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Photograph by John Abbott

Blast Off: The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra birthed an Afro-Latin offshoot.

Head of The Class

Arturo O'Farrill schools the world in Afro-Latin music

By Geoff Wong

IN ONLY its second season in existence, Jazz at Lincoln Center's Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra (ALJO) did its first-ever tour, including a pair of concerts early last month at Shanghai Concert Hall in China.

"Culturally, we did not know what to expect from the audiences," says pianist and ALJO founder and leader Arturo O'Farrill. "We had no idea if they'd be demonstrative. The promoter was telling us it's just culturally acceptable for them to be very quiet. But they were thrilled. They clapped after each number, and they clapped after solos. At the end, they gave us a standing ovation and were cheering wildly and demanded an encore."

Performing in front of uninitiated audiences is nothing new for O'Farrill, who has been a frequent guest with Jazz at Lincoln Center's (JALC) first house band, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra since 1995. The son of Afro-Cuban big bandleader Chico O'Farrill, Arturo has gigged with everyone from avant-garde masters Carla Bley and Lester Bowie to the Fort Apache Band and JALC artistic director Wynton Marsalis.

O'Farrill took over leading his father's Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra in 1995 but knows that the musical form, which dates back to the late '40s and came about in the same musical era as bebop, is a foreign sound to many ears. Hence the ALJO, which has the fiscal muscle and institutional will behind it to support and nurture a big band. He's also done a small group as well as an ALJO performance in the Bronx, one of the birthplaces of Latin jazz.

"We all have our ulterior motives. One of my agendas, and I'm freely admitting this in public and print and in whatever format I can, is to destroy the fear of cultural institutions that my people have and to bring them into Lincoln Center and to go to them, as well," he says. "And one of the ways we do this is by going and performing in places like the Bronx, Brooklyn—the boroughs and the outer boroughs.

"And in so doing, saying, 'Look, we're playing your music. We're playing our music,'" he expounds. "We're not playing anything that you're not familiar with. And we're inviting you to play in a world that formerly, yes, was alienating you—maybe even intentionally so—but you're welcome to be a part of now and forever.'"

Drawing from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra as an institutional model, he sought Marsalis' input back in 1995 about getting arts funding for his own Latin jazz big band. He would only see the trumpeter on the bandstand at gigs—hardly the time or place to talk shop—and would communicate through Marsalis' personal assistant. So it came as a surprise when Marsalis approached him several years later.

"It was 2001, and we were performing at a tree-lighting ceremony for Christmas at Lincoln Center," O'Farrill recalls. "And that's when he came up to me and said, 'I'd love to do your idea.' And I said, 'Whoa! What do you mean my idea?' And Wynton said, 'Yeah, I'm going to start an Afro-Cuban orchestra at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and I want you to direct it.'"

Under his leadership, the 18-piece ALJO has performed at Lincoln Center and, earlier last month, at JALC's new home, the multimillion-dollar Frederick P. Rose Hall. O'Farrill has started to cull the ALJO songbook from seven decades' worth of music plus newly commissioned compositions and arrangements and is responsible for programming themed shows and this tour, titled "Mambo Madness." It's a sampler platter of classic compositions of the genre by the core group of composer-arrangers. "We're playing Machito, who's very important,' he says. 'We're also playing fundamental compositions from the Tito Puente library. And we're playing very important, seminal compositions from the Chico O'Farrill Orchestra. This is just the core, meat and potatoes introduction to music that has influenced everything else in the movement."

Jazz at Lincoln Center's Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra performs Wednesday (Nov. 10) at the Stanford Memorial Auditorium. Tickets to the 8pm show are $30-$48 and available by calling 650.725.ARTS.

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From the November 3-9, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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