COVID CONVERSATIONS, Vol. 1: Arturo O’Farrill

COVID Conversations is a series that  looks back through my talks with musicians since we first got locked down and moves forward as long as we’re stuck where we are.

At the Passover Seder I attended last month, the Four Questions came and went without the usual fanfare. Zoom meetings can be like that. Yet that first question—Why is this night different than all other nights?—struck me with fresh, COVID-era implication.

All questions are newly timely right now.

The title track of Arturo O’Farrill’s new release, “Four Questions” are drawn from the W. E. B. Du Bois’s book, “The Souls of Black Folk”:

What does integrity do in the face of adversity / oppression? What does honesty do in the face of lies / deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? How does virtue meet brute force?

O’Farrill was moved to consider these questions by the author, activist and theologian Dr. Cornel West, via West’s 2014 speech  to a packed house at Seattle’s Town Hall a few days before his 10/13 arrest at the “Moral Monday” Civil Disobedience Actions in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. O’Farrill met West at another protest against police brutality, and again at a symposium where they both spoke. The two got to talking—about shared commitments to social justice and swinging rhythms. O’Farrill ended up composing a piece, which had its premiere performance at The Apollo Theater in 2016, for which his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra was joined by Dr. Cornel West as a guest soloist, conductor, and percussionist. As recorded, “Four Questions,” the centerpiece of an album devoted exclusively to O’Farrill’s compositions,  is dense and intense, by turns angry and celebratory; it’s about ancestry, shared inheritances and a common sense of purpose.

O’Farrill typically splits his time between New York City, where he leads the nonprofit organization he founded, the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, and Los Angeles, where directs a program in Global Jazz Studies for UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. Now, he’s holed up in L.A. for the foreseeable future. We talked about his collaboration with West, and about what this extended moment means.

How did you connect with Cornel West?

I’ve been a fan of Dr. West for a long time. I’ve admired him as a civil-rights hero, author, theologian, and as one of the most gifted speakers I’ve ever heard. We were both part of a public dialogue about revolution and faith, presented by a church. He gave a speech that electrified the audience. As I was watching him, I started seeing him as a saxophonist. I felt like he embodied spirits of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. The cadence of his speech has so much jazz rhythm code. So I’m sitting there, stunned, the hair on the back of my head standing up, and I’m thinking, he’s a jazz soloist, alright. I got the idea to write a concerto specifically for him.

How did you approach that?

I took his speech, the one in Seattle, and I transcribed its cadence and rhythms. I thought about the questions, handed down to him from W.E.B. Du Bois, and now from him to me. And then I did what I always do. I gave a great performer room to move. The Apollo had commissioned me, so we performed it there at first. By the time we got into the studio, he had changed it up, which is what I wanted and expected him to do.

When you embarked on this project, you couldn’t have imagined the world we’re living in right now. Does it change how you feel about it?

It doesn’t change the nature of the work itself. But I’ve clung hard to those four questions, and the ideas that flow from them because right now we’re experiencing not just a pandemic, and not just the ways in which that crisis reveals inequities based on race and class, but also we’re watching yet another episode of what it means to live in a country by insane and unscrupulous people.

We’ve also suffered great loss, right?

Yes, I’ve lost friends and mentors, especially Andy Gonzalez, who I owe a lot to.

How have you approached the challenges posed by this crisis?

When it all came down, I was in Los Angeles. I was about to attend the soft premiere of “Fandango at the Wall” at the San Diego Film Festival, and to do a concert. I was supposed to give a world premiere at Columbia’s Miller Theater, and do something at the Joyce Theater.

All of that and more got canceled. Of course, I’m very fortunate in my faculty position at UCLA. They had built me a wonderful studio here. I figured I could stay here and work and write and practice. And I could run the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance from here, too. But a week later, UCLA closed all the buildings.

Right away, the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance has established an Emergency Artist Fund.

The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra has resumed our Sunday Birdland gig. We get the musicians in their homes to record their parts and we even get the club’s manager, Johnny, to announce. It’s available on the Facebook page of the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance. The first one was two Sundays ago. It was executed brilliantly. It feels like a real performance. Musicians are amazing healers, they bring their whole heart. Here’s the thing: I knew it would work, and it was important for any sense of normalcy. The ALJO has maintained itself and given life to music all these years simply by the loyalty and fierce creativity of these 17 musicians. What spoke to me from this Frankensteinian editing process online, spanning the many places we recorded—from Madrid to L.A. to New York—was that the vibe of the band came through, the sheer joy came through. I was not prepared for that: The glorious vibe of my band shouted at me from my computer.

The nature of this situation is so unique, in that it’s so open-ended and that it keeps us apart for so long. What does that mean for your many endeavors?

Everything else has been ground to a halt except the writing process. The survival of the organization that I built is an open question, if I’m going to be perfectly honest about it. We can survive for a while. Then again, it’s always been a struggle. The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance is a small miracle. The fact that we’ve educated tens of thousands of young musicians, that we’ve performed all over the world and made so many recordings, that we’ve presented so many different kinds of music in so many contexts, it’s really just a miracle.

Now is an important moment for the organization to redefine itself. We’re kind of rewriting our mission. It was always about the democratization of content, the deconstruction of elitism. The only thing that has changed is this new forced democratization of content, because all the gilded concert halls and expensive clubs are closed. This has forced all of us to take a long look at the power structure. It’s a terrible way for it to happen but it needed to happen. The power structure and conduits of jazz, and of culture in general, have always been controlled by specific groups of people. I’m not anti-institution. But I’m looking at this moment in time as an opportunity for my organization to democratize even further. We all need to do that right now.

To really do that, we have to ask the same questions all jazz musicians must ask now. Why are we jazz musicians? What is the point? What do we do this for? For me, the only reason is to play music I love with people I love for people I love. The process of getting there can be hard, harder than ever now, but the answers are simple.

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