For more than twenty-five years, you have been opening the world’s ears and hearts to the beauty of Latin jazz music. This precious genre of music owes much of its contemporary vitality to your artistry and determination as a performer, composer, preservationist, and teacher. Your four Grammy awards and seven nominations are a striking testament to your talents as a pianist and band leader—most notably as the creator of the 18-piece Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, which you founded in 2002. In addition to your work as artistic director of the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, you have led master classes, seminars, and workshops throughout the world, helping to forge enduring musical bonds between nations and cultures. Your many trips to Cuba, including headlining at the Havana International Jazz Festival, have fostered a profound musical dialogue between American and Cuban musicians. For further enriching the music that your father loved, and inspiring others to appreciate, study, and spread it far and wide, Tufts is pleased to award you the degree of Doctor of Music honoris causa.
Latin Jazz is a dance-enticing genre of music that blends jazz melodies and improvisation with African and Latin American rhythms. “It’s not just a branch off the jazz tree,” ARTURO O’FARRILL told the Village Voice. “It’s a separate tree entirely, but they grew up connected.”
That particular tree has blossomed under O’Farrill’s care. For more than twenty-five years, he has been a performer, composer, proponent, preservationist, and teacher of Latin Jazz and Afro Cuban Jazz. He is the artistic director of the nonprofit Afro Latin Jazz Alliance and creator of the eighteen-piece Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra.
Following his 2009 Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Album for the orchestra’s debut recording, Song for Chico, O’Farrill has received numerous Grammy nominations. Most recently he won Grammy awards for The Offense of the Drum (Best Latin Jazz Album) and Cuba: The Conversation Continues (Best Instrumental Composition). Cuba: The Conversation Continues also won a 2016 Latin Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album, and his latest album with Chucho Valdés, Familia: Tribute to Bebo & Chico, won a Grammy in the Best Instrumental Composition category.
O’Farrill was born in Mexico and raised in New York City. His father, a Cuban émigré of Irish and German ancestry named Chico O’Farrill, was himself a prominent performer and arranger of Latin Jazz. But while Arturo O’Farrill was passionate about music, he had no interest in his father’s arrangements of claves, maracas, and congas. Instead, he studied piano and jazz at the Manhattan School of Music, the Brooklyn College Conservatory, and the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. One of his first jobs was with Carla Bley’s experimental jazz band; he was its pianist from 1979 to 1983. He performed with artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Bowie, Freddy Cole, Wynton Marsalis, and Harry Belafonte. He even dabbled in funk, disco, and hip-hop.
It wasn’t until his father returned to recording in the early 1990s and asked his son to play and arrange for him that the younger O’Farrill gave Latin Jazz a chance.
“When I first began to play music, I very much rejected my father and my inherited culture,” he told a reporter. “I was into John Coltrane’s music. I was hanging around Manhattan’s downtown loft scene, and as far from my father’s scene as possible. I didn’t want to play no clave!” But when his aging father needed his help, he said he got past his rebelliousness and “heard the music as if it were new.”
In 1995, he agreed to direct his father’s band, the Chico O’Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra. After his father died in 2001, Arturo O’Farrill continued to perform and celebrate Latin Jazz. In 2002 he founded and directed, initially at Lincoln Center and later at Symphony Space, the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. Their Grammy-winning second album was named Song for Chico. In 2010, O’Farrill headlined at the Havana International Jazz Festival in one of several trips he has made to Cuba to foster the musical dialogue between American and Cuban musicians. In 2015, O’Farrill released the album Cuba: The Conversation Continues. A multi-generational tribute, his latest recording, Familia: Tribute to Bebo & Chico, brings together two of the influential families in Afro Cuban music in a celebration of their late patriarchs: pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader Bebo Valdés and Chico O’Farrill. Familia also features the next generation of those families’ musicians, including trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and drummer Zack O’Farrill.
In addition to performing internationally with his orchestras, in smaller bands, and as a solo artist, he has taught master classes, seminars, and workshops throughout the world and served as an artist in residence at Lafayette College. He is on the faculty at Brooklyn College. As a composer, he has received commissions from the Apollo Theater, the Philadelphia Music Project, and Meet the Composer, among many others, and written music for films, including Hollywoodland and Salud.
“I realized that the music we call Latin is unbelievably important, unbelievably beautiful, and unbelievably hard to play—and as worthy of attention as any genre,” O’Farrill has said. “People who do it well should be commended for being truly multilingual in their approach to music.”
O’Farrill will receive an honorary Doctor of Music degree.