What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation


Arturo O’Farrill Doesn’t Mind Looking Like a Fool

A Mexican-German-Cuban-Irish-American Jazz Musician Who Appreciates Donny Osmond

August 25, 2015

Arturo O’Farrill is a pianist, composer, and founder and music director of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. Before participating in a discussion of the American art of risk-taking, he explained his “aesthetic ADD problem” in the What It Means to Be American green room; he’d rather look like a fool than do the same thing twice.

Q: What inspires you?
The same things done by the same people are extremely boring to me. I have an aesthetic ADD problem. I don’t like “replicant” art. So what inspires me, strangely enough, is risk-taking. Taking chances, possibly looking like a fool.

Q: What’s your favorite plant or flower?
I do like dandelions. They can so easily come apart, and it reminds me of the transience of our existence.

Q: If you could play with any of the old jazz greats, who would you choose?
Dexter Gordon would be my first choice because he had just unbelievable phrasing. He took his time. He was in no rush whatsoever.

Q: What’s the ugliest piece of furniture you own?
That would have to be my Ikea desk, with the telescoping legs that don’t function. I would say every six weeks on average, one of them fails and the thing starts to lean, and I have to pull everything off and reposition the legs, then tighten them. Then six weeks later, I repeat the process. It’s a labor-intensive desk.

Q: As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I pretended I was a bus driver a lot, believe it or not. I used to ride my bike and pretend I was taking off from a depot. In my mind, I’d pull up, get passengers, leave. But I knew I wanted to be a musician pretty early on in the game, I think by the time I was 12.

Q: What’s your guilty TV-watching pleasure?
The Talk. It’s a bunch of women sitting around really dishing. It’s really cool. But I also really like it because they’re such archetypes.

Q: What’s your comfort food?
Rice and beans.

Q: What’s your favorite place to perform?
I love to perform at Birdland. We’ve had an association with Birdland for almost 20 years, and almost every Sunday you’ll find me there. At one point, my father was there. Periodically my sons will play with me. It’s such a family of people I love and a place I really love performing in.

Q: What was the first album you bought?
Donny Osmond’s And They Called It Puppy Love. It was a single, and I had a crush on a girl named Martha, and so I bought “Puppy Love” for Martha.

Q: What does it mean to be American?
We came to a land that was occupied before we got here. The best and brightest of other nations come to this nation. To be American is to be international, to be accepting, to be forgiving—to be embracing of other cultures. That’s the best part of it to me. I’m Mexican-German-Cuban-Irish. My wife is Jewish-African-American-Native-American. It’s a mess. But it’s a great mess, an incredible mess, and that really is what it means to be American for me.

*Photo by A.E. Landes Photography.