Patrolling the stage in the basement of the Oxford Hotel in Bend, Grammy-award winning jazz pianist Arturo O’Farrill bobbed up and down, nodding and gesturing as he handed off soloing duties from one musician to another.
Back to drums. Now, saxophone.
As the music wound down, O’Farrill lavished praise on the 15 or so musicians at Saturday’s jazz workshop.
“I don’t know what they have in the water here in Bend — great drummers, great musicians, just amazing,” he said.
The son of Latin jazz bandleader Chico O’Farrill, O’Farrill was in Bend for Friday and Saturday shows as part of the Jazz at the Oxford concert series. Like many of the musicians who’ve come to the Oxford in the last year, he dedicated his Saturday afternoon to teaching, leading up a free workshop for local musicians of all skill levels looking to perfect their craft.
O’Farrill said he was pushed into piano lessons as a child, but wasn’t all that moved by the music until the day he picked the lock to a trunk of records his father kept.
Taken by the image of the “angry looking man” on one album sleeve, he put the record on the turntable. The first few notes of Miles Davis’ “Seven Steps to Heaven” proved to be “an epiphany,” O’Farrill said, that set him on a course to follow in his father’s footsteps.
Beyond his touring and recording career, O’Farrill has spent years teaching music to young people in the New York City public school system and at Brooklyn College.
Young musicians are often quick to develop technical proficiency, he said, but can struggle for years to find a way to make music that expresses their own thoughts and emotions.
“You sometimes find they’re afraid of their own sound,” he said.
Getting musicians to explore their own sound requires getting them out of their comfort zone, O’Farrill said, and giving them an opportunity to play something that may not neatly fit with what others on stage are doing.
On Saturday, leading a makeshift band that swelled to include four drummers, two guitarists, two saxophone players, a bassist, a piano player and a violinist, O’Farrill told his students to play whatever they wanted — fast and loud at first, then on command, slowly and quietly.
Noisy and tuneless through the first few repetitions of the drill, the band eventually grasped what O’Farrill was looking for. Within half an hour, the players were starting to build off each other’s solos, creating a seemingly rehearsed piece of music out of nothing but improvisation.
Music only exists to be shared with an audience, O’Farrill said, and learning to play with others is a critical part of getting better.
“It’s a communal activity; it’s a social activity, and it’s a necessary part of our lives,” he said.
Saxophonist Tanner Doyle, 14, said he learned a lot in a short time Saturday.
“It was a really good experience. I had a ton of fun,” he said. “I definitely think I can solo a lot more with what he had to tell me.”
John Fawcett, 13, who splits his time between home-schooling and St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School, said he was initially nervous taking the stage with the other musicians. As a violinist, all of his training has been in classical styles, not jazz, and he said he initially struggled to figure out how to play with the others.
Despite playing tentatively at first, John said he eventually embraced O’Farrill’s instructions not to overthink each note.
“It made an impression, that it was more free, you didn’t have to worry so much, and you’ll still do the right thing,” he said.
Cliff Robison played saxophone in high school and college, then gave it up for nearly 40 years. Now 74 and the oldest workshop student by several decades, Robison said it’s easy for a musician to get in a rut, but never too late to learn new things.
“That’s the only way it’s fun — if you push yourself,” Robison said. “It’s like anything. You do the same thing over and over again, you get bored.”
Marshall Glickman, creator of the Jazz at the Oxford series, said Saturday’s attendance was down from previous workshops, likely due to a scheduling conflict with an out-of-town high school band competition.
Two more workshops are currently on the calendar, Glickman said, one with singer Mary Stallings on Feb. 22, and one with jazz guitarist Bruce Forman on March 15.
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