Born Francisco Emilio Flynn Rodriguez on April 13, 1921, in Havana, Cuba; died on August 23, 2001, in Havana, Cuba; son of Digna Maria and Francis Joseph Flynn; married Martha Montes Cobian, 1954.
Though a highly influential musician in his native Cuba, jazz pianist Frank Emilio Flynn only came to international prominence in the late 1990s. Blind since his teen years, Flynn did not let his disability stifle his creativity or limit his contribution to Cuban music. He was a member of such innovative groups as Loquibambia, which pioneered the filin genre that fused American jazz and bolero music, and Quineto Instrumental de Musica Moderna, a group integral to the development of contemporary Latin jazz. Flynn made his American stage debut in 1998 at New York City's Lincoln Center, just three years before his death.
When Flynn was born on April 13, 1921, the forceps used to pull him from his mother caused irreparable harm to his eyesight. By the time he was a teenager, he was completely blind. His American father returned to the United States after Flynn's mother died, leaving the young Flynn, not yet five years old, to be raised by his aunt Elvira and his uncle Emilio. When Flynn was a young man, he and his adoptive parents contracted tuberculosis. His aunt and uncle eventually died of it; Flynn recovered in a sanitorium.
Music became Flynn's passion early in life. He taught himself to play the piano at the age of ten. When he was 13, Flynn won an amateur piano contest and started his professional career by joining a danzon orchestra, which played a kind of ballroom dance music that later inspired mambo music. He also entered a formal study of music at a music school run by the National Association for the Blind. In the 1940s, Flynn joined a band called Loquibambia, a groundbreaking group that helped create a new musical genre called filin, or "feeling," a fusion of Cuban bolero music and American jazz. The band was led by Omara Portuondo, who later became famous in the United States as a singer on the famous Buena Vista Social Club albums.
Even though Loquibambia was successful, however, Flynn remained so poor, that according to some sources, he was forced to navigate the streets of Havana without a cane. He supported himself by selling cigars to shops, which paid him only if the cigars were sold to their customers. Flynn became a founding member of the Club Cubano de Jazz in the 1950s, a group dedicated to raising funds to bring jazz musicians from the United States to visit the island. In 1951 Flynn started a group called Los Modernistas, which featured the great Cuban drummer Guillermo Barretto and played in the top Cuban hotels and nightclubs. As the decade came to a close, Flynn became leader of a group called the Quineto Instrumental de Musica Moderna, which also featured the talents of conga drummer Tata Guines. This band performed only Latin jazz, and it played a major role in the evolution of the form. The group later changed its name to Frank Emilio y Los Amigos.
Flynn pursued his interest in classical music during this time as well, enlisting a friend and colleague to make Braille transcripts of some of Flynn's favorite pieces, including those of Ernesto Lecuona. Flynn eventually became as well known in Cuba for his classical recitals as for his jazz, playing the music of Bach, Mozart, Ravel, and other composers. He also pioneered a system that enabled blind musicians to learn music as sighted ones did, from a score, rather than by simply listening to it. Flynn told Newsday that of all of his accomplishments, he was most proud of his work in this area "because these people really need help." From 1978 to 1981, Flynn served as president of the organization that ran his alma mater, Cuba's National Association for the Blind.
Flynn did not achieve much popular recognition in the United States until the 1990s, when he recorded several albums. But he was known and respected there by those who studied Cuban music, like Robert Fernandez, a professor of music at California State University, Los Angeles, who told the Los Angeles Times of Flynn, "He embodies the history of Cuban music. He was there through all these movements, like the danzon and the descarga. We read about it, but he experienced it."
Late in the 1990s Flynn was reunited at last with the American side of his family when one of his American cousins, Kathy Flynn, tracked him down. Starting without even his name, she made two trips to Cuba, and there found that her cousin was a famous musician. On her second trip to Cuba, she met Flynn's son, Jesus Flynn Montes, who told her that his father was on tour in Europe. She boarded a plane, and there met her cousin in Zaragoza, Spain, where he was staying at the home of his granddaughter. "It was just fantastic," Kathy Flynn told New York's Newsday. "He was very nervous because they have preconceptions of who we are or who we might be as Americans. But it was just wonderful. And I finally got to hear him play a recital."
In 1998 Flynn was invited to perform at New York City's prestigious Lincoln Center where he made his United States stage debut. The Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes, who made a guest appearance at this concert, said, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times, "Frank Emilio is a pianist who has influenced every subsequent generation, and those to come, because he's kept up to date. You can't talk about Frank Emilio in the past because he's still very much present."
On a subsequent tour to the United States, Flynn stayed with his American family, telling Newsday, "I feel really emotional. It appears to me like a novel, it's really incredible. Spiritually, this encounter has been so important to me." Flynn lived in the United States for several months in 2001, staying with American family members in Los Angeles. While there, he was greeted with enthusiasm and even reverence by Cuban music aficionados, and he was invited to be an artist in residence at California State University, Los Angeles. While there, he taught a series of classes and played with the school's Latin jazz ensemble.
Flynn died on August 23, 2001, of a heart attack while seated at his piano in his home in Havana. He was 80 years old.
by Michael P. Belfiore
Frank Emilio Flynn's Career
Started his professional career by joining a danzon orchestra, 1930s; played in influential Cuban bands, 1940s-1950s; received music training through the National Association for the Blind; was instrumental in Cuban musical movements fusing Cuban musical styles with American jazz; was relatively unknown outside of Cuba until the late 1990s when he played at New York City's Lincoln Center and released several solo albums; taught at California State University, Los Angeles, 2001.
- Selected discography
- Barbarismo , Milan, 1997.
- Tribute to Ernesto Lecuona , Milan Latino, 1997.
- A Tiempo de Danzon , Milan Latino, 1998.
- Danzas Y Danzones Cubanos , Ans, 1998.
- Ancestral Reflections , EMD/Blue Note, 1999.
- Abanicos Y Vitrales Danzones Antologicos , Egrem, 2001.
- Interpreta a Ignacio Cervantes , Egrem, 2001.
- With others
- Jane Bunnett and the Cuban Piano , Blue Note, 1993.
- Distinto Diferente , WEA/Atlantic/Nonesuch, 1999.
- Day by Day/Day by Night , Collectibles, 2000.
- Havana Café , WEA/Latina/Caliente, 1999.
- Los Angeles Times, May 2, 2001, Part 6, p. 1; August 27, 2001, Part 2, p. 8.
- Newsday (New York, NY), January 25, 2000, p. B6.
- New York Times, August 29, 2001, p. 21.
- "Frank Emilio Flynn," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=B9ye097ukkrdt (February 18, 2002).
- "Frank Emilio Flynn: A Celebration of Cuban Jazz Piano," San Francisco/Bay Area Salsa & Latin Jazz, http://www.salsasf.com/features/articles/feflynn01.html (February 18, 2002).
- Latin Jazz Network, http://www.latinjazznet.com/news.htm (February 18, 2002).