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Arturo Sandoval: Two Counties, Two Lives, One Trumpet de Oro

Jim Worsley By

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When they caught me listening to jazz, they put me in jail for three months. They said that I was listening to the voice of the enemy. —Arturo Sandoval
Arturo Sandoval is widely considered the world's premier living trumpet player. You will get no argument from me. After a tumultuous life in Cuba, he and his family successfully sought political asylum in the United States. His story is well documented in For Love or Country (HBO, 2000). Andy Garcia portrays Sandoval in this movie that accurately depicts the human side of his difficult, yet fascinating life and the events leading up to his escape from Cuba. It, however, tells only half the story. The other half spanning the thirty years that he has resided in, and become a citizen of, the United States. Sandoval has brought much to the jazz world and given back much to a society that he feels blessed to be part of. In a recent conversation with this humble, kindhearted, and genuine man, he spoke candidly about both of his lives. He passionately expressed his feelings about the state of jazz in today's world, family, his music of today and the past, Cuba, the United States, and much more.

All About Jazz: This is an off-the-cuff way to start an interview with one of the great musicians of our time, but as an animal lover, I just have to ask you about Coco and Chanel. You clearly adore your beautiful pups. I'm guessing they are much loved and part of the family.

Arturo Sandoval: You know what, those two dogs are a son and daughter to us. We love them so much. There are no words to tell you how much we love them. They are both part of our family.

AAJ: What kind of dogs are they?

AS: They are both Pomeranian.

AAJ: Nice.

AS: Yes, I will tell you that Coco sleeps by my side every night. They are both very special to us. The only problem is that when I am on the road, I miss them so much.

AAJ: And you have been on the road extensively of late, including a one-week residency at the Blue Note in New York City. How did that go? What kind of reception did you receive?

AS: You know, the Blue Note is very famous and there are a lot of tourists from all over the world. It's a place everybody wants to go. We played eight shows at the Blue Note, and eight shows at Blues Alley in Washington, DC. All the shows were sold out. All of them. We really enjoyed it very much.

AAJ: I've had some musicians tell me that they can't quite blow like they used to back in their twenties, and conversely, others say that they are now playing better than ever due to all the many years of experience. Where do you weigh in on that conversation?

AS: I am seventy years old and to be honest I was told that after sixty-five that I was going to slow down a lot and play a lot less gigs. But it has been the other way around. I've got more gigs than ever. I'm working so hard. I am overwhelmed at the amount of gigs that I have at my age.

AAJ: That's terrific. And you still feel good and as strong as ever playing?

AS: It's unbelievable, man. Yes, I am very lucky. My health is very good. I am one hundred percent. I have no health problems at all.

AAJ: It isn't uncommon to hear a musician say that they need a new horn, or different mouthpiece, or whatever else to get new sounds or the sounds they want. You have said that, and I quote, "The sound is made in your head." Could you expand on that?

AS: You must imagine the kind of sound you want to produce. If you can imagine that sound, then you will be able to get it. You practice a lot. I still practice a lot. I have no choice. I have to practice a lot. The dedication is a daily mission. I'm happy because I am doing what I love. I still feel very strong. Sometimes I can play higher than when I was thirty or forty years old.

AAJ: Wow. That's pretty amazing in your case. I mean you can really take it up there.

AS: Also, I use much bigger equipment than before. A few years ago, I changed my horn and my mouthpieces. I'm using a much bigger horn and bigger mouthpieces that are the same ones they use in symphony orchestras.

AAJ: What made you make those changes?

AS: Because more and more I enjoyed a fat big sound. I'm not talking about the volume. I am talking about the quality of the sound.

AAJ: You're talking about the tone.

AS: Exactly. I enjoy that fat sound. It's warm. When I play a ballad it's like a singer. I love that warm sound.

AAJ: The first day he met you Dizzy Gillespie once said, in reference to you, "What the Hell is my driver doing with a trumpet in his hands?" Could you share that story with us?

AS: I picked him up at the harbor in Cuba. He came there on a jazz cruise through the Caribbean. They stopped in Havana for a couple of days. I picked him up and showed him Havana for the very first time. He had never been there before. I drove him around for a few hours. That night they organized kind of a jam session with a bunch of great musicians. There was Stan Getz, Earl Hines, and many more. We all played together. I was warming up back stage and when he saw me he said, "What the Hell is my driver doing with a trumpet in his hands?"(it should be clarified here that at no time while Sandoval was taxiing Gillespie around did he mention anything about being a musician). Someone than told him that I was a trumpeter and well known in Cuba. Dizzy still said, "Hell no, he's my driver!" (a good laugh is now shared). We ended up jamming together that night. That was such a beautiful night for me.

AAJ: You went on to have quite a connection with Gillespie.

AS: We traveled to New York. We played the Newport Jazz Festival. We played at Carnegie Hall. I played with his small group and with the United Nations Orchestra. I played with Dizzy for many years, up until he passed

AAJ: You and Dizzy became life-long friends. What can you tell us about Dizzy as a mentor and colleague?

AS: He was so much more than that. He was like a second father to me. He was extremely nice and gave me so many opportunities. He always kept me in mind and helped me so much. It was a very special relationship. I have always appreciated it so very much. It was a daily lesson. He was always ready to teach or share something with me. He was just such a music lover. He loved music so much.

AAJ: Going back to the beginning, how old were you when you started to play? What came first, the trumpet, the piano, or percussion?

AS: The trumpet. The trumpet came first. Percussion was just a little bit. It was never too important to me. The piano came much later for composing, orchestrations, and improvisations. It is very crucial for all of that.

AAJ: I believe you were only about 12 when you joined the Orchestra de Cubana Musica Moderna.

AS: No, I was fifteen years old.

AAJ: What was that experience like?

AS: That was my first big gig. I grew up in a little village and started playing with some local musicians. This was mostly traditional Cuban music. Then I got a three-year scholarship to get classical training. So far at had never heard jazz at all. I was playing only Cuban music and classical music. Then one day a journalist asked me if I had ever heard jazz. I said, "What is that?" He played for me a record by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Wow. I was so impressed. I still remember that moment very well. That moment changed my brain upside down.

AAJ: It changed your life.

AS: Absolutely. It absolutely did.

AAJ: How did it come to be that you once spent 3 months in jail for the "crime" of listening to music?

AS: That is correct. I was in the Cuban military service for three years. The only way we had to listen to some jazz was through a short-wave radio. There was a jazz hour on the Voice of America from Washington, DC. Man, when they caught me listening to that they put me in jail because they said I was listening to the voice of the enemy.

AAJ: That's just unbelievable when you think about that nowadays.

AS: Oh yes. This was really something.

AAJ: You challenged and walked a thin line when you, along with Paquito D'Rivera and Chucho Valdes, formed Irakere. Experimenting with fusion was well against Cuba's laws and sensibilities. You must have needed to be as creative in deception as you were with the music. How did you manage to get away with it?

AS: It was difficult, But the main thing is to keep your hopes alive. It doesn't matter how difficult it is. You have to keep going, keep practicing, keep learning, keep hoping that someday you will have the opportunity to play the music you love. I always kept in mind that I wanted to leave the country. Yeah, I really wanted to leave the country. I had that in my head all the time. I didn't do it before because I was married with a son and I didn't want to leave them behind. I was waiting for that opportunity. As soon as Ii had the first opportunity, trust me, I took it.

AAJ: Despite all the barriers and downsides of Cuba, is there anything about Cuba that you miss?

AS: To be honest, I was struggling so much and suffering so much with the feelings of tension and humiliation that I don't miss anything. My close family, everybody, is in the US. Thanks to God. I see my son grow up here and be so successful. He is a graphic designer and has his own company. We are extremely grateful to God that we live in this wonderful country that we love dearly.

AAJ: You have said that you have had two lives. Your second life has included 10 Grammys, 19 nominations, opportunities to play at the White House, the Super Bowl, and being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Certainly, more than you could ever had imagined. How does it feel to have reached this level of success and to be so well appreciated and respected?

AS: I always believe that I am in the middle of the road. I appreciate but I don't seek awards. I just keep practicing and working hard as if I were a teenager. My most appreciated rewards are the audiences clapping at the end of a performance. That is very rewarding for me and gives me a lot of enthusiasm. I just desire to keep working hard because that experience that you get when you are in front of the audience, when you see the people enjoy and admire what you do, oh my goodness that is such a unique kind of feeling.
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