With his rich tonal range, "Chico" (Arturo) O'Farrill is the most famous composer-arranger of Cuban and Latin jazz. He began working with the leading Havana bands in the 1940s and later worked in New York with the Afro-Cubans ("The Afro-Cuban Suite", recorded with Charlie Parker, Flip Phillips and Buddy Rich), Dizzy Gillespie ("Manteca Suite"), Benny Goodman ("Undercurrent Blues"), Stan Kenton ("Cuban Episode"), Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Clark Terry, David Bowie and Gato Barbieri. He has also composed film music and classical works, including "Three Cuban Dances" and "Symphony No. 1".
He was born in Havana to a Cuban mother and an Irish father and spent a few years in an American military academy ("my father thought it would keep me out of trouble") where he played trumpet in the school band and took his first steps in jazz. Back in Cuba, he studied law for a year, but music won the day. In 1943 he joined Armando Romeu's Orquesta Bellamar and at the same time led an experimental band with a friend of his, guitarist Isidro Perez.
In 1947 he moved to New York where he composed scores for a host of musicians, and in the early 1950s toured the United States with his own band. He then spent two years in Havana and went to Mexico in 1956 where he composed "Aztec Suite" and married the Mexican singer Guadalupe Valero. By 1965 he was back in New York.
Recently he formed a big band with which he has recorded Pure Emotion, one of his most accomplished records, and composed a piece for trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, which was premiered on 30 November 1995 at New York's Lincoln Center.
How did you get started in music?
- Even when I was a child I was fascinated by Cuban rhythms, although mine wasn't a very musical family. At military school I fell in love with the recordings of Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller. But it was when I began to study Bunny Berigan's trumpet solos and transcribe arrangements that I found my real calling, writing music, not playing - because I had decided that I couldn't do both at the same time.
But back in Havana, I still played - with Rene Touzet, then with the Armando Romeu Jr. Bellamar band, the best Cuban jazz band at that time. We played the clubs until 1945, and I was lucky, thanks to the encouragement of more experienced musicians, to be able to do more and more composing. I also studied harmony and orchestration with Felix Guerrero.
Was a lot of jazz being played in Cuba at that time?
- Yes, probably because of the American tourists. Clubs would usually hire two bands, a big band with dancers, singers and comics that accompanied the revues, and a "b"-band that played Cuban music. The brass sections were smaller than in the United States, and bands used stock arrangements that they bought ready-made. The musicians' phrasing wasn't good. There wasn't much exchange with American jazzmen, and jazz records were scarce.
A few of us got together and formed a small band and gave free rein to experimentation. …