Chico O'Farrell

Last night I heard Chico O'Farrell lead an 18 piece band at Birdland on West 44th Street. O'Farrell is the legendary arranger and songwriter who Dizzy Gillespie hired in the late 40s to help him develop an Afro-Cuban jazz style. O'Farrell came on board around the same time as Chano Pozo did. Pozo was the lead percussionist in Gillespie's band who died in a knife fight in Harlem only a couple of years after being hired.

O'Farrell is in his eighties and makes his way to the bandstand in small, unsteady steps. After being helped to the stage, he is introduced as a "Beethoven of the 20th Century" by Phil Schaap, a scholarly disk jockey at the Columbia University radio station. I spot Phil every so often on his way to work with an armful of 78's. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of traditional jazz and has written the liner notes for a number of important reissues, including multi-CD sets by Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

Schaap comes from an intriguing family. One brother is Bill Schaap, a co-editor of Covert Action Quarterly, a magazine that specializes in critiques of CIA subversion. Another brother is Dick Schaap, a sports commentator for network television in the 60s and 70s whose wry commentary on boxing and football was a cut above anything heard on the boob-tube. Schaap's father was in the music business and I suspect that he was someone like John Hammond, the A-and-R man of Columbia records who was a member of the Communist Party.

"Papa" Jo Jones, the drummer in Count Basie's band who single-handedly invented the modern jazz drumming idiom, used to be an occasional baby-sitter for Phil. Instead of keeping the beat on the bass drum as was common in Dixieland, Jones used brushes on the cymbals and the snare drums to give the music a particularly light and swinging feel. Phil was devoted to Jo Jones in his waning, alcoholic years. The old musician was riddled by bone cancer but made a point of performing at the West End Café near Columbia University every Saturday night. Phil would introduce him in the same loving way as he was introducing O'Farrell this evening.

I became good friends with Jo Jones' son, also a drummer, when I worked for the welfare department in Harlem in 1967. He had just gotten out of detoxification program and I conned the welfare department to get cash for Jo Junior to get his drums out of hock. Jo Junior had been a junkie on-and-off since the early 1950s. I remember going out to Newark to hear Jo perform with a trio at a Mafia bar. The pianist was Duke Jordan, who used to play with Charlie Parker. In 1967 he was driving a school-bus and thankful for every gig he could get. I sat at the bar in this joint and watched the trio play be-bop standards brilliantly. Meanwhile, the gangsters at the bar, dressed in their sharkskin suits, were making small-talk about their rackets. I certainly didn't have the nerve to tell them to quiet down.

Chico O'Farrell's shaky gait did not prepare me for what I was about to see. The minute he launched into the first tune, he stood erect and took control of the band with precise, informed hand gestures. The band was well-rehearsed and he knew exactly how to get the most out of the members.

The sound was absolutely gorgeous. O'Farrell's compositions were on a par with Ellington's. They featured highly novel chord progressions that combined instruments in an unusual manner. Flutes would be doubled with tuba, soprano sax with trombone. When soloists took their turn, they were accompanied by bongo and conga players who kept up a steady, propulsive Latin accent. It was the best music I had heard in the past five years or so. He knocked the audience out.

Part of the thrill of hearing a big band in person is being part of the sheer energy that it generates. I noticed that people at the bar started to make eye-contact with each other and whisper to complete strangers how great they thought the band was. Even I, the ultimate misanthrope, started to feel part of the scene.

It got me thinking about how much has been lost since the advent of television and suburbia. My mother used to go to hear swing bands in Kansas City, my birthplace, when she was a teenager. The swing bands themselves were an integral part of the populist culture of the 1930s and 40s. I have "Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America" by David W. Stowe on my to-read list. This is a Marxist analysis of big-band culture. In his introduction, Stowe states:

"The turn away from the loose, open-ended, and nonhierarchical playing of 1920s jazz toward the more regimented modes of swing registered the move toward larger, more bureaucratic, and more rationalized units of organization characteristic of American society in the 1930s.It was analogous to the arrangements worked out among business, unions, and the government under the New Deal, for example. Swing's much-noted quality of enabling the individual voice to contribute to the collective whole also accords well with the notion of a cooperative central to Franklin Roosevelt's vision of America."

The idea of a collective whole. The idea of a collective whole. These words haunt me.

This is what was missing after television and suburbia entered the scene. The sixties represented a partial assault on the anomie and atomization of American society, but it was pushed back by the economic insecurity of the 1970s. Jobs became scarce and young people became less daring.

The 1980s and 90s are a mixed bag. The Internet best represents the contradictory culture of the current moment. People are connecting, but it is only through a disembodied medium. We see the pixels on the screen and we try to re-assemble a personality. It is not like sitting next to somebody in a bar sharing the pleasures of Chico O'Farrell's music. Perhaps the next century will usher in changes. I don't know. I leave fortune-telling to the geniuses of vanguard parties. All I know is that nothing is permanent. The hunger for a collective whole will satisfy itself sooner or later.

Louis Proyect