Born Arturo O'Farrill on October 28, 1921, in Havana, Cuba; married Guadalupe Valero; one son, Arturo O'Farrill, Jr. Education: Studied composition with Felix Guerrero, Bernard Wagenaar, Stephan Wolpe, and Hal Overton. Addresses: Record company--Milestone Records, c/o Fantasy, Tenth and Parker, Berkeley, CA 94710.

Legendary composer and bandleader Chico O'Farrill is credited with introducing the Latin rhythms of his native Cuba to the bebop and swing masters of American jazz during the late 1940s and into the 1950s and 1960s. His Afro-Cuban fusion compositions were recorded by the most popular jazz musicians of the time. Among his groundbreaking works of Latin jazz were the "Afro-Cuban Suite," "Aztec Suite," and "Cuban Dances." His long-standing career began in Cuba during the mid 1940s and spanned over 50 years. In the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, O'Farrill's composing and bandleading skills remained in popular demand. In addition to recording and performing concerts regularly in New York City, he toured Spain and contributed original works to Broadway productions and films.

Arturo "Chico" O'Farrill was born on October 28, 1921, in Havana, Cuba. His mother was Cuban, and his father was a well-to-do Irish attorney. From an early age O'Farrill's parents steered him in the direction of a legal career, and it was tacitly understood that one day he would join his father as a partner in the law firm. O'Farrill himself expressed little objection to the plan, but the unanticipated whims of fate set the stage for O'Farrill to pursue a musical career that ultimately endeared him to the jazz world as an innovator of the Latin jazz movement and a legend in his own time. He was in his teens when his parents ushered him off to the United States to attend a military school in Georgia during the 1930s. Jazz at that time wielded a strong influence in American music, although the music culture was unknown to the adolescent O'Farrill until he arrived in the United States. At school he was exposed to American music, especially bebop, and the sound of the brass horns sent a singular message to the young O'Farrill. He became enamored with the music, so much so in fact that he set his mind to learning to play trumpet. By the time he returned home to Cuba, he had been performing regularly with the dance band at his school and was determined to pursue a career in music.

Initially his decision incurred intense opposition from his parents. Although he complied with their wishes and enrolled in law college, his ardent fervor for playing jazz music failed to subside. Before long his father deferred to the younger man's passion for jazz and arranged music lessons for his son. Subsequently, O'Farrill studied under the prominent Cuban conductor Felix Guerrero. Thereafter, O'Farrill became versed in the intricacies of orchestration and musical composition, in lieu of the fine points of jurisprudence. His passion for jazz was bolstered, and his interest in composing and arranging music was born when he was introduced to the mechanics and techniques of musical transcription. He found an outlet for his creativity in arranging--and re-arranging--musical scores. He deftly applied his newly acquired skill by transposing music for the trumpet; the musical repertoire of the depression-era trumpeter, Bunny Berigan, was a particular favorite of O'Farrill. By 1945, he was working professionally as an arranger for a Cuban band called Orquestra Bellemar. His fascination with melody progression, rhythm, and orchestration overshadowed even his desire to play the horn.

In the mid-1940s O'Farrill resumed trumpeting, nonetheless, to join a colleague, guitarist Isidro Perez, and the Perez Orchestra. The group performed regularly as the house orchestra at a Cuban club called Montmartre, and it was in fact the untimely financial failure of the club that sent O'Farrill packing for a return trip to the United States in 1948.

O'Farrill resigned himself to finding his place in the New York City jazz theater. Among other incentives, he was infatuated with the double-time strains of Dizzy Gillespie's jazz moods. Ultimately it was a jazz bandleader, Gil Fuller, who hired the newly immigrated O'Farrill to develop arrangements behind the scenes as a ghostwriter, and the assignments ultimately led to O'Farrill's contact with swing bandleader Benny Goodman. Goodman hired O'Farrill in 1949, and O'Farrill furnished Goodman with many popular arrangements, including "Shiskabop," and the Goodman classic, "Undercurrent Blues." Despite the resounding success of O'Farrill's arrangements, he and Goodman eventually parted ways because O'Farrill's experimental jazz styles conflicted with Goodman's conservative style and aversion for experimentation.

O'Farrill regardless established a solid reputation among his peers while working with Goodman. As a result new opportunities surfaced, including an offer from avant-garde jazz producer, Norman Granz. Granz was more willing than Goodman to gamble on O'Farrill's innovative fusion rhythms, in particular his new and untested Latin styles and Cuban beats, which were not unlike those pioneered a decade earlier by Frank "Machito" Grillo. O'Farrill signed with Granz and gained stride as a composer in the 1950s; most notably he wrote his first extended jazz suite, utilizing a combination of African and Latin rhythms. The piece, aptly titled "Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite," became a classic of Latin-jazz fusion. He wrote the work for Machito's orchestra, which recorded the jazz suite ultimately with the popular alto saxophonist Charlie Parker on solos. Parker's deftly intuitive interpretation of the music served as a boon to O'Farrill's career. It led to greater exposure for the creative Cuban arranger and enhanced his reputation. During that early phase of his American career, O'Farrill wrote such classics as Stan Kenton's "Cuban Episode" and Gillespie's "Manteca Suite." Also during those years he toured both the United States and Cuba with his Chico O'Farrill Orchestra, and between 1951 and 1954 the group recorded six albums of big band jazz selections. Yet even as a mambo craze swept through the North American popular music culture in the 1950s, O'Farrill, on the intensity of the popularity of "Afro-Cuban Suite" became increasingly absorbed with Afro-Cuban fusion rhythms.

O'Farrill moved to Mexico City for a time in the mid 1950s and early 1960s. His career proceeded at a steady pace both as a bandleader and as a composer. During his Mexican sojourn he wrote another great hit, "Aztec Suite," for flugelhorn bopper Art Farmer. While in Mexico, O'Farrill married singer Guadalupe Valero. Their son, pianist Arturo O'Farrill, Jr., served as artistic director for O'Farrill Sr.'s band in 2000.

After nearly a decade in Mexico, O'Farrill returned to the United States, although his years in Mexico were marred by the knowledge that serious political upheaval had ravaged his native Cuba. After Fidel Castro assumed control of the island in 1959, tensions rose between Cuba and the United States, and O'Farrill as a result visited Cuba briefly in 1960 to perform for the last time in that country; he never again returned to his homeland.

During the mid 1960s he assumed responsibilities as director and arranger for television's Festival of the Arts. Perhaps his most memorable work during those years was the time that he spent working with the Count Basie Orchestra. O'Farrill, enchanted by Basie's energetic swing rhythms, was equally rapt by the Basie persona. The collaboration between Basie and O'Farrill began upon his return to the United States from Mexico in 1964. In all, O'Farrill provided dozens of scores for Basie's orchestra during that particularly unforgettable episode of his career.

With the arrival of the late 1960s, the great swing era and the popularity of the big jazz bands waned. In 1965, O'Farrill settled in Los Angeles, California, at a time when an upsurge of demand for pop/rock music overwhelmed the American music industry. As O'Farrill's performing career subsided with the jazz recession, he devoted much of his energy to the commercial advertising industry, composing background pieces for television and working largely in non-United States (Latin) markets. He continued arranging music in collaboration with his long-time colleagues, Machito and Gillespie, and worked also with Clark Terry and Gato Barbieri. In 1981, the Caracas Philharmonic of Venezuela performed O'Farrill's "Three Latin Dances," and later in the decade O'Farrill reprised his orchestra with a new 18-piece organization, called the Afro-Cuban Jazz Big Band. Also in the 1980s, he made contact with impresario Todd Barkan, who arranged for O'Farrill to revive his recording career with Fantasy Records, on the company's Milestone label. Thus O'Farrill accomplished a successful resurgence of his career at an age in life when many professionals ease slowly into retirement.

In 1993, O'Farrill worked with cutting-edge rock star David Bowie on an album called Black Tie White Noise. O'Farrill also composed a work for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra director, Wynton Marsalis, who previewed the composition at the Lincoln Center in 1995. Additionally, O'Farrill released his own album, Pure Emotion,on the Milestone label in 1995; it was his first newly recorded release since the 1960s. The album earned a Grammy nomination in 1996, and that year Verve Records re-issued a two-disc compilation of O'Farrill's big band albums that he recorded in the early 1950s. By 2000, O'Farrill was performing regularly with his band at New York City's Iridium Club and at Birdland every Sunday where the energetic O'Farrill and his Afro-Cuban Jazz players performed habitually to full houses. He developed the film score for Guaguasiby Cuban filmmaker Jorge Ulla and arranged an autobiographical soundtrack retrospective, called Heart of a Legend,to accompany a film documentary, also by Ulla; that album was nominated for a Latin Grammy Award as Best Latin Jazz Album. During the course of that project, O'Farrill compiled a second full-length album, called Carambolaand released on Milestone in the fall of 2000. The title track of Carambolawas an earlier original work by O'Farrill and Gillespie, and the album included a revival of the O'Farrill classic, "Aztec Suite," as well as the "Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite." Also that fall, Leo Schifrin's Latin Jazz Institute Festival in Los Angeles featured a special tribute to O'Farrill. Untiringly, he toured Spain in 2000 and undertook an additional project to score a Broadway version of The Original Mambo Kings based on the novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Loveby Oscar Hijuelos.

O'Farrill died on June 27, 2001, in Manhattan, New York, of complications of pneumonia. He was 79.

by Gloria Cooksey

Chico O'Farrill's Career

Performed with Orquestra Bellemar, Isidro Perez, and Lecuona Cuban Boys, 1945-48; ghostwriter, 1948; arranger for Benny Goodman, 1949; bandleader, Chico O'Farrill Orchestra, toured United States and Cuba, 1950s; worked with Glenn Miller (reprise) band, Machito, and Dizzy Gillespie, late 1960s; bandleader, Afro-Cuban Jazz Band, 1980s--.

Chico O'Farrill's Awards

Special Tribute, Latin Jazz Institute, 2000.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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