01/12/13 By Arturo O'Farrill
Jazz Embodies Possibility
Arturo O’Farrill’s presentation at the Jazz Connect Conference at APAP|NYC
Wow, I am so lucky.
I have never been in the coveted “readers' polls,” I am not “the darling of the critics,” too young to be a “legend,” too old to be a “young lion.” I am not an institution, nor part of one. I have not won this or that competition, didn’t go through this or that jazz program.
Not quite black, but not exactly white (or enough). Even my Latin brethren aren’t quite sure. Cuban, Mexican or Irish, what the hell is my problem? Then there’s the issue of what exactly it is that I do. Am I a pianist, a bandleader, a composer, an arranger? If they can’t seem to figure it out, why should I?
Man, am I lucky.
Then there’s the matter of my music: It’s all over the place. I’m one of these guys that connects the dots between Sun Ra and Jimi Hendrix, Steely Dan and Albert Ayler, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Lupe Fiasco. My art reflects that, even though some insist that jazz is strictly only this or that so therefore you have to be only this or that.
I don’t fit neatly into this or that bin and neither does my music. This used to bug me: the fact that being anything other than a jazz musician mattered. That no matter how organic, thoughtful and heartfelt your art, there was a list of peripheral credentials that affected your career. You had to look right, come from the right pedigree, play someone else’s definition of the music and be a spokesperson for a very specific, narrow viewpoint.
I am not that person. Don’t interview me if you want the “official” position. Don't ask me to decide, decipher, denote or deliver the definitive opinion on what jazz is (or even if it exists). I leave that to the adults. I am not the spokesperson, the authority, the arbiter, the gatekeeper or the source.
What I am is someone who is incurably in love with a vast infinity, an endless source of divine wonder. I don’t use jazz to affirm my opinions, to justify my politics or my views on rampant unbridled capitalism. I don’t use it to soothe, affirm, or placate me or to soothe, affirm or placate my listeners. I use it to challenge my complacency and my self-righteousness. That is what happens when you face infinity. Your viewpoint becomes meaningless. What matters is your entry point into this infinity.
My entry point was (and is) jazz. Jazz reflected best what I felt facing this infinity. Jazz was daring, jazz was uncompromising. Constant progression, pushing the boundaries but rooted in the joy, the pueblo. All of my heroes took chances and risked ridicule. When Louis Armstrong first started scat singing he was met with puzzlement; when Pops first heard Dizzy’s bebop he called it Chinese music. Dizzy’s generation did not embrace Ornette, and on and on and on. Still our heroes push forward.
This music is not static. It grows and evolves and challenges the notion of placation. It challenges the idea of rightness, it forces you to acknowledge the greatness of unbridled possibility. Back then, no one would be foolish enough to claim to be the source of authentication. No one person defined jazz to the uninitiated. It didn’t need to be justified, validated, controlled or called America’s classical music. It is too vast, and too infinite.
This made jazz honest music to me. The one that best reflected this vastness and the infinity.
As Robin used to say to Batman, Holy hole in the donut, am I lucky.
It is precisely this affinity for the indefinable that forced me to create my own route. It is precisely this refusal, this inability to put strangleholds or doilies on my listening that allowed me to do the same with my art. What enabled me to make this music my life’s work was the idea that jazz embodied possibility and not classicism with all its definitions, rules, and cultural elitism.
Because I could not be defined by the machine’s standards I created my own worlds. My own music, my own orchestra, my own organization, my own educational initiatives. When there wasn’t an institution that reflected my sense of wonder. I created one that would fill me with wonder. I created an entity that I could not control, to serve a music that I can not claim to be the spokesperson for because it is still evolving, still exploring, still alive and still, reflecting the infinite ocean of possibility. This is jazz, this is me and this is what I now fit into.
Really, I am so lucky.
I am grateful that I wasn’t the right fit, the right age, the right listener, the right artist and the anti spokesman. It has made all the difference for me and for the people whose lives I am privileged to touch.
Thank you, infinite reality of music for making me realize how vast the possibilities are and how meaningless my illusion of control is.
I am not waiting to fit in, we are not waiting to fit in. There are other musicians throughout the planet that are not waiting for the phone to ring. We are creating our own planets, our own organizations, festivals, labels, musical forms and hybrids that are a legitimate part of the original spirit of true jazz. We don't define ourselves by what we are or what we’re not, nor by opinions of what this music is or what it’s not. We define our music by the possibility of what happens when you relinquish control, carry the pueblo in your soul and leap into the infinite.
Man, I am truly lucky.