The Jazz Mambo King in Exile

On the first night of the World Series, there were only six people in Puppets Jazz Bar in Park Slope. Three of them, including a reporter, had come to see the pianist Arturo O’Farrill. The rest worked there.

But Mr. O’Farrill, a cherubic 48-year-old pianist-composer who was dressed casually in a black turtleneck, black slacks and white sneakers, played as if the house was full. He attempted a dangerously up-tempo rendition of “Lullaby of Birdland.”

His hands flew around the keyboard. He grunted as if he were moving his instrument rather than playing it, stuffing the familiar standard with impressionist musings and flashy virtuosity. It was a triumph of will rather than artistry. But Mr. O’Farrill pulled it off.

It was also an apt metaphor for the latest chapter in his career. Three years ago, Mr. O’Farrill and his 19-piece Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra marched out of Jazz at Lincoln Center in a huff and settled uptown at Symphony Space. On Nov. 5 and 6, he and his cohorts will begin their third season in exile, and they will be playing a program that is overstuffed as his version of “Lullaby of Birdland.”

In an interview at Puppets, Mr. O’Farrill described Friday night’s set list, which is to be repeated Saturday, in appropriwately Barnum-esque terms. The orchestras will premier “Wise Latina Woman,” a tribute to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, commissioned by Symphony Space and the Bronx Museum of the Arts. “We have had Latinos in the highest level of the White House, but we have not had a Latino in the highest court,” he said. “For it to be a Latino and a woman—a Latina—is just amazing to me. It gave me a lot of hope.”

The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra will perform works by Bob Franceschini; Ray Santos; Mr. O’Farrill’s father, the late Chico O’Farrill, the unsung composer-arranger who wrote for Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie; and the pianist’s 15-year-old son, Adam. “I don’t know how we are going to get to all this stuff,” Mr. O’Farrill confessed. “Something may be struck from the program.”

And Randy Weston, the 83-year-old pianist-composer whom Mr. O’Farrill calls “the walking embodiment of spirit of jazz,” will make a guest appearance with the ensemble. Mr. O’Farrill said that he has gone out of his way to be inclusive. It is undoubtedly intended as a shot at his former employer.

Mr. O’Farrill had to worry about filling enough seats in Symphony Space’s 756-seat Peter Jay Sharpe Theater to not lose money. That was not a sure thing in a recession. “It is an unbelievable struggle,” he said of his post–Lincoln Center existence.

Still, he said he has no regrets: “The other day as I was walking out of the hours, I said to my wife, ‘You know how hurt I used to be when we were at Jazz at Lincoln Center? They took one photograph of us in six years.’”

The story of O’Farrill’s abbreviated residency at Lincoln Center is a cautionary tale about the politics of cultural institutions. It started in the early ’90s when Jazz at Lincoln Center’s newly appointed artistic director, the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, set out to redefine the art form.

Most people remember Mr. Marsalis’ Sistah Soulja moment when he let it be known that synth-wielding fusion purveyors and Black Nationalist honkers and screamers would not be getting any gigs at his new home. But around the same time, Mr. Marsalis also declared that Afro-Hispanic rhythms were as important to jazz as swing and the blues. It was perhaps the first formal reorganization by a major institution that Latin jazz wasn’t an offshoot of the music; it was an integral part of the tradition.

Mr. Marsalis recruited Mr. O’Farrill, who directed a band that played his father’s music, to teach the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra how to play Latin jazz and ultimately asked him in 2002 to lead his own big band under the institution’s banner. Mr. O’Farrill instantly became the figurehead of an entire genre of jazz.

It wasn’t long, however, before Jazz at Lincoln Center decided it couldn’t afford two orchestras. One of them was going to get more resources—the one led by Mr. Marsalis, without whom Jazz at Lincoln Center probably wouldn’t exist.

Mr. O’Farrill departed, complaining that he had been unjustifiably treated.

He says that his treatment at Lincoln Center is just another example of how Latin jazz has been systematically excluded from the jazz canon. “Ken Burns did 12 episodes,” Mr. O’Farrill fumed. “He didn’t mention Latin jazz. That’s always been the case in our history. The people who tell our history are not the ones who make it.”

Adrian Ellis, executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, disagreed. “When future seasons were planned back in 2006, a mutual decision was made for the [Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra] to continue as an independent entity, allowing the group the expansion and flexibility it deserved,” he said in an email. “We continue to be grateful to Arturo for his leadership and artistic vision and we wish the ALJO success in their season at Symphony Space.”

Mr. O’Farrill infers that if you support his Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, you are striking a blow against the cultural gatekeepers at Lincoln Center and PBS. That argument is probably a little too convenient. Yes, his father was tragically overlooked by jazz critics. But today, that kind of Latin jazz—not just the kind that draws from Cuba and Puerto, but the non-English-speaking Americas—is not only flourishing, it is part of the jazz mainstream.

It is surely a grind to fill the Peter Jay Sharpe Theater. But who would have expected the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra to survive for even three years outside of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s hothouse? That is a testament to Mr. O’Farrill’s charisma and willpower. The band’s most recent album, Song for Chico, won a Grammy. And Mr. O’Farrill is starting to tour internationally with his big band.

Next month, Mr. O’Farrill brings his Latin Jazz All Star Sextet to Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s pricey nightclub. He neglects to mention that in our interview. Better to emphasize the struggle at Symphony Space. Jazz at Lincoln Center can sell its own tickets.

  The Jazz Mambo King in Exile