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Arturo O'Farrill: “We Need to Speak Out”

David Garten

Political expression isn’t a new impulse for pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill, who leads the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. But he’s taking his most direct action yet with “Musicians Against Fascism,” a concert he has organized at Symphony Space. Scheduled for this Thursday, the eve of the presidential inauguration, it’s an act of protest involving more than a dozen notable jazz artists. 

Among the musicians on the concert, a benefit for Refuse Fascism, are vocalists Claudia Acuña, Jen Shyu, Amirtha Kidambi and Somi; saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Lakecia Benjamin; pianists Vijay Iyer, Matthew Shipp and Fabian Almazan; trumpeter Peter Evans; guitarist Mary Halvorson; and Roy Nathanson with the Jazz Passengers, among others. Prominent jazz journalist Larry Blumenfeld is emceeing the event, which will also be streamed online.


O’Farrill pulled together the concert quickly, in the midst of a lot of other activity. He recently returned to Cuba with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, which has its own forthcoming concert program at Symphony Space, on Jan. 27 and 28. Titled Legacies in Jazz: Bebo, Chico, Chucho, ‘turo, that program will feature the orchestra with a distinguished guest, pianist Chucho Valdés, who like Arturo is the son of a late, great Cuban composer and bandleader. 


For the moment, though, O’Farrill’s energies are focused on Thursday’s concert and its urgent political implications. He spoke by phone on Martin Luther King Day, pulling no punches and making no disclaimers. These are edited excerpts of the conversation. 



How did this concert come about?


On Wednesday Jan. 4, Refuse Fascism took out a full-page ad in the New York Times saying: “No, in the name of humanity, we refuse to accept a fascist America.” They got a lot of people to sign on and be signatories. And it occurred to me that that’s exactly what we need to be doing. Instead of being depressed, instead of being angry, instead of being vengeful, we need action. So I began to think of those things that I could do as a musician. I called Symphony Space and decided that with their cooperation, we would try and get as many musicians as possible to take part in some sort of civil disobedience. Because that’s what this is: This is not a concert. This is actually civil disobedience. It's about taking what you are, and what you do, and directing it. 


And it seems the response from your peer group was immediate.


What I found was that all musicians I know, every single creative, improvising artist in my circle of friends, is truly, deeply hurt by the way this election turned. We all felt very powerless. We can write songs, we can do all kinds of things. But the very best thing we can do is come together and be very clear about our thoughts. Much to my delight I found that many of my friends were willing to give of their time, talents, efforts and resources to perform for this cause. 


Do you see this as a direct outgrowth of previous protest movements in jazz history?


At its very best, jazz is subversive music. One of the earliest pieces of music that hit me, right in the heart, is Charles Mingus with the Jazz Workshop, featuring Ted Curson and Danny Richmond. They perform a version of “Fables of Faubus” different from the Columbia-issued version. They sing about Gov. Faubus and actually use the words “Two, four, six, eight, they brainwash and teach you hate.” Hearing that was such an impactful moment for me. We’re all familiar with other moments in jazz history where jazz musicians really were the conscience of a people who were oppressed, and people who wanted to be liberated. For me, the message of jazz that is indelible is finding joy and grace in the midst of oppression, in the midst of suffering.



As you know, the NYC Winter Jazzfest just concluded with a theme of social justice. Do you agree that there’s been a powerful strain of protest in the air, beyond the outcome of the presidential election?


I do, and I like to think that Winter Jazzfest reflects a larger and more inclusive community than sometimes we get to see in marquee jazz. That makes sense to me, because a lot of our young musicians who are breaking in, they’re politically aware. They’re socially active. They don’t have a big pot of gold to protect, and so they can take chances with their lives and music. And they do, they change the conversation. I’m glad because it seems to me that jazz is reclaiming its role as the conscience of a movement. We need to speak out. We need to act, we need to organize. Every single musician that I know lives with the reality that our society is very, very sick. That there’s some unbelievable racism, oppression, income inequality. And every single one of us is befuddled. We don’t know what to do. 


But it seems that more artists are finding ways of expressing themselves.


Jazz musicians don’t have guaranteed careers. We work very, very hard just to continue to stay afloat. But I have found that if you leave your conscience at the door, you’re actually not playing from your heart. You’re not playing this music that is guided by your deepest convictions. Every time I sit down to play, every solo I take, every note I write, I try with all my soul to be genuine. And part of that genuineness is the need to speak out against injustice. 


There’s understandably a lot of focus right now on the president elect, Donald Trump. Are you more focused on him, or on systemic issues? Can the two things even be disentangled?


This political outspokenness really began for me with the shooting of Ramarley Graham by the NYPD. I started taking note of the incredible reality of violence on young Hispanic and black men. That really was a turning point for me. The rush to violence is incredible on the part of the police, but more than that, it’s the atmosphere of fear towards people of color in police culture. And I do think that is systemic, that’s part of the underbelly of this nation’s view of people of color — which is reflected in so many strata of society. But more than that, I think on a very profound level, the machinery of corporate America is geared toward commodification of everything. There’s a reason Donald Trump was installed. And it has to do with protecting the interests of Exxon, it has to do with protecting the interests of oligarchies in Russia, it has to do with protecting the flow of oil in the Middle East. This is nothing new. Does that mean that we sit back and say nothing? No, I think more than ever we need to speak out.


So as you say, the machinery and the man are inextricable.


Yes, and you brought up the person himself. If you lived in New York for any number of years, you know this man. You’ve seen him. I know real estate executives who can’t deal with him. The history of New York is littered with Trump failures. Forget about his business failures, which are legion. Just his failures of understanding the rights and needs of every human being in this city. Starting with being investigated by the Department of Justice for denying apartments to people of color. It’s one thing after another. So yes, on top of the systemic reality, there is the man. And the man is detestable.


We’re speaking on Martin Luther King Day. There has been a lot in the news about the tensions between Donald Trump and the African-American community. But he has also maligned Latino communities. Could you comment on that?


Some of the hardest-working, most productive Americans I’ve ever seen in my life are my people. We deliver the newspapers, we wash the dishes, we take care of children, we cook 90% of the food that is eaten in New York. We are some of the most community-minded, law-abiding, hard-working people in American society. To single my people out for an attack was ludicrous to me, as we are the last people in this society who should be attacked for criminal behavior. But you know, this is the same thing: This country was founded on the basis of religious freedom. And this man wants to have a Muslim registry? Not a terrorist registry — he wants to have people registered based on their religious conviction. The list of people that he’s maligned is endless. He’s a blanket racist, everybody knows this. And I love Martin Luther King because he was a human hero. He was not a man who put himself above being human. I don’t live a day in my life in this nation without realizing that Martin Luther King set the tone for what a hero should be.


You were just in Cuba with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. What was different during that recent visit, under the specter of this coming change?


Arturo O'Farrill with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra at the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, Havana, Cuba, Dec. 2016.
Credit David Garten
Arturo O'Farrill with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra at the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, Havana, Cuba, Dec. 2016.

  They are looking at us with dismay. Cubans shake their head and wonder at what we do. They don’t understand how we could have gone so wrong. I’m not a sanctimonious person, but they have a good point. We talk a lot about the totalitarian dictatorship of Cuba, and this is all true. Dictatorships are dictatorships, believe me; we’re about to enter one. But they still have an amazement at the violence that we bring upon ourselves, either through our electoral process or through the use of handguns.


Finally, how did this concert become aligned with Refuse Fascism?


Even the subsidized rate at Symphony Space is more expensive than I can handle. So Refuse Fascism was gracious enough to allow us to produce this concert. They have not determined any of the policies, they have not told me what to say. A lot of folks are aware that Refuse Fascism has ties with the Revolutionary Communist Party of the USA. And I’m not a Commie; I’m a churchgoer, man. I go to All Saints Church on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn. I’m not into “isms.” I don’t advocate anything more than doing what really makes America great. But the thing that makes America great is that human beings here can organize. We can be activists. We can show displeasure with the people who govern us. We can effect change. It’s a slow process; sometimes it’s inexorably slow and you lose hope. But the thing that makes us a great nation is to reach out across political affiliations and say “We need to band together.” This is what makes America great, and it’s only when we act in concert with one another that we can say that this nation is great.