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.