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Born to an Irish father and Cuban mother, O'Farrill spent much of his career as an industry secret, known only to the cognescenti among players and fans. Only in the last decade did he get the recognition he deserved, with a series of scalding big band Latin jazz recordings.
He went into music much against his parents' wishes. He first picked up the trumpet after they sent him off to a military school in Georgia, and when he came home to visit, they were horrified to find him associating with black musicians in Havana. They tried to steer him into a career in law, but by his late teens, O'Farrill had won his case, and his father was footing the bill for him to study with Cuban composer Felix Guerrero.
O'Farrill played trumpet with various Cuban bands, including the Lecuona Cuban Boys, through the mid-1940s. He wasn't much impressed with Latin music at first, though. he found Cuban music boring. "There was only one phrase that repeated itself ad infinitum," he later said in an interview. "Same over and over. There was no richness, and no notes to go to."
What got him more excited was jazz. A fan of U.S. swing bands, he was struck by the new bebop sounds he began to hear on the jazz records he bought. He later recalled thinking, "If this is the shape of things to come, how in the hell am I going to cut it?" Despite these fears, though, he began arranging for Cuban bands and decided to move to New York City in 1948, where he was soon hired by Benny Goodman, who was dabbling in bebop for a brief period. O'Farrill compositions for Goodman, like "Undercurrent Blues" and "Shiskabop," gained attention among other Latin jazz artists, and he went on to work for Machito, Stan Kenton, Noro Morales, and Dizzy Gillespie.
He also hooked up with the impresario Norman Granz, who helped put together a Machito recording session that included Charlie Parker, Flip Phillips and Buddy Rich. "The Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite," the piece they recorded on Dec. 21, 1950, was Mr. O'Farrill's successful blend of Latin and be-bop, an ambitious work that took a set contrasting themes and sophisticated harmony and infused them with a strong Latin rhythm that built up to a climactic crescendo. He went on to record a number of albums for Granz's Clef and Nogran labels between 1951 and 1954. These were recently reissued on a two-disc set, "Cuban Blues: The Chico O'Farrill Sessions," on Verve/Universal.
His best-known piece of the period, "Manteca," was written with Dizzy Gillespie and has become perhaps the signature number of Latin jazz. At the height of the mambo craze, O'Farrill formed his own band and played in the U.S. and Cuba. Around 1955, he moved to back to Havana, and then to Mexico City, in part to avoid various legal and romantic entanglements. He did whatever writing and conducting jobs it took to get by, although he did manage to composr another of his major works, "The Aztec Suite," for the trumpeter Art Farmer, as well as "Six Jazz Moods," a 12-tone piece. He also worked with pianist Bola da Nieve and the Cuarteto D'Aida.
He returned to the U.S. in 1965, settling in Los Angeles, where he contibruted to some of the oddest recordings of his career, including an attempt by the revived Glenn Miller band (led by clarinetist Buddy deFranco) to imitate the Tijuana Brass and a Hawaiian album that sounds like a mid-air collision between Alfred Apaka, Machito, and Ray Conniff. (It is for this work, of course, that we commemorate him in the Space Age Pop pages.) He recorded several albums of big band jazz under his own name, but he grew frustrated at being pigeon-holed as just a Latin jazz artist.
He reunited with Gillespie and Machito in 1975 to record "Afro-Cuban Moods" for Granz' Pablo label, but he spent most of the next 20 years working solely as a commercial composer for advertising and television. "I think one of the reasons he was so successful, though, is that he could never really be a hack," says his son Arturo. "He always wrote from the heart. So even his commercials were good music."
He gained brief notice for arranging several cuts on a 1993 David Bowie album, "Black Tie White Noise," but it was not until the critically-acclaimed 1995 release, "Pure Emotion," that O'Farrill really emerged from obscurity.
"Pure Emotion" was nominated for a Grammy, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center program commissioned him to write a piece featuring Wynton Marsalis. O'Farrill recorded two more albums, "Heart of a Legend" in 1999, and "Carambola" in 2000, and appeared in the Latin jazz film, "Calle 54." He also led a regular big band session at the Birdland club in New York until he turned the baton over to his son a few months before his death.
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