Early on, his German father expected that Arturo would study law and eventually join his law firm. His truant behavior in school, however, resulted in his father sending him to the Riverside Academy in Gainsville, Georgia, in hopes that a military environment would provide structure and discipline. As O'Farrill himself described it "That's where I heard the great big bands: Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw . . . that's when my career as a lawyer actually died". It was also when he fell in love with bebop.
He joined the school's band as a trumpet player, and after graduation returned to Cuba and enrolled in the University of Havana to study law, as his family had wanted. However, he quickly dropped out of college in the late 1940s and began to study music with Cuban composer Felix Guerrero. At the same time, O'Farrill, drawn by Havana's musical nightclub scene, began playing trumpet for some of the local jazz bands. He was also a trumpet player for several popular dance bands at the time such as Orquesta Bellemar, Lecuona Cuban Boys, and the Newyorkers.
With a solid foundation in classical and Cuban music he left Havana for New York City in 1948. He was soon working with Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, and other big band musicians who were very interested in the way his musical arrangements linked jazz with Latin music. While working for Benny Goodman, who hired him in 1949, the diminutive O'Farrill acquired the name Chico. According to legend, Goodman, finding it very difficult to pronounce "Arturo" and observing that Cubans tended to call each other "chico," addressed him one day as "hey, chico," and it stuck. Goodman's popular hit "Undercurrent Blues" was one of O'Farrill's first major compositions. That same year, Cuban band leader Machito recorded two of O'Farrill's most influential and classical works, "Manteca Suite" (originally written for Dizzy Gillespie), and the ground breaking "Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite." The latter is considered his first masterpiece and has been described as "a dazzling 17-minute, six-movement composition seamlessly joining Afro-Cuban drumming, modern jazz, and classical styles" with saxophone solos by acclaimed jazz musician Charlie "Bird" Parker.
Throughout the 1950s, O'Farrill led his own orchestra and wrote the hit time "Chico's Cha-Cha-Cha." His work integrating Latin songs and big-band American music was instrumental in the evolution of the mambo craze of the 1950s and the salsa explosion of the 1970s. During the mid-1950s, O Farrill relocated to Mexico, where he met and married Lupe O'Farrill. While living in Mexico, he wrote and arranged music and led bands for other musicians.
He accepted an invitation from Fidel Castro in 1965 to conduct in Havana, where he "had a grand time and never went back". That same year, he returned to the United States, and for the next 25 years worked with top musicians in the business including Coimt Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, and Gato Barbieri. For Count Basie alone, he was responsible for over 80 musical arrangements. A versatile musician, his work during this time was not limited to big bands and jazz he also composed music for commercials, jingles for TV, symphonic orchestras, and chamber music, hr 1993 he orchestrated several numbers for David Bowie's Black Tie White Noise album. Even though he was making a good living, he was not well known or acknowledged within the mainstream music scene until the release of Iris 1995 album Pure Emotion, his first in aO years, which earned him his first Grammy nomination.
Chico O'Farrill recorded Pure Emotion with his group, the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, which he assembled in collaboration with his son Arturo Jr. in the early 1990s. One of his most important final compositions was " Trumpet Fantasy, written for and premiered by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis at a 1996 tribute to O'Farrill at Lincoln Center. One of his last recordings, Heart of a Legend (1999), a musical retrospective of his career that includes some of his classic mambos and ballads, has been highly acclaimed and includes well-known musicians Gato Barbieri, Israel Cachao Lopez, Freddy Cole, and Paquito D'Rivera.
A few years before his death, O'Farrill was commissioned to write the music for a Broadway musical version of The Mambo Kings, and his Afro-Cuban Jazz Big Band was a Sunday regular at New York City's legendary Birdland Jazz Club. Oscar Hijuelos, author of the novel Mambo Kings wrote the liner notes to O'Farrill's album Cuban Blues (1996), a compilation of his sessions recorded between 1951 and 1954, a time, according to some critics, when he wrote his best work. In June 2000, O'Farrill, together with Cuban Israel Cachao Lopez were presented with the International Latin Music Hall of Fame's Lifetime Achievement Award; their presence together on stage made music history. O'Farrill was one of the featured artists in Spanish director Fernando Tuba's 2001 jazz documentary Calle 54. O'Farrill died in New York City on June 27, 2001.
In August 2001, the film Cömo se forma um rumba (How to Create a Rumba) premiered in New York City to a sold-out audience. The premiere was dedicated to Chico O'Farrill, who also appears in the film discussing the evolution of Cuban music.
Member American Society of Composers.
Married Alison Deane. Children: Zachary, Adam.