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Born in Havana, Cuba, Arturo Chico O'Farrill began playing the trumpet while attending military school in Georgia. Once he returned to Cuba, O’Farrill studied composition and led his band. He studied composition in Havana and in the mid-1940s, played with a band led by Armando Romeu and with his own group. In 1948, he moved to New York and began writing and arranging for Benny Goodman and Stan Kenton.
While in New York, where he wrote music for Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In the early 1950s, he formed his band, played at Birdland, toured the USA, and recorded the album Jazz (1951-2, Clef 132). Towards the end of the decade, he moved to Mexico, and in 1962-63, he gave concerts in Mexico City.
After returning to the USA in 1965, he settled in New York and worked as an arranger and music director for CBS on the television program "Festival of the Lively Arts"; among the musicians who took part were Count Basie, Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, and Stan Getz. In 1965-66, O'Farrill wrote arrangements of pop songs for albums by Basie.
From the 1970s, he was less active in jazz, but he wrote pieces for Gato Barbieri and Kenton (1974) and a band led by Gillespie and Machito (1975). While O’Farrill worked for the jazz elite throughout his career, it wasn’t until 1995, with the release of his album "Pure Emotion," featuring his son Arturo O’Farrill, that Chico’s place among them as a true pioneer of the Afro Cuban sound was established.
For the remainder of his life, O’Farrill recorded and performed regularly. He also appeared in the Latin jazz documentary Calle 54. He died on June 27, 2001, from complications of pneumonia. He was 79.