In December 2010, the jazz pianist and composer Arturo O'Farrill and Duke University arts administrator Eric Oberstein went home together. They both lived in New York, but they arrived in the Cuban farming town of San José de las Lajas in Havana Province. Oberstein and eight generations of the O'Farrill family traced their roots there.
"I had cousins in Cuba that I had never met before," Oberstein says. "The Chico O'Farrill Orchestra performed in the public square about two blocks from my mom's childhood home. It's beautiful and amazing how our two family histories collided."
In the past six years, Oberstein and O'Farrill have enjoyed a particularly productive relationship. They've co-produced five albums together; the most recent two, Final Night at Birdland and The Offense of the Drum, are up for Best Instrumental Album and Best Latin Jazz Album, respectively, at this year's Latin Grammys. And the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, which O'Farrill founded and Oberstein initially directed, has turned into a powerhouse advocacy organization with the misson of preserving the music and heritage of big band Latin jazz. Together, they even negotiated bureaucratic and diplomatic hurdles to bring the 18-piece Chico O'Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra to Cuba.
But the two nearly never met at all. In 2007, O'Farrill—son of the late Chico O'Farrill, legendary Cubop composer and arranger for Benny Goodman, Machito, Dizzy Gilliespie and Stan Kenton—had recently parted ways with Wynton Marsalis' foundational Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. He was struggling to launch his own band and brand.
At his very first concert at Symphony Space, a multi-use venue in New York's Upper West Side, a fresh-faced and eager Oberstein sat in the audience. He'd recently graduated from Duke, and he searched for a career in arts administration. He filled out an audience involvement card, designed to let the new organization know what attendees thought of the programming, and wrote on the back that he wanted to help. He was volunteering, even.
"In that very first stack of cards, Eric's name was there," O'Farrill admits. "Being a new organization, we had no idea what we were doing. We didn't look at the cards."
At least not at first: They finally found his memo 10 months later, when they were ready to reach out for help. Despite the long delay, when a first meeting finally happened, the two half-Cuban New Yorkers forged an immediate bond.
"Arturo and his wife, Alison, invited me to their house in Brooklyn," Oberstein says. "We started chatting about our mutual love for this music, and it became clear very quickly that we were going to be working together for a long time."
At that point, the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance still had no full-time staff, so O'Farrill named Oberstein assistant director. "It was a glorified internship," Oberstein says. But two years and two graduate degrees in arts administration later, the Alliance named him its first executive director.
"I was all of 24," Oberstein says, "and I was terrified."
Still, he hustled grants and established much of the organizational structure and operating procedures that the Alliance uses. That Cuban tour in 2010 took the band to the Havana Jazz Festival and public concerts in five cities; securing the group's entrance and travel was one of Oberstein's logistical coups.
Oberstein left the Alliance two years ago to work as the assistant director of Duke Performances, but he and O'Farrill have remained close friends. Oberstein still collaborates with O'Farrill long-distance as a producer. And this week, the pair closes another personal circle when O'Farrill visits the university for a brief but packed stint as an artist-in-residence with the school's music department. O'Farrill and his conguero Carlos Maldonado have been working with students and conducting master classes.
Their efforts culminate in a Duke Family Weekend concert, featuring the combined Jazz, Djembe and Afro Cuban Ensembles. Oberstein is an alumnus of both the Jazz Ensemble (he played tenor sax as an undergrad) and the Afro Cuban Ensemble, in which he still plays conga. He helped facilitate the residency alongside John Brown, the director of Duke's jazz program.
Bringing in Latin jazz artists, in particular, has become a Family Weekend tradition because it allows Brown and percussion director Bradley Simmons to combine their ensembles. In many instances, students will be trying their hand at the Latin jazz idiom for the first time.
"It's a real challenge for our percussionists, and a real challenge for our horn players," Brown says. "You have to be really precise and accurate with your rhythms. This music requires everybody to embrace rhythmic concepts in a way that is very unique and very rewarding."
O'Farrill will supply the charts. Though he's known largely as a conservator of his father's iconic works for big band (including the masterpiece "Afro Cuban Jazz Suite"), he is a composer and solo artist, too. Most of all, though, he aims to extend jazz in ways that challenge readily available and accepted definitions. He insists that the music has always been more open, inclusive and multicultural than many people assume.
"I don't believe that jazz is an American invention or the sole property of American jazz constructionists," he says. "Jazz is the result of a powerful voice, a victory cry, of the African people over oppression throughout the New World. But it didn't just happen in New Orleans. It happened throughout the Americas."
To that end, a central mission of the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance has been commissioning new works and arrangements from relatively new composers, including pianist Vijay Iyer, harpist Edmar Castaneda and turntablist DJ Logic. The commissions have fueled O'Farrill's own albums and can be heard on The Offense of the Drum.
"For us to say that the resulting cataclysmic clash between European and African musical practices only happened in America," he says, "is an example of the highest order of imperialism that I can think of."
O'Farrill is willing to rock boats, whether the conversation runs to jazz, the Cuban embargo, or NYPD's 'stop-and-frisk' policy. But he isn't out for mere attention. His focus, instead, is getting unexpected strains of jazz more due.
"I don't want to be a spokesperson for anything. I want the world to know this music belongs to the world. It belongs to all of us," he says. "There are many incredible composers and instrumentalists who deserve to be as front and center as anybody. I've made it my life's work to shine the spotlight elsewhere."
When to listen or learn
Arturo O'Farrill shines the spotlight on Latin jazz and the music programs at Duke University this week with a series of workshops and concerts.
THURSDAY, OCT. 23
Arturo O'Farrill piano master class: 4 p.m.–5:30 p.m., free and open to the public, Baldwin Auditorium, Duke East Campus, music.duke.edu.
Carlos Maldonado percussion master class: 6–7:30 p.m., free and open to the public, bring your own drum, Biddle Music Building 086, Duke East Campus, music.duke.edu.
FRIDAY, OCT. 24
The Duke Jazz Ensemble and the Duke Djembe and Afro-Cuban Percussion Ensembles with guest artists Arturo O'Farrill and Carlos Maldonado: 8 p.m., $10, students free, Baldwin Auditorium, Duke East Campus, tickets.duke.edu.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Durham-Cuban Express."