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Legendary Cuban composer, arranger, instrumentalist and bandleader.

Profile by John Child (


(b Arturo O'Farrill, 28 Oct. '21, Vedado, Havana, Cuba; d 27 June '01, Manhattan, NYC) Composer-arranger, instrumentalist, bandleader. Father Irish, mother German; learned trumpet while studying at a US military school '36-40 in Gainesville, Ga.; abandoned law school back in Cuba to turn pro '41; played trumpet with René Touzet orchestra at Montmartre nightclub and with Armando Romeu Jr.'s Orquesta Bellamar at Sans Souci and Tropicana nightclubs '45; meanwhile studied harmony and orchestration with maestro Félix Guerrero. Went to Mexico '44, there did a stint as arr./ soloist with Luis Alcaraz; toured Europe '46 with Armando Oréfiche's Havana Cuban Boys. Infl. by Bunny Berigan, Harry James, Bobby Hackett; he described in Ira Gitler's Swing To Bop '85 how he first heard modern jazz on records brought back from NYC in '45: new harmonic changes, asymmetrical phrasing; he thought, "If this is the shape of things to come, how in the hell am I going to cut it?" Gave up horn to concentrate on arranging and composing '46; co-led, wrote and arr. for Isidro Pérez Orchestra '47-8: "the first Cuban orchestra to play jazz charts written and arranged by Cubans," said O'Farrill.

He relocated to NYC '48, studied at Juilliard; hired as a ghost writer/ arr. with Gil Fuller office; Stan Hasselgard recommended him to Benny Goodman '48 when Goodman was leading his only bop band. (It was Goodman who bestowed the nickname Chico.) Wrote "Undercurrent Blues" '49, "Shishkabop" for Goodman, "Cuban Episode" for Stan Kenton '49; also arr. for Noro Morales, others. His work for Kenton inspired producer Norman Granz to hire O'Farrill to write, arr. and cond. Machito's 10 inch LP Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite '50 on Clef, also featuring Flip Phillips, Buddy Rich, Harry Edison, O'Farrill's first in a celebrated series of extended multi-movement Afro-Cuban jazz pieces. ("The Machito band had limitations," said O'Farrill in '96, " wasn't a very good band technically speaking; for instance, the intonation...was sometimes very shaky...they were mostly a swing band, a rhythmic band.") Its success prompted Granz to sign him for a series of 44 big band tracks on Clef and Norgran '50-4 with pick-up bands incl. Machito's rhythm section, all compiled on double CD Cuban Blues: The Chico O'Farrill Sessions '96 on Verve incl. "Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite" '50 and "Second Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite" '52 ("I thought that it was superior to the first one," commented O'Farrill in '99); gigged with his own working band from '53; also mid-'50s 12 inch LPs on Verve incl. Music From South America featuring Cuban singer Bobby Escoto (deceased),which collected cuts from his '51 10 inch LPs Afro-Cuban , Jazz North of the Border and South of the Border on Clef, Chico O'Farrill on Norgran. Concluded relationship with Granz by arr./ cond. "Manteca Suite" '54 for Dizzy Gillespie's album Manteca '54 on Verve, which expanded the Chano Pozo/ Gillespie/ Fuller standard "Manteca" '47 into four movements. ("Manteca Suite" compiled on The Original Mambo Kings - An Introduction To Afro-Cubop '93 on Verve; also incl. "Gone City" '49, his first collaboration with Granz and Machito which he updated as "Crazy City [...But I Love It]" for his last album Carambola '00 on Milestone.)

He returned to Cuba '55-7, while there recorded notable Cuban jam sessions "Descarga Numero Uno" and "Descarga Numero Dos" with his Cuban All Stars incl. bassist Israel "Cachao" López, pianist Peruchín (Pedro Jústiz: 1913-1977); both cuts incl. on collection Los Mejores Musicos de Cuba c.'60 on Gema, reissued on Palladium '88; made LP Chico's Cha Cha Chá mid-'50s on Panart with his All Star Cuban Band featuring Peruchín, Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros, others, and Fiebre Tropical on Panart, later reissued as Tropical Fever on Fiesta (tracks from both Panart releases compiled on Frenesí '95 on Egrem); also arr. innovative Afro-Cuban/ jazz fusion recordings by Cuarteto D'Aida '57 collected on El Original Cuarteto D'Aida '92 in RCA Tropical Series. Made Ecos Afrocubanos with pianist/ singer Bola de Nieve (1913-1971) and Brisas Del Caribe with percussionist Girardo Rodríguez. Moved to Mexico City '57-65, there co-led band "Chico and the Arab" with Héctor Hallal for three years (Mexican musicians union rules insisted that bands with a non-Mexican leader had to also have a Mexican co-leader); studied composition under Rodolfo Halffter; worked on a symphony (premiered in Mexico '72); had a TV show; recorded for RCA Victor and Orfeón. Wrote Aztec Suite '59 on United Artists for trumpeter Art Farmer, as well as the 12-tone piece "Six Jazz Moods". Contributed arrs. to recordings made in Cuba '59 by Antobal's Cuban All Stars collected on Cuban Big Band Sound - Tumbao Cubano '91 on Palladium (which compiles Antobal's Felsted LPs Dia de Reyes and Mango - Mangüé , plus part of Pachanga on Brunswick); also cond./ co-arr. Antobal's That Latin Beat! early '60s on Dot. (Don Mario Antobal: b Eusebio Santiago Azpiazú, 6 Apr. 1890, Cienfuegos, Cuba; d Nov. '66 of heart attack; brother of bandleader Don Azpiazú: 1893-1943, who introduced "The Peanut Vendor" to the USA '31 with a hit record.) Released own LPs Chico O'Farrill y su orquesta on Mexican CBS and Torrid Zone on Columbia in US (six tracks overlap with Chico O'Farrill y su orquesta ) mid-'60s.

After returning to USA '65, wrote for Count Basie, Glenn Miller band led by Buddy Defranco, Frank Wess; also studio work. Made own LPs Spanish Rice '66 co-led with Clark Terry and Nine Flags '66 both on Impulse; arr./ cond. La Lupe's They Call Me La Lupe/ A Mí Me Llaman La Lupe '66 on Tico prod. by Al Santiago; made own Married Well '67 (with Miguelito Valdés adding vocals to "Manteca"), arr./ cond. Valdés" Inolvidables '67 and contributed arrs. to Cal Tjader's Along Comes Cal '67, all on Verve. Composed suite "Three Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods" for Clark Terry for the Montreux Jazz Festival '70. Arr. Machito's eponymous LP '72 and co-arr. Graciela's Esa Soy Yo, Yo Soy Asi '74, both on Mericana (reissued together in two-CD set Machito y Graciela '00 on Salsoul/ Sony). Arr. Candido's Drum Fever '73 on Polydor and arr./ cond. Gato Barbieri's Chapter Three, Viva Emiliano Zapata '74 on ABC/ Impulse (reissued on GRP/ BMG). Wrote suite "Oro, Incienso y Mirra" performed by Machito band with Dizzy Gillespie at NYC's St. Patrick's Cathedral on 5 Jan. '75; later recorded along with a reworking of his "Three Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods" on Grammy-nom. Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods '75 on Pablo. Made Latin Roots '76 on Japanese Philips as co-arr./ cond. of N.Y. Latin All Stars incl. Larry Harlow, Barry Rogers; worked as a writer and arr. of TV and radio commercials. Wrote score to Cuban Jorge Ulla's highly regarded movie Guaguasí '84 (soundtrack album on KIM). Commissioned by Mario Bauzá to develop his trailblazing Afro-Cuban jazz composition "Tanga" '43 into the four movement "Tanga Suite", first performed by Bauzá's orch. at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church '89; then expanded to five parts for inclusion on Bauzá's Tanga '92 on Messidor, voted album of the year in Downbeat critics' poll. Arr. a couple of pieces for David Bowie's Black Tie, White Noise on Savage '93. Guested as cond., composer, arr. on Havana Blues on Palmetto (released '98, though the material was recorded '94-6) by the Armando Rodríguez - Victor Rendón Latin Jazz Orch., composing and arr. the title track (he reworked the tune for his final album Carambola '00 on Milestone), arr. the Kenny Dorham standard "Afrodisia" and two other cuts.

His '95 return to bandleading Pure Emotion on Milestone garnered a Grammy nom.; personnel of his Afro-Cuban Jazz Orch. incl. luminaries Manny Oquendo, Andy and Jerry González, Papo Vásquez and alto saxist Lenny Hambro, a stalwart of O'Farrill recordings who died shortly after the album's completion. The album featured a 12 minute reworking of "Variations on a Well-Known-Theme", his take on the frivolous Mexican tune "La Cucaracha" originally performed at Mexico City's Club Israelita in '64 (previously he'd interpreted "La Cucaracha" on his Panart recording Fiebre Tropical ). Composed suite "Trumpet Fantasy" for Wynton Marsalis, who performed it at NYC's Lincoln Center '96. Arr. a track on Que Viva Mingus! '97 on Dreyfus by the Mingus Big Band. Paquito D'Rivera premiered his "Clarinet Fantasy" with the National Symphony Orchestra of Costa Rica '97. His Milestone follow-up Heart of a Legend '99 featured a stellar array of guests, incl. Cachao, Chocolate, Mauricio Smith, Candido, Carlos "Patato" Valdez, D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval. This almost autobiographical project revisited and redeveloped earlier work, incl. "Trumpet Fantasy" (dedicated to Marsalis), the title track of his mid-'50s Panart album Chico's Cha Cha Chá , and his arrs. of "Manteca" and "Los Componedores" (retitled "Fin de Siglo") written respectively for Married Well and Inolvidables in '67. From '98, his Afro-Cuban Jazz Big Band began a regular Sunday residency at NYC's Birdland, which he ceased leading in Mar. '00 due to ill health. O'Farrill's Milestone finale Carambola '00 featured his own rendition of the first "Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite," 50 years after the original Machito recording, and the "Aztec Suite," premiered by Art Farmer in '59.

After enjoying more recognition since '95 than ever before, thanks to his trilogy of Milestone albums, O'Farrill passed away in June '01. He is survived by his son, Arturo O'Farrill Jr. (long-time pianist and mus. dir. with the Afro-Cuban Jazz Big Band, who made his solo debut with Blood Lines '99 on Milestone), wife, Lupe, and a daughter, Georgina, of Los Angeles.

-This is a significantly revised version of one of over 130 Latin music entries written by John Child ( for The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 2nd Edition, edit. Donald Clarke; Penguin Books; 1998; 1524 pages; US$22.95, UK£16.99.

They are published on the Descarga website by kind permission of Mr. Donald Clarke.

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