IF there is such a thing as a first family of Afro-Cuban jazz, the O’Farrill clan has a right to claim that distinction. Its members helped invent the hybrid genre back in the 1940s, when Chico O’Farrill came to New York from Havana, and in recent years they have worked to reinvigorate the music despite barriers in both Cuba and the United States.
“We’re kind of people caught between two worlds,” said the pianist Arturo O’Farrill, Chico’s 50-year-old son. As such, he added, it’s his obligation to encourage “an evolving relationship between two countries that should never have been separated culturally” and to “pay a debt forward” in his father’s name.
O’Farrills will be participating in two very different events during the current three-month ¡Si Cuba! arts festival in New York. On Saturday, the O’Farrill Family Band, featuring Arturo and his two sons, will play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music café, and on May 14 Arturo will lead the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra at Symphony Space as part of a “Wall to Wall Sonidos” event that will include the premiere of a new 35-minute piece, “A Still Small Voice,” that he wrote, inspired in part by recent trips to Cuba.
The musical story of the family, which immigrated to Cuba from the British Caribbean colony of Montserrat in the 1700s, begins with Chico, who was studying at a military academy in Georgia in the mid-1930s when he fell in love with jazz. A decade later, after playing trumpet in Cuban orchestras, he moved to New York, where he quickly became an A-list composer and arranger, working with Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Count Basie and Machito, among others.
“Simply put, Chico O’Farrill is the greatest Afro-Cuban jazz figure of all time,” Leonardo Acosta, the author of “Cubano Be Cubano Bop: One Hundred Years of Jazz in Cuba,” said in a telephone interview from Havana. “His way of using the orchestra as an instrument, his ability as an arranger and composer and his skill in converting Cuban music into jazz and vice versa gives his work a kind of chemistry that no one else, neither Cuban nor American, has. He achieves another dimension.”
For Arturo O’Farrill, though, the path to embracing the musical tradition that his father embodied has been anything but straight. At first he gravitated toward experimental jazz groups like that of the composer Carla Bley; for a while he even played keyboards in J. Walter Negro and the Loose Jointz, which blended hip-hop, funk and disco elements.
“As a young man Arturo was not all that keen on the music of his father, whose shadow he was trying to escape,” said the Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, who was granted political asylum in the United States in 1981. “When I’d go visit the family after I first got here, he’d talk instead about his work with Carla Bley. That’s normal, that a son should want to be different from his father. What’s unusual is what he is doing now, after he realized just how valuable and important his father’s music is.”
The turning point, Arturo O’Farrill said, came in the early 1990s, when his father resumed recording under his own name after a long drought. Arturo began by playing piano on some of those sessions and eventually took on responsibility as well for writing arrangements for and conducting the orchestra that backed his father.
“Arturo was a virtuoso pianist at a pretty young age, but it’s really only over the last 15 years that he’s found his own voice, his own rhythm and context, as the leader of a fantastic orchestra,” said the producer Todd Barkan, who has worked with both O’Farrills. “He’s a very protean figure, more protean than even his dad because he has a wider scope of interests and influences.”
In 1995 Arturo and his father began sharing conducting duties for Chico’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra in weekly performances at the Manhattan jazz club Birdland, a Sunday-night residency that continued after Chico’s death in 2001. Arturo also founded and directed, initially at Lincoln Center and now at Symphony Space, the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, which in 2009 won a Grammy for the CD “Song for Chico” and at the May 14 event will be performing with a 115-voice choir.
“I was able to let go of many ghosts of the past,” Arturo said when asked about his shift in musical direction. “My father was a brilliant man, and the honorable thing to do was help him get his art out. It was very much a filial responsibility, but an artistic responsibility as well. I felt I really had to step up to the plate.”
At Saturday’s event Arturo will be playing with a third generation of O’Farrills: his sons, who have just released a CD of Latin-inflected jazz called “Giant Peach.” Zack, 19, is a drummer, and Adam, 16, a trumpet player, but both have been made aware of their family’s singular history in recent trips to Cuba with their father and the Birdland orchestra.
Those visits have been filmed for “Oye Cuba! A Journey Home,” a documentary about the O’Farrills that is expected to be released next year. In Cuba Arturo has played at festivals, conducted workshops, jammed with local ensembles and given master classes.
“Younger musicians there have lost a sense of the history of this music, and my perception is that part of this goes to the struggle that Cuba has had with jazz, and the attempts over the years to expunge it from their schools” as a manifestation of imperialist bohemianism, said Diane Silvester, the film’s director. “That’s why it’s so important that Arturo is bringing a jazz program” to conservatories and schools “and helping develop greater awareness of Chico and his work.”
Not everyone endorses Arturo’s decision to try to rebuild bridges with his family’s homeland. Mr. D’Rivera opposes the idea of cultural exchanges — including the ¡Si Cuba! festival itself, which he sees as “a shameful collaboration with the executioners who have suffocated Cuban culture for 50 years” — and said he had also urged Mr. O’Farrill not to go to Cuba.
“We disagree on this,” Mr. D’Rivera said. “I hold Arturo in esteem, but I think he’s mistaken. No one should go there when there is so much pain and suffering under the dictatorship, because they are only going to take political advantage of you.”
But Mr. O’Farrill’s creativity seems to have been energized by the trips to Cuba, the first of which he made in 2002. Ms. Silvester recalls being with him in Santiago in 2009 when he jammed with a particularly fine local band and then immediately rushed back to his hotel to write a piece called “Ruminaciones sobre Cuba,” which was released in January on “40 Acres and a Burro,” his most recent CD.
“I feel like I’ve literally been watching Arturo grow as an artist,” she said. “His vocabulary continues to expand the more he goes down to Cuba, the more he hears that music directly, rather than as a derivative. It inspires him, and on a personal level it helps him process the deepest question of all: Who is my family?”