’s Cachao Lopez, Freddy Cole, Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, Patato Valdés, and the great Cuban trumpeter Alfredo ‘Chocolate’ Armenteros. The record “Carambola,” in 2000 was the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Big Band, this time with a different line up, of top tier Latin players.
In his last year, he also led a regular big band session at the Birdland club in New York until he turned the baton over to his son a few months before his death in 2001.