May 20, 2024

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Chico O’Farrill: 1951 and ’52 were groundbreaking years for jazz: Videos, Photos

Looking back, 1951 and ’52 were groundbreaking years for jazz. Bebop was still lingering, cool jazz had already begun in ’49, the R&B-influenced hard bop was just emerging and so was the relaxed sound of West Coast jazz.

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But these years also were important for Latin jazz and the influential role played by arranger Chico O’Farrill (above) in its development.

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Up until 1951, the sound of Latin music in the States was pioneered by Machito and His Afro Cubans (above), a group that formed in New York in 1940. Later in the decade, Dizzy Gillespie played a crucial role in the fusion of Latin and jazz with his recordings of A Night in Tunisia, Tin Tin Deo and Manteca.By 1950, the music of Perez Prado sparked a new mambo dance craze, and the demand for Lain dance music at New York’s dance halls began to climb rapidly. The surge meant more work for Latin bandleaders but also for leading jazz musicians, who took gigs in their bands for extra income.

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As jazz artists such as Eddie Bert, Roy Eldridge, Danny Bank and Flip Phillips played in Latin bands and became acclimating to the intricacies of the new rhythms, Latin arranger Chico O’Farrill was crossing over with ambitious orchestral jazz works and dance-band music. Born in 1921 in Havana, Cuba, O’Farrill’s mother was Cuban and his father was an Irish attorney. O’Farrill’s parents hoped Chico would become a lawyer, with expectations that he’d join his father’s firm. O’Farrill was fine with that, until his parents sent him to the States in the 1930s to a Georgia military academy.

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There, O’Farrill was exposed to brass-driven bebop and took up the trumpet. By the time he returned to Cuba, he had developed his chops in the school’s dance band. Studying law was out and jazz was in. In Cuba, O’Farrill came under the tutelage of conductor Felix Guerrero. O’Farrill quickly became versed in orchestration and musical composition. By 1945, he was arranging for Orquestra Bellemar, a Cuban band.

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When the club where O’Farrill worked went out of business, he went back to the States, this time to seek his fortune. At first, he was determined to become a theater player, but his arranging skills soon were discovered by Dizzy Gillespie’s arranger Gil Fuller, who hired him as a ghostwriter and sent him on writing jobs. O’Farrill was so deft as a modernist arranger that Benny Goodman hired him in ’48 to write for his bebop band, which recorded for Capitol in ’49. O’Farrill’s charts for Goodman included Chico’s Bop, Undercurrent Blues and Shishkabop.

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By 1950, producer Norman Granz signed O’Farrill to record for his Clef label as a leader. The results remain stunning. The recordings weren’t Latin noelty tunes but a serious fusion of Latin and jazz that was way ahead of its time. O’Farrill’s first arrangement for Granz was his Afro-Cuban Suite, an impressive orchestral work recorded by Machito. In June ’51, O’Farrill recorded a 10-inch LP for Clef called Afro-Cuban, which was an extension of O’Farrill’s bold Afro-Cuban Suite.

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But the big crossover came in August 1951, when O’Farrill began recording his Chico O’Farrill Jazz, a 10-inch album with jazz orchestral arrangements that will make your arm hairs stand on end. The ferocious complexity of the scores and rhythms were brilliant and put the all-star jazz band’s skills to the test. And what a band!

The first four tracks recorded that August were Flamingo, Bright One, Dance One and Last One. The monster band featured Al Porcino and Roy Eldridge (tp); Eddie Bert, Bill Harris, Ollie Wilson and Bart Varsalona (tb); Lenny Hambro and Charlie Kennedy (as); Flip Phillips (ts); Pete Mondello (ts,bar); Ralph Burns (p); Billy Bauer (g); Ray Brown (b) and Jo Jones (d), plus O’Farrill (arr,cond). A dream band by any measure.

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The second set of four tracks recorded in March 1952 included Guess What, It Ain’t Necessarily So, Heat Wave and Cry Baby Blues. Featured was another knockout band: Al Porcino, Bernie Glow, Al Stewart and Nick Travis (tp); Eddie Bert, Carl “Ziggy” Elmer and Fred Zito (tb); Lenny Hambro and Charlie Kennedy (as); Flip Phillips and Eddie Wasserman (ts); Danny Bank (bar); Gene Di Novi (p); Clyde Lombardi (b) and Don Lamond (d), plus O’Farrill (arr,cond).

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O’Farrill on Clef paved the way for modern Latin-jazz orchestral arranging. Early Latin-jazz masterpieces that followed O’Farrill’s album included Bill Holman’s Have-a-Havana (1953) for Stan Kenton, Manteca: Dizzy Gillespie and His Orchestra, arranged by O’Farrill (1954) and Johnny Richards’s Cuban Fire (1956), also for Kenton. There were many others, as arrangers heard how O’Farrill was integrating Latin and jazz. While Machito and Dizzy Gillespie were responsible for pioneering the marriage of Latin and jazz in the late 1940s, before O’Farrill’s arrival in the States, the results were largely a jazz outcome with conga and bongo along for the ride. Not until O’Farrill begins recording for Clef do we hear a more modernist approach to Latin jazz, where both halves of the equation receive equal representation.

Chico O’Farrill died in 2001.

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Last One, a drop-dead bop-influenced arrangement on Chico O’Farrill Jazz in August 1951, with Roy Eldridge’s trumpet on top…

Avocados, a wonderful blend of Latin and jazz in June 1951…

Last One, a drop-dead bop-influenced arrangement on Chico O’Farrill Jazz in August 1951, with Roy Eldridge’s trumpet on top…

The 12-cylinder Cry Baby Blues fpr Chico O’Farrill: Jazz in March 1952…

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