The story about the blind boy born in Cuba was passed down in the Flynn clan like a fading family photograph. Only the barest details about him survived the rifts created by personal tragedies, revolution and an impassable sea.
The boy was named Frank, like his Irish American father who found work and a wife after moving to Cuba at the turn of the last century. The boy's mother died when he was 4 and his father soon returned to the United States, leaving the child in the care of his Cuban aunt and uncle.
For the Flynns in America, the boy's biography practically ended there. Later, they learned he had grown up to become an accomplished pianist.
Almost 100 years after the elder Flynn founded the clan's Cuban branch, one of his U.S. descendants started making trips to Havana, drawn by the almost forgotten family ties. Kathy Flynn, a counselor at Santa Monica College, interviewed a dying aunt in Massachusetts and soon pieced together a skeleton of a sketch of her long-lost relative, the blind boy born to her great-uncle, Francis Joseph Flynn.
When she returned to Havana in 1999 with the information, she discovered there was really no mystery and no missing person.
In Cuba, everybody knows and loves the maestro, Frank Emilio Flynn.
Thanks to Kathy Flynn's persistence, Los Angeles fans of Afro-Cuban music now have a rare chance to see an artist hailed both for preserving traditional Cuban music and pioneering Cuban jazz. Afro-Cuban connoisseurs have long admired Flynn's extensive career, which spans seven decades and crosses paths with seminal figures such as pianist Jose Maria Romeu, composer Miguel Matamoros and percussionist Tata Guines, a founding member of Flynn's respected 1950s quintet, Los Amigos.
"He embodies the history of Cuban music," said Robert Fernandez, a percussion professor at Cal State L.A. "He was there through all these movements, like the danzon and the descarga. We read about it, but he experienced it."
In one of his few West Coast performances before returning to Cuba, Flynn is scheduled to perform tonight at La Boca, the restaurant attached to the Conga Room.
Flynn made his U.S. debut in New York as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center series in 1998, the year before his cousin made contact with him. When he returned to Lincoln Center in January of last year, his performance dovetailed with a reunion of the Flynn family after seven decades of separation.
Fran' Emilio--as he is affectionately known by friends and fans who drop the hard-sounding "k"--has been in Los Angeles since February as his cousin's guest. When word got out, ethnomusicologists and enthusiasts rushed to greet this diminutive man with courtly manners.
He's not widely known to American audiences, but his local disciples include UC Irvine's Raul Fernandez, a social scientist and Latin jazz expert who taped interviews with Flynn in Cuba for the oral history archives of the Smithsonian Institution. Cal State L.A.'s Paul de Castro, a music professor and avid fan, invited Flynn to be artist in residence during his California stay.
On April 13, the frail pianist celebrated his 80th birthday at a Cuban restaurant on Melrose Avenue. He was surrounded by his newfound relatives and excited fans who had not seen him since leaving Cuba themselves. An emotional Flynn played the piano and cried behind his wraparound dark glasses.
Flynn's repertoire ranges from Ravel to the rumba, Chopin to cha cha cha. He moves smoothly from the semiclassical songs of Ernesto Lecuona to a swinging descarga, the Cuban-based jam session he helped popularize. And he delights in the the old-fashioned danzon, the elegant ballroom dance that arose from the 18th century French contredanse and which later gave birth to the modern mambo.
But his heart prefers classical, which he considers more demanding. He cherishes the memory of his 1964 concert performance of George Gershwin's grand Piano Concerto in F, backed by Cuba's National Symphony Orchestra.
With typical humility, Flynn declines credit as a creator or pioneer.
"At least, if I haven't contributed anything new, I have given continuity to what others have done," he said in Spanish during an interview at Kathy Flynn's comfortable Westside apartment.
The musician's New York-born cousin rented a small piano for his visit. It must have made him feel at home.
As a boy, Francisco Emilio Flynn Rodriguez plucked out his first notes on a piano that belonged to his mother, Digna Maria, who had been married 17 years before giving birth to her only child in 1921. She was not a musician, but a festive hostess who kept the home alive with music. She'd often invite musicians to come over after they played background music at silent movie theaters.
"For me, those were marvelous encounters," recalled Flynn, whose sight was damaged at birth from a doctor's misuse of forceps and gradually deteriorated.