Earlier this month Arturo O'Farrill won his third grammy award for Best Latin Jazz album. He wields influence in the music world both locally and globally, forging his own path while staying true to his father's legacy. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed this One on 1 profile.
Grammy Award winner Arturo O'Farrill is a composer, performer, teacher, musical impresario. And yet, he's not easy to categorize.
"I wake up every morning and that thing looks at me and goes, ‘Want to dance?’” O'Farrill says. “And I go, ‘Yeah, baby, let's dance’ and she goes ‘I don't think we can.’”
And yet, he's not easy to categorize.
"’Who am I? What are you? A band leader, piano player. What are you? Irish? German? Hispanic? Not old? Not young—what are you? What do we do with you? How do we market you, man? What is wrong with you? Why can’t you just reduce yourself to what we need?’" O'Farrill says.
O'Farrill is busy. He leads his Afro-Cuban Jazz Alliance.He performs at Birdland every Sunday night.
He teaches at Brooklyn College and all over New York.
"I think it’s really important for students and young people to roundly reject, absolutely, across the board, the dogma they’re handed so later on they can sift through the wreckage and appropriate what is correct," he says.
His Afro-Cuban jazz alliance provides instruments and instruction to students in New York City schools, the importance of which was brought home once when O'Farrill came upon a girl who'd gotten her earring stuck in an alto saxophone.
"I said, ‘Why are you crying?’ and she said, ‘It's my only pair of earrings.’ And I thought about how beautiful a moment that was. If you have a crowning moment in your life, it’s the opportunity and ability to hand a young person an alto saxophone who would not have had that in another setting," says O'Farrill.
"A lot of the basis for the rhythms come from the Danzon,” he says.
He's passionate about all forms of music.
"Classical and it ties to ragtime, but it is clearly Cuban," he says.
He’s especially fond of the Cuban music he first learned from his father, trailblazing cuban bandleader and composer Chico O'farrill.
O'Farrill was in Cuba in 2014 working with local musicians when President Barack Obama announced a push to end the U.S. embargo.
"It was an incredibly touching moment to be in a roomful of older Cubans and watch this announcement. A lot of them broke into tears. A lot of them were really hyper-emotional—we all were. I shed a few tears," he recalls.
Since 2002, O'Farrill has made several trips to Cuba to play with musicians there.
"You're there to play perform and interact with Cubans musically. To learn from them their drum patterns and to be able to be a part of their lives and to show them what we do musically as well. This is about as people to people as it gets,” he says.
Not everyone has supported O'Farrill's trips to Cuba.
"People who are musical fathers of mine took to writing me very vicious emails and blogging and posting terrible things about me," O’Farrill says. "A musician that I admire and loved very much basically told me that I had brought shame on my family name and that my father was vomiting in his grave. I realized that I had to complete a journey that my father was never able to. He died broken-hearted because he was never able to go back to his birth land. It was the only thing that ever made him cry."
Arturo O'Farrill didn't always feel the connection to his father or his music.
"I wanted to play free jazz. I just really wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to get as far away from my father musically as I could," he says. “It was only later on in my life that I really discovered what a badass he was."
Arturo was born in Mexico and moved to New York with his family when he was five.
"It was not fun growing up in the household of a musician. There was a lot of lean moments and struggles," he says.
Still, he says he understood early on that he was meant to do one thing.
So he enrolled at the High School of Music and Art, where his love of music got in the way of other joys he might have experienced.
"One of my early girlfriends said to me, ‘We all wanted to get with you but you seemed to only love the piano.’ If I had known! If I had known! She did, she said, ‘We couldn’t get anywhere near you, man. All you wanted to do was play music,’" O'Farrill says.
He was already a professional musician when he went off to Brooklyn College.
Along the way, there was plenty of struggle.
"There was years and years of no work and no money. And years and years of strain on the marriage because bills couldn’t get paid,” he says. "When you’re playing and its 20 degrees outside in some club in middle of nowhere and there’s three people in audience. That’s when you really have to play. That's when you have to play not because of money or fame or anything but just because you’re there playing piano and making art," says O'Farrill.
O'Farrill is surrounded by music at home in Brooklyn and at a studio nearby.
Both of O'Farrill’s sons, Adam and Zack, are professional musicians.
Adam plays the trumpet. Zack plays the drums.
"For us playing music is like shooting hoops," he says.
His wife, Allison Deane, is a classical pianist.
O'Farrill: "She can't improvise her way out of a paper bag.”
Mishkin: Words so beautifully spoken.
O'Farrill: “I will admit on camera something I've never admitted before. I have written music that is too difficult for me to play and I've asked her to play on records."
O'Farrill long ago set out on his own path, but the lessons his father taught, up until his last days in 2001, still inspire the son.
"I'll never forget my father, year or two years before he died, sitting in Riverside Park with a walkman studying a Haydn String Quartet. Haydn String Quartets are the first things you learn in conservatory. That's like 101. Here is the creator of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite—musical history—and he is reading, basically, ‘Dick and Jane,’" O’Farrill says. "If I ever get to the point where I feel like I am comfortable with what I do, I’m probably not very good at it anymore. Probably would rather feel that it's always a challenge.”