Bucking the Tradition

What is it like to grow up in a household with two generations of musical iconoclasts: one generation who became famous for his role in the early days of “Afro-Cuban” music while quickly transcending the simplistic boundaries of the genre and the next expanding that manner of thinking and pushing it even further? What do you do when confronted with a family tradition of experimentation and growth that is every bit a part of how you think about music as the cultural associations that the press, and maybe even other musicians, make about who you are and what you do?

These circumstances can weigh so heavily on a young musician that, in many cases, they could easily crumble under the personalities and history they’ve been born into. But, the artists that take that history as their starting point will find a way to make their own brash and powerful stamp on the world, the next chapter in their family’s legacy.

Adam and Zack O’Farrill are part of a tremendous lineage stretching up through their father, pianist, composer, and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill—who has worked with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie and Harry Belafonte to Carla Bley and Lester Bowie—to their grandfather, Chico O’Farrill, a legend of “Afro-Cuban” jazz and a profound composer of jazz and orchestral music from the 1950s onward.

My expectations in meeting and talking to the O’Farrill brothers, both of whom are already forging their own identities by making music that is a magnificent blur between straight-ahead and free jazz, was to get an education in the “Afro-Cuban” big-band tradition as popularized and revolutionized by their father and grandfather. And, in a manner of speaking, I did, but not in the sense of a nuts-and-bolts history or practical guide to performance. I was given a more intimate sense of who the O’Farrills are and what makes the music of Latin Americans so unique.

This interview took place around the kitchen table of the O’Farrill home. It started rather formally, but quickly—and happily—morphed into a free-form conversation about multiple topics ranging from the problematic term “Afro-Cuban” to some very valid, and perhaps ahead-of-their-time, ideas on music education. Within this issue’s subtext of “authorship,” it is exciting to think of the ideas, on all fronts, that will be filtered through the minds of Adam and Zack O’Farrill.

Note: In editing the interview, two things came into focus immediately. One was that my contribution to the conversation, false modesty aside, was almost completely worthless as far as the SA readership would be concerned; the other was that the structuring of the text would be better served by being split under some of the broad topics that we touched upon. Below is the result of a truly magical day of talking.

On Beginnings

AOI started on piano when I was six, and started playing trumpet when I was eight. I don’t have that much of an inspiring story, but I saw my brother’s middle-school band and it was loud. And it was shiny. I thought it was cool. I do remember that this saxophonist named Mario Rivera who worked with our grandfather, and in Tito Rodriquez’s band, and played a lot with Dizzy Gillespie—he was almost like this wise uncle to us, you know? We’d go to sound check in my dad’s band and he’d give us $20, just one of those kind of guys, and such an incredible musician, but anyway…

ZODominican though. He’s not Cuban.

AOYeah. They all intersected though.

ZOWell, I think that Cuba, during the ’40s and ’50s, was the most connected [Latin American country] with the United States. Cuba had the most trade with the United States, the most political dealings. Cuba had the most U.S. tourism, and so a lot of times the words Afro-Cuban jazz and Latin jazz are used interchangeably. There’s a lot more going on than just that.

AOYeah. That’s very true. But, anyway when we went over to his apartment he had one of Dizzy’s old horns, and I blew into it when I was like four. I remember feeling like…

ZOI think it was around the time you were starting to think about playing trumpet.

AOSix or seven? I remember the feeling. It was fun. It was just kind of like, “Oh, this is um, yeah.” I think the turning point was our father getting us to improvise, which was huge, you know? And, then there was this place called Puppet’s Jazz Bar. You remember that?


AOSo, we have a family friend who was the founder and owner [of Puppet’s] and, for both of us, it was a hugely essential place to our musical development, growth. That was our first experience playing with other people our age—people in the neighborhood—and just kind of building a steady community. That was probably the most formative, probably one the most important educational experiences we could have had.

Zack O'Farrill. Photograph courtesy by Alex Joseph.
Zack O'Farrill. Photograph courtesy by Alex Joseph.

The O’Farrill Heritage

AOI think what’s interesting about our dad is that he spent a lot time in a lot of different scenes. For example, just when he was 16 or 17 he was playing with some of the first New York underground rap artists, like J. Walter Negro. Then he played with Carla Bley when he was 17 for a few years: two wildly different worlds. Not to mention Dizzy Gillespie, Machito, Jerry Gonzalez you know, Lester Bowie, and all kinds of people. I think he really understands the sense of a community, especially a community of widely varying people, and that’s reflected a lot in the past few years of his work–and he definitely instilled that in us at an early age. But I think it’s also kind of coming from Afro-Latin culture, you know. It’s that melting pot kind of aspect.

ZOYeah, it’s hard to ask Adam and me the idiosyncrasies of playing Latin music or playing in a Latin big band versus a straight-ahead jazz band, because, for us, they’re not that different. We grew up with them concurrently. We grew up playing straight-ahead jazz alongside Latin music and being exposed to a lot of different stuff the whole time. So, I think in some way it’s easier to look at how they’re similar than how they’re different. If you listen to Tito Rodriguez or Count Basie, there’s a lot more in common than there are differences.

Look at Adam and me. Our dad’s Mexican and Cuban of Irish descent and our mom’s half black, half Jewish. Like we, we’ve never fit neatly into [a scene]. I can’t speak for Adam, but I feel a defining O’Farrill trait is that we tend to see things and want to do things that kind of don’t fit any of the labels or definitions.

Our grandfather arranged for Benny Goodman. But then also was drinking buddies with Thad Jones. And you can listen to Thad’s ’70s charts, like all the funk stuff that also is very not tonal or that expands harmony a lot. You can hear a lot of similarities. And you can, even in our grandfather’s music, if you listen to his music from the ’40s and the ’50s, and then his music in the ’70s, you hear someone who’s still studying stuff that has nothing to do with Latin, that has nothing to do with Latin jazz.

Adam O'Farrill. Photograph courtesy Evan Shay.
Adam O'Farrill. Photograph courtesy Evan Shay.

On Purism

ZOI mean, let’s face it. Any sort of jazz purist is missing the point of jazz entirely. Completely. Jazz at its very heart is completely not pure. You know what I’m saying? It’s impossible for there to be real jazz because jazz is, in and of itself, this bastard child of 15 different influences.

You can’t examine the history or the roots of something without looking at the context of how and why it developed. For example, if you wanted to come down to one thing that defined the birthplace of jazz, it was that New Orleans was Catholic, so they took Sundays off. They didn’t do that in Virginia. They didn’t do that in Massachusetts. They didn’t do that in Georgia. Those places didn’t give the slaves a day to do what they wanted. That’s why black music didn’t evolve in a way that blended with other styles in the United States outside of New Orleans–or at least not overtly, not in a way that wasn’t hidden.

But, throughout Latin America, all over the place, these incredible fusions were being born. They all have differences. They all have shit in common. You listen to like a festejo in Peru, and there’s this constant accent on the second triplet. [Snaps fingers to demonstrate] It’s just two and four. It’s a backbeat. And, on top of all that are the same types of rhythms you’ll find in Afro-Cuban music in 12/8 or a 6/8 pattern in samba out of Brazil. To say that there’s a pure version of any of this is ridiculous.

It’s the same idea. It’s the same structure. It’s the specifics that get changed around. In jazz, you have this sense of pushing the time forward while laying back the phrasing. The larger figures are moving ahead, while the actual individual notes are pulling back. I would say that, rhythmically, Latin music tends to do a little bit of the opposite. A little bit of the same, but a little bit of the opposite. It’s like the larger rhythms are laid back, but all the percolations inside are very on top [of the beat].

AOWhat’s happening now is somebody like [big-band lead trumpeter] Seneca Black playing Latin charts. It’s really different because he’s coming from a different place. He’s not coming from a place of playing Latin music, you know. He’s played a lot of it, but he probably grew up playing more Basie, so he brings a certain laid-back kind of way to Tito Rodriguez’s music. It works, but only because he still understands that it’s not that [straight-ahead big-band] music. He’s just bringing our certain attributes and I think that’s a perfect example of the beautiful intersection that happens because, you know, we’re not keeping the Latin musicians playing Latin music, or the Americans playing Count Basie. It brings a different edge into things. Different colors. Different ideas.

ZOI think there’s more crossover than people realize. Well I think, okay, so I think that there’s actually a lull in crossover. I think it’s starting to pick up again with younger generations that have an appreciation for shedding bebop while also realizing the futility of shedding bebop. That’s not to say that shedding bebop is more or less meaningless than anything else

Now you’re finding people who go into the jam session at Dizzy’s [Club Coca-Cola] who also attended the Banff workshop, which is kind of heavy. And, it benefits us all. It shows that we don’t have to be boxed into this world.

Adam and Zack perform the world premiere of Adam's composition Captivated with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, conducted by their father, Arturo O'Farrill.

On the Label of Afro-Cuban Music

AOI think the way I look at it is that I’m proud to be a voice that happens to be Latino and mixed. But, then I look at a filmmaker like Alejandro González Iñárritu, who made some Mexican movies, and Guillermo del Toro. Even if [their movies are] in Spanish they still encompass a lot of what they might have gathered, different styles of film and all that. I feel the same way with my career. I take pride in the fact that I know about this music and that I’ve played this music, and I have very strong connections to it, you know: physically, biologically, and just emotionally and personally. I’m inspired by what that music symbolizes—that kind of melting pot aspect and this crazy intersection of a lot of cultures and ideas and that, to me, is the biggest influence other than maybe the way I think rhythmically.

In terms of being pigeonholed and all that, I just kind of try and dabble with everything as much as I can, and I think there are a lot of incredible Latin musicians today who really excel in different styles. I think it’s just in our blood, this kind of hyperactive activity.

ZOI feel like Latinos are born with a certain kind of energy. Not that other ethnicities don’t have it. It’s just different. For example, I go to Cuba and the thing I always take away from it is just how self-motivated these people are, and how they’re always, constantly throwing themselves out there and trying to play. They’re so thankful for every opportunity to play and learn, especially when foreigners come. And, going there and coming back here is always weird. Getting lost in the hustle here and kind of getting so complacent, sitting on a train. Staring, staring into space. But, I go to Cuba and it’s like, “wow, man!” The look in your eyes, you know, just the way you take out your instrument, the way you give each other a hug over playing music you know. It’s so powerful, and for somebody that comes from a partially Cuban background, I feel like I want to have that as well—that joy and that kind of appreciation for any opportunity to play—and I want to build my character in that way.

ZOI think it goes further than that. I think that, there, the music holds a much more societal-based, much more community-based significance. And I think, and now I’m going to contradict myself but, earlier, I said that there is no jazz, that jazz purism is wrong, but I do think that at its roots, jazz is also meant to be community music. Jazz is not meant to be exclusive. It’s not meant to be isolated. It’s not meant to be expensive. It’s not music of money. It’s not the music of the system. Jazz at its heart is also this community-based, counter-cultural, rule-breaking, get-down music.

And, that’s not to say that it can’t have an intellect. Listen to some Cuban timba and rhythmically there’s shit there that—you could have played clave-based music your entire life—and not be quite sure how they figured out that accent structure lining up with clave, and how they can feel it so naturally and how it’s so beautifully internalized. It’s extraordinarily sophisticated. And deliberately so. There’s nothing saying that you can’t have something that is community-based and meant to make people have an experience with that isn’t also intellectually challenging.

And that, I think, is really at the premise of the O’Farrill duality, if you will. I think that, and I’m not going to point any fingers at why, but I think way we treat jazz has become disturbingly reminiscent of the way we treat classical music. I wouldn’t be so dramatic as to say that classical music is dying, because nothing is dying. It’s art. Art doesn’t die. But classical music is losing relevancy at an alarming rate. And, jazz is on a track to this same thing when it becomes precious.

ZOI think what Adam is really speaking to is how, in Cuba, it’s not that. In Latin America it’s not that. In Africa, in most non-Western countries, it’s not that. It is about community.

A Model for Music Education

ZOI wanted to speak to something Adam was talking about: being fluent in your ability to play and appreciate various styles. I’m gonna take it a step further and perhaps say something slightly problematic. I think jazz musicians from Latin America are uniquely well endowed with the ability to be stylistic chameleons because I think so much of jazz, hip-hop, rock has its roots in African music, and I would argue that music throughout Latin America has stayed closer to its African roots musically.

Look at a place like Venezuela where, in institutions, they are trained in classical, jazz, Cuban music, and traditional Venezuelan music. You’re never gonna find a Venezuelan jazz musician that you need to talk to about loosening up their triplet feel. Ever. Because, it exists already! Like [demonstrates triplet swing pattern on the table with his hand] that exists. Any comping pattern you can find exists there already. So rhythmically, even for the horn players, this is all internalized.

It is less institutionalized, so we’ve had a lot of trouble with musicians in Cuba with reading or how to properly write out charts in a way where the rhythms are actually notated correctly, but the rhythmic sensibility is there. That’s not to say that everyone from there can play really offhanded, great, straightahead jazz, but I think that a well-studied musician from Latin America has a very special skill set that is hard to replicate. And, that is hard to gain not growing up with some sense of studying Latin music.

I think that Latin music is kind of like Bigfoot. It’s like the missing link between jazz and its African roots.

AOFor example, sometimes you hear a drummer play the “Latin feel” they learned from listening to Art Blakey, and I’m not saying this against Art Blakey, but it’s a reduction of a lot of ideas and it’s not really getting to the core of what this music is, you know. So, people are getting their ideas of how to play Latin music from a drummer who’s using Cuban and African aspects in their drumming and fusing it with something else. It’s really amazing, but it’s not that strong a lesson in those core.

ZOIt think my answer to that would be if you’re going to make the effort to learn some Latin grooves by copying the [Art] Blakey Latin groove, copying the Philly Joe [Jones] Latin groove, then why not just substitute a couple of those with a couple of the real things?

The problem is that the drum set didn’t really exist in a lot of that music until the last 30, 40 years, and so if you want to accurately play a mambo, it behooves you to learn how to play a little bit of congas. A little bit of bongo, a little bit of timbale, and bells. To learn just to be able to navigate your way through a few different instruments at a time. You don’t have to play them all at once, but it behooves you to learn your way around a couple.

Honestly, I don’t even think just drummers should be limited to it. I think every instrumentalist should have some percussion instrument from a culture that isn’t their own that they spend time with and study. It takes them out of the fixation we sometimes have with our own universe.

That could even mean playing snare drum in a New Orleans–style. That could even mean just playing tambourine. That’s an instrument with different grooves and sounds it gets, and a different way to feel time, and like it’s almost like the value of studying another language. You don’t have to be fluent in that language, but it’s like if you have a little bit of conversational ability in some other language,  it’s a gift. It’s useful. It’s enlightening. It enlarges your own world.

Bucking the Tradition