Chico O’Farrill was and still is probably one of the best-kept secrets in jazz. Ask hard-core jazz fans if they’re familiar with O’Farrill and most will draw a blank.
That’s because O’Farrill worked much of his career behind the scenes, in relative obscurity. A brilliant composer and arranger, O’Farrill led and recorded with his own bands but earned the bulk of his living ghostwriting arrangements for Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Count Basie and many other headline bands and jazz ensembles.
O’Farrill was the guy you called when you needed a fast chart that matched your band’s unique sound. O’Farrill also was popular with big-name bandleaders and producers because as a journeyman ghostwriter, he could jump in at a moment’s notice, write charts overnight, and in most cases you didn’t have to credit him on the album.
Don't be shocked. This practice is quite common today in publishing. When a celebrity or politician is signed to write a book, publishers call on ghostwriters to work with the author or in some cases write the book under the “author’s” name. In some cases the ghostwriter is mentioned on the jacket; in other cases not. It’s a straight work-for-hire deal.
In this regard, O’Farrill was an outsider’s insider. Every great jazz musician knew and respected him—but he was largely unknown by the mass record-buying public. Born in Havana, Cuba, in 1921, O’Farrill was the son of an Irish father and a Cuban mother of German descent. A wild kid in his youth, O’Farrill was sent by his father to a U.S. military school in Georgia, where he listened relentlessly to jazz and big bands on the radio. Soon, he took up the trumpet, and by the late 1940s, O'Farrill's matchless ear and fast arranger’s pen started landing him jobs.
O’Farrill’s reputation grew rapidly as the better bands demanded more exciting, complex and exotic arrangements. Unlike the big bands of the 1930s and 40s—which were rigidly managed and marketed to crank out bland mainstream hits—the bands of the late 1940s and 1950s were dominated by spectacular musicians and gifted improvisers heavily influenced by bebop—the intricate jazz style of the time that demanded a strong technique. Audiences also were becoming more sophisticated, demanding from bands ever-tougher sounding songs that lasted longer and showcased a band’s power, prowess and ability to swing.
O’Farrill was always more comfortable behind the scenes than on stage, and his workload only increased in the early 1950s with television’s rise and the emergence of the 33 1/3 LP, a format that required bands to record more music and gave them more room for longer arrangements.
Along with Neal Hefti, Ralph Burns, Buddy Bregman, Ernie Wilkins and a handful of other gifted arrangers, O’Farrill was one of the most sought-after and prolific composer/arrangers of his day when he wasn’t recording his own albums.
But perhaps what distinguished O’Farrill from virtually everyone else in his league was his ability to write straight bebop band arrangements as well as authentic Afro-Cuban charts, which fused jazz with complex Latin rhythms and new instruments such as the conga and bongo. Perhaps O’Farrill’s best known work in this genre was his Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite.
Yesterday I spent the day writing (not unusual) but found myself listening to only one CD (highly unusual)—Cuban Blues: The Chico O’Farrell Sessions (Verve). The dates were recorded between 1951 and 1954. Though the entire collection is a knockout, I kept coming back to three swinging bebop tracks— “Dance One,” “Bright One” and “Last One.”
These smart cuts were recorded August 6, 1951 by “Chico O’Farrill and His Orchestra”—a studio pickup band O’Farrill assembled with a breathtaking personnel. The band included Roy Eldridge and Al Porcino on trumpet, the great Eddie Bert and Bill Harris on trombone, Flip Philips on tenor sax, Ralph Burns on piano, Billy Bauer on guitar, Ray Brown on bass and Jo Jones on drums.
The rhythm section alone is enough to make neck hairs stand on end. Many of these jazz giants were available because in August of 1951, they all were in New York recording separately for Norman Granz’s Clef record label ( which later became Verve).
I hadn’t listened to this double CD in some time, and when I re-discovered these tracks yesterday, I was floored. Man, the arrangements are nothing short of remarkable, and the band’s blend of talents and distinct sound can be compared only to the bebop bands of Artie Shaw and Harry James (late 40s), and Woody Herman’s bands from 1951. The writing is that good.
Here’s more information on these tracks from an interview Ben Young conducted with O’Farrill for the CD’s liner notes:
Ben Young: “In this next batch, the titles are “Dance One,” “Bright One” and “Last One.” Is that because you never got around to putting titles on them?”
Chico O’Farrill: “No, I titled them that way intentionally. Norman Granz [the producer] once in a while would ask me to write just straight-ahead American music, and that’s what I would do for the titles. He knew I had written for Benny Goodman, that I could write for a jazz band also, and he like the way I wrote. So he would tell me, “Chico, let’s do a jazz date or mambo date,” but he would point out to me what he was hoping for. I’ll tell you one thing, I have never worked with a producer who was more amenable, who let you do whatever you wanted. You know what Norman used to say to me? ‘Chico, you do what you want. You fall on your ass, I’ll pay for it.’”
BY: “Were your colleagues aware of these records when they came out? Were people paying attention to the records?”
C O’F: “Well, mostly musicians. These are what you call musicians’ recordings. Musician were aware of them; the great masses, the great public, I don’t know whether they were aware of them or not.”
Chico O’Farrill died on June 27, 2001. His wife, Lupe, still lives in their apartment on West End Avenue. His son, Arturo, leads the amazing Chico O'Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Band, which performs many of his father’s arrangements. If you’re in New York, catch them at the many clubs where the band performs.
Wax pick: I highly recommend the double CD, Cuban Blues: The Chico O’Farrell Sessions (Verve), which combines his bop and Latin arrangements and bands. It’s still available at Amazon or as a download at iTunes.
At the very least, download the three tracks I mentioned above at iTunes for 99 cents each. Hear what O’Farrill recorded in 1951. Dig Papa Jo Jones driving the kit on “Last One.” That’s big band jazz at the start of the 50s, baby!