Arturo O’Farrill is a Grammy winner. A renowned bandleader. He played piano in the Carla Bley Big Band and is founder and artistic director of the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance.
He’s a celebrated composer. An educator. An in-demand performer. Oh, and he’s the son of the jazz pioneer Chico O’Farrill, who helped introduce Afro-Cuban rhythms to the genre in the mid-20th century.
The point is: Arturo O’Farrill’s resume is impressive. This is a man worthy of tremendous respect.
And so it’s refreshing — and perhaps incongruous — to hear his take on jazz education, particularly involving young people.
“To be honest with you, we’re the ones that are getting blessed. We’re the ones who are getting educated,” O’Farrill said Tuesday in a telephone interview from New York City, where he lives. “When you look at 20, 30, 40, 50 kids in a room, you better have your game together, seriously.
“You can’t talk down to these kids. You can’t diminish their intelligence. They’re way smarter than I am. They’re living with bodies that are 30 years younger than mine,” he continued. “Yeah, they don’t have the experience and they don’t have the knowledge, but boy do they have the hunger and they have the intelligence. So when I approach education, I feel like I’m very lucky to have access to these … minds that are developing so fast. If I have 10 minutes or a half-hour or an hour, it’s a huge privilege.”
On Saturday at 11:15 a.m., O’Farrill will lead a free workshop, open to all students and musicians at The Oxford Hotel in Bend. And tonight and Saturday night, he and his Afro-Latin Septet will play three shows as part of the Jazz at the Oxford concert series (see “If you go”).
The septet is a scaled-down — and much more mobile — version of O’Farrill’s Big Apple-based Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, an 18-piece big band that works to play and preserve the music and heritage of Latin jazz.
Not that O’Farrill classifies it as such when he’s traveling to places like Bend that may not have quite the cosmopolitan makeup of, say, New York.
“I find a mixture of people, some who know what Latin, Afro-Latin, Afro-Cuban music is and some who just don’t care,” he said. “I think that sometimes we look for audiences to be this or that and I think that they’re beyond that. They’re just interested in music.”
No matter what you call it, though, the mission is the same.
“It all really goes under the guise of making people happy and hopefully getting their feet moving and their souls liberated,” O’Farrill said. “A lot of what we call dance music is blindingly obvious and not very sophisticated, and I guess that’s where I think a lot of Latin music and Latin-derived jazz is more interesting, because it’s a little more subtle. It has a little bit more information than just boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.”
For O’Farrill, however, the potential for his band’s music extends even beyond his educational efforts or cultural preservation. He has a larger, more global vision that took him to Cuba in December for a 12-day trip — his “seventh or eighth,” he said — that revolved around a project he calls The Conversation Continued.
“We’re trying to reignite the conversation that was occurring between Cuban musicians and jazz musicians before the revolution (in the 1950s),” O’Farrill said. “They were beginning to recognize each other in each other, and they were beginning to recognize the roots of jazz in Cuban music and the continuations of Cuban music in jazz.”
Some maintain that conversation never stopped, O’Farrill said. But he disagrees, and he believes there is a disconnect between Cuban music and jazz that manifests itself in stereotypes.
“Jazz musicians, they see (Latin jazz) sometimes as (a) maraca-waving, ruffled-shirt wearing, exotic, Ricky Ricardo kind of expression, but it’s actually very different. I think the music we play is a lot deeper than that,” he said. “And I think that sometimes Cuban musicians hold up jazz musicians as these high priests of that expression. Both sides are wrong.
“I think the truth of the matter is that this conversation stopped 50 years ago,” O’Farrill said. “And it needs to continue, much as it did then, between two equal but long-lost relatives.”
Through The Conversation Continued, O’Farrill hopes to bring his orchestra to Cuba to perform with Cuban musicians and composers.
“In the end, indeed it’s my hope, my prayer, my desire,” O’Farrill said, “that it will create a reexamining of some of the barriers that we have to opening ourselves up to Cuba.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0377, firstname.lastname@example.org