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Families That Play Together . . .
Publication: The Wall Street Journal
Author: Larry Blumenfeld
Date: September 23, 2010
A trumpeter squared his shoulders, issued short rhythmic bursts based on one note, and then built a crowd-pleasing yet complex solo. A drummer mined a flexible groove, sharing a glance now and then—locking in—with a pianist whose harmonic shifts urged along the song. The three musicians bore a striking resemblance to one another. No coincidence: The trumpeter and drummer were Adam and Zachary O’Farrill, 15 and 18 years old, respectively. The pianist was their dad, Arturo O’Farrill, whose distinctions at age 50 include directing the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra.
At Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola earlier this month, the O’Farrill Family Band opened a “Generations in Jazz” festival that focused on progeny in the general sense—tradition passed down via bandstand association or just clear influence. Yet this gig traced a bloodline, extending back to Arturo’s father, the Cuban composer and bandleader Chico O’Farrill. News of this next wave of gifted O’Farrills had arrived last year via one track on their father’s dazzling CD “Risa Negra” (Zoho). Their own forthcoming Zoho debut, “Giant Peach,” co-leading a quintet sans dad, bristles with confidence and creativity.
That “generations” theme spills into Saturday night’s season-opening Jazz at Lincoln Center concert at the Rose Theater. Drummer Roy Haynes, vital as ever at 85, will perform a two-part program—one leading a quintet including musicians who gained formative experience alongside him, such as pianist Danilo Perez and alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett; the other, with his Fountain of Youth quartet, whose other members range in age from 28 to 36.
Mr. Haynes looked customarily sharp in wraparound sunglasses one recent afternoon in Manhattan. He recalled talking his way backstage at Boston’s RKO Theater as a teenager during a Count Basie engagement, claiming drummer Jo Jones as his father. “It worked,” he said, “and I hung out the whole week, learned a lot.”
Mr. Haynes must be counted among Mr. Jones’s “kiddies,” as that drummer (later nicknamed “Papa Jo”) used to call those he’d influenced. Musicians imprinted by Mr. Haynes—whose own associations trace jazz’s history from Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis, Billie Holiday to Pat Metheny—include his own literal offspring.
He recalls a band rehearsal decades ago in the basement of the house he bought in Hollis, Queens. “My son Graham was at the top of the stairs. His eyes were closed. His expression was intense. I just knew.” Now 50, Graham, a cornetist, is among the most adventurous musicians of his generation. His brother Craig, a drummer, who is 45, worked early on in pianist Sun Ra’s free-thinking Arkestra. If, as Graham said in an interview, the music industry expected him to play his father’s brand of straight-swinging jazz, Roy Haynes didn’t.
“They’ve got to play what comes naturally to them,” said the elder Mr. Haynes, “not to me.” The set of Ludwig drums he gave as a 10th birthday gift to his grandson Marcus Gilmore—currently as in demand as any 28-year-old drummer has a right to be—is the same one Mr. Haynes sits at in a photograph hanging on the wall of the Village Vanguard jazz club. “I was literally beating on tradition,” Mr. Gilmore said.
Exceptional siblings and passings of mantles are not uncommon in jazz. The Jones brothers (trumpeter-bandleader Thad, drummer Elvin and pianist Hank) and the Heath brothers (drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, bassist Percy and tenor saxophonist Jimmy) represent familial jackpots. Violinist Mat Maneri is as wonderfully nonconformist as was his father, the composer and reedman Joe Maneri. It would be hard to inherit a legacy more formidable than the one tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane got from his father, John.
Storied musical families are de rigueur in Cuba, where Chico O’Farrill was born. “And yet, Chico was a rebel,” said Arturo O’Farrill, “more interested in music than the agricultural business of his family.” Ellis Marsalis Jr., the most widely known jazz patriarch from New Orleans, where names like Batiste evoke generations of musical achievement, was expected to take up the ambitious motel business his father established in response to Jim Crow policies. “My father didn’t have any confidence in music,” he said.
Yet Ellis Jr. went on to distinction as pianist and educator, both father figure and literal father to an outpouring of accomplished players. The National Endowment for the Arts recently took the unusual step of naming among its class of 2011 Jazz Masters the Marsalis Family: Ellis Jr., now 75; tenor and soprano saxophonist Branford, 50; trumpeter Wynton, 48; trombonist Delfeayo, 45; and percussionist Jason, 33.
While such a unified award raises procedural questions—alto saxophonist and 2007 NEA honoree Phil Woods called it “a ridiculous precedent” on his website—there is no doubting the family’s unity as expressed through music. The new CD “Music Redeems” (Marsalis Music) documents the five Marsalises in joint performance. On one track, another son, Ellis Marsalis III, recites a poem, casting jazz as “this edifice that introduced us boys to the man / and then the world.” The album’s proceeds benefit an actual edifice currently under construction, the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, within the New Orleans Musicians’ Village initiated by Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. in partnership with Habitat for Humanity.
Talent aside, what often gets passed down in jazz families is outlook. Branford Marsalis railed recently in an interview against “a basic inability these days of even gifted jazz players to react to other musicians.” Ellis Jr. recalls one of the earliest teaching exercises he used at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. “I had the whole class improvise at once,” he said. “I told them listen to what everybody else was doing and be influenced by what they heard.”
More significant to Mr. Gilmore than even his grandfather’s ride-cymbal technique was his credo: “Be yourself at the drums—because that’s what he’s done all these decades.”
Adam O’Farrill says that his father taught him to “take what you learn and reconstruct it, don’t just play it.”
Wise words notwithstanding, Mr. O’Farrill finds his dad far from imposing on the bandstand. “It’s really no different than eating dinner or playing video games together,” he said. “We don’t think of it as a big thing.”
Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz for the Journal.