Arturo O’Farrill muses on jazz, revolution and the American soul

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

These four questions were first posed in 1903 by the civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois in his book The Souls of Black Folk. In 2020, those words still ring loudly in the ears of contemporary thought leaders like Dr. Cornel West and, also, of modern jazz musicians like Arturo O’Farrill.

O’Farrill poses those same questions himself in his new album Four Questions, a fiercely ambitious and passionate work by the New York-based musician and his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra.

It’s the Grammy-winning pianist and composer’s first album of all original material, and it covers a lot of thematic ground — including friendship, religion, philosophy, physics, economics and the birth of a child — in its eight compositions and hour-long runtime. But its centrepiece is the title track, which features an impassioned speech by Dr. West himself as O’Farrill and his orchestra deliver a blistering 16 minutes of fiery jazz.

Recently, O’Farrill joined Café Latino for a conversation about the thoughts, feelings and circumstances that motivated this latest project — and about his philosophy on jazz itself.


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You just released a beautiful new album The Four Questions, and I understand it’s your first album of all original music.

I spent a lifetime sharing my platform with people, because I don’t like the idea of sole artistic voices or artistic directors. I’m not into the whole control thing. But I felt strongly about things in this album that matter to me. I felt strongly about certain causes and issues. It was an opportunity to present a lot of questions about who we are and where we’re going.

The concept is based on civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois, and what he spoke about in 1903. Can you tell us about what drove you to write about this?

The album is based on a speech given by civil rights leader, thinker, intellect, theologian and activist Cornel West. He was giving this speech in Seattle promoting a book of his called Black Prophetic Fire. In the speech, he does an exposition on the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk. It deals with pertinent issues and questions regarding the treatment of the Black man in America. When I saw this video, I was absolutely transformed. It was one of those moments you remember forever and ever. I was profoundly moved by his observations of the treatment of the Black man in American history — and even, as you see now, into contemporary times. His exposition on these questions blew me away, and I began to study Dr. West’s other speeches. Lo and behold, I was invited to be on a host panel for discussion between Dr. West and Bob Avakian [chair of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA]. The topic was revolution and faith. Once again, Dr. West’s speech freaked me out. He was speaking about faith and evolution. As you know, the Communist Manifesto does not allow for faith. But Dr. West was speaking to the idea that without faith, revolution is impossible. Again, I found this fascinating. As he was speaking, I literally saw images and colours and swirls. I thought, I have to write a piece for this man. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I had the opportunity to meet Cornel West later on at another rally … about police brutality. He gave a speech and everybody was in tears. The hair on my skin was standing up. I’m sitting there transformed, and the next thing I hear is, “Now, we’ll have a word from Arturo O’Farrill.” Afterwards, Dr. West came up to me, he embraced me and called me brother, and I said I have to confess, I love you and I want to write this piece of music for you. It came to pass, and we performed it at the Apollo Theatre.

With everything that’s happening right now, it’s really relevant.

The fact that it was released during the most racially charged time in American history is fortuitous, because the record is about the treatment of people of colour, and it’s about the impoverishment of the American soul which has been turned into a tool for commercialization and commodification. I think we’re better than that. I think the United States is filled with caring people who don’t want to be seen as a profit or loss margin for corporations; they don’t want to be seen as people who hate based on the colour of your skin or your ideology. I think we are better than that. We’re seeing that play out, not only in the words of Cornel West but in the streets of major cities across this country. Young people are standing up.

It’s something that’s really coming to a head. People are really standing up for human rights and wanting to make a change. What role do you feel that music — and specifically jazz — needs to play?

I think music is a perfect vehicle for bestowing transformative information. It doesn’t always have imagery, it doesn’t always have words, and so a piece of music can get into your heart and into your soul in a way that a play or a dance or a book can’t. It’s very spiritual and mystical. Music that is abstract or narrative can suggest very strong themes to you. I think one of the things I find particularly powerful about music is the idea that you can communicate really huge themes with just notes — so, it isn’t as threatening. It’s not like somebody standing in your face and saying this or that is bad or good. All the great composers and performers of history have had messages to impart — from Beethoven to Charles Mingus, from Brahms to Prince. It’s really about being able to take your convictions and your life force and put it into your art.

It’s interesting that you mention those composers, because I find that this album specifically is a real fusion of different styles. I hear classical, I hear jazz, I hear your Latin background in it. They all live in real harmony, and I guess that was part of the message you were trying to get across?

I really believe in the continuum. A lot of people define themselves in finite points: I’m Canadian, I’m American, I’m a jazz musician, I’m a classical musician, I’m a Republican, I’m a Democrat, I like Coca-Cola, I like Pepsi, I like white wine, I like red wine. They’re very dogmatic about these things. I really prefer to think that there’s a continuum … about what one thinks and what one is and what one does. If you don’t take into account the larger picture of who you are and where you come from, you’re going to be very fixed and rigid. I don’t see music as jazz or classical or folk or rock ‘n’ roll. For me, it’s all part of the infinite playing field that’s open to anyone who has the audacity to enter it.

We have the same philosophy. I don’t like boundaries.

I think people sometimes confuse boundaries with entry points. You enter into a conversation or a great work of art through a port. You come from a familiar place. But the entry point is the beginning of the conversation. You enter through a door called jazz, and before you know it you’re in a room full of Gamelan, bluegrass, Latin, Afro, polka, you know what I mean? I think the thing to do is to differentiate between the entry points to a conversation and the conversation itself.

We’re in a time right now where we’re all facing huge challenges, and we all have to get through this together. I feel like people are a lot more aware than they were before COVID-19 of how vulnerable we all are as human beings, and how united we are in this challenge. I know that you started the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance Emergency Artist Fund. Can you talk a little about that?

I was a fully employed touring musician with an extensive presence, and by March 14 all my work had dried up. I’m lucky enough to have an institutional position with UCLA, so my finances didn’t come to a halt. But I realized that a lot of musicians in my orchestra and in my sphere in New York had no recourse. Their livelihoods were decimated — decimated — to the point where they couldn’t pay their rent, they couldn’t feed their kids. So, I kind of freaked out a little bit. I took a big chunk of money and started a fund. I’ve been blessed to be able to make grants. Now, over 100 grants have been given out to musicians. We’ve raised close to $45,000. Our goal is to continue to raise money till this moment in history is over. Freelancers don’t have protection for their income. They don’t have any kind of governmental support. They don’t have salaries. They don’t have paycheques. They make all of our lives immensely better without any kind of guarantee. I find that horrifying.

Tell us how people can access this fund of yours.

They can go to afrolatinjazz.org, and just follow the website to the ALJA Emergency Artist Fund. If you donate, I can guarantee you that every cent goes directly to musicians, dancers and freelance artists.