Last December, pianist Arturo O'Farrill and his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra left New York City for Cuba, along with O'Farrill's mother, his wife and his two teenage sons. The orchestra headlined the Havana International Jazz Plaza Festival, which was dedicated to O'Farrill's father, the legendary New York bandleader Chico O'Farrill.
Chico O'Farrill left Cuba in 1959 and never returned; he died in 2001 at age 79. Arturo O'Farrill tells Weekend Edition host Scott Simon that on this trip, his mission was to learn more about his family's roots on the island, and to share the musical legacy of the New York O'Farrills.
"It was really not a nostalgic Chico journey," he says. "It was a way of connecting my father back to the island he loved, a way of bringing him peace — and also, really, a nod to the Cuban people and to the great legacy that they gave our American art form, jazz."
That said, O'Farrill, who was born in Mexico City and grew up in New York, didn't always regard his father's work with such reverence. He says that understanding Afro-Cuban jazz meant getting over some cultural awkwardness.
"My mother and father spoke with an accent, and so I rejected anything Latin or Cuban," O'Farrill says. "The music [my father] wrote that was jazz, I embraced — though I wasn't quite yet convinced as a jazz musician. It wasn't until I was 12, when I discovered Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, that I embraced that part of my father."
O'Farrill's sons, Adam and Zack, are musicians themselves and performed with the band on the trip. O'Farrill says he remembers one show when he felt a particular cross-generational resonance.
"There was one concert in a town called San Jose de las Lajas," he says. "We were actually performing for free in a town plaza in front of a church, in the birthplace of my great-grandfather. That was the first time Adam and Zack had really performed in front of the Cuban public. I know the band was overwhelmed with emotion."
Chico O'Farrill's influence looms large over American jazz. However, Arturo O'Farrill says the greatest example his father set during his life wasn't a musical one.
"I never heard him cut another musician down," he says. "I never heard him disrespect anyone. I never heard him say anything negative, and that's an incredible lesson for young musicians."