Latin jazz composer Arturo O'Farrill talks Trump, Cuba, and reclaiming jazz music's political teeth 

New World Order

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David Garten

What does the 2016 presidential election have to do with jazz music? More than you might think according to jazz pianist and composer Arturo O'Farrill.

"I feel like this era is the darkest period in American history. Trump is the worst most demonic guy. But as quickly as he has manipulated hatred and racism and intolerance, he will be gone. This is not the true spirit of the American people," says O'Farrill.

That's what makes the would-be president perfect fodder for Arturo who wrote the song "Trump UnTrump" about the small-fingered one. Drawing "from the cyclical nature of human existence itself, the work ultimately offers a hopeful path forward." It's also just one of the many ways O'Farrill is trying to reclaim for jazz what he believes it has lost — its political teeth. "That spirit in jazz is gone. It's become so institutionalized and an education and performing machine," says the multi Grammy award winner.

But Arturo is not about to become a cog in the pop-jazz wheel. As an assistant professor of jazz studies at Brooklyn College, he reminds his students, "Jazz was the music of the oppressed. It was the revolution and voices of Afro-centrism and voices of struggle. It's this incredible magnanimity of the human spirit to evade destruction. It's people who were born in dire circumstances and achieved the highest levels of art."

If anything, O'Farrill was born to give voice to struggle. The progeny of Latin jazz legend Chico O'Farrill, Arturo was born in Mexico just a few years after his father left Cuba to pursue jazz in New York City. Arturo grew up a witness to his father's pain at being barred from the island after Fidel Castro took power in 1959, and that experience colored the composer's Grammy winning 2015 album, Cuba: The Conversation Continues. Chico died in 2001, 14 years before the lifting of the ban on Cuban travel, but Arturo has performed in Cuba since 2002 with his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and has used his platform as a musician to further the progress of the island nation by speaking out on the continued economic embargo. Last year he told The Daily Mail, "it's one of the great injustices in the world because it has only hurt the little people while the communist government remains in place."

Arturo's jazz diplomacy extends beyond international relations, however. The composer is deeply passionate about domestic issues as well and addresses them frequently in his work. Just this month Arturo and famed philosopher Cornel West partnered on Jazz and Spirit, a show that explored the connections between jazz, spirituality, national politics, and activism. Held at Harlem's The Apollo Theatre on May 21, the program included Arturo's "The Cornel West Concerto," a jazz and spoken-word dialogue that centered on the work of W.E.B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk. Throughout the pieces it tackled questions like, What does integrity do in the face of oppression? What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? How does virtue meet brute force?

"I think we're going to use the opportunity to challenge the notion of what Latin jazz is," Arturo said a few days before the show. "What I love to do is to display a panoply, play music that is socially important and draw from the conversation." Such is the case in one song Spoleto-goers may hear this year during his performance of "The Offense of the Drum." Arturo says the song was written as a reaction to the systematic shutting down of drum circles in New York City's parks.

"There was a time period when drum circles flourished in all the city parks. Then the dark period entered. The mayor came upon us, and gentrification in certain neighborhoods was more important than drum circles. Police moved in en masse and shut it down because of noise regulations. It was a racial and class struggle," Arturo explains.

"Giuliani did away of any evidence of the poverty and struggle of the lower and middle class. He excised it with the strong arm of the police. But it didn't go away. New York is still highly poor. And the spirit of the drum is a two-sided issue. It's historically been used as a threat to powers that be. For slaves and people who use the drum, the hand drum is incredibly powerful. It's an incredibly powerful symbol of communication."

Focusing on the drum in the composition is another way Arturo hopes to, as we journalists like to say, speak truth to power.

"Art should be something that's beautiful but something that also makes you question," he says. "Otherwise it's just Prozac."

Arturo is especially sensitive to avoid using jazz as just a salve. When I bring up Charleston's recent year of violence, first with the murder of Walter Scott then the slaying of nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church, his voice catches.

"If the stats are correct, it happens all the time. Some of these killings aren't racially motivated. Some is bad training. Or lack of clarity on the part of justifiable force. We hear it all the time. But Tamir Rice, he was just 12 years old. In what fucking universe —" Arturo muffles a sob. "In what fucking universe can we justify that? How can we justify that? It's more than I can take. To me when we talk about jazz and art, it seems powerless. Where did our skin go? Where did our sense of outrage go? Jazz became sanitized. It became deodorized. We put a plastic cover on it and we sell it."

But a squeaky clean performance crafted to simply please a crowd is not what you'll get when you see Arturo O'Farrill perform. No, his brand of jazz is something else entirely.

He describes it this way, "If you haven't touched people in the deepest part of their soul, you haven't done anything."

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