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Arturo Sandoval: The Man, The Music

Sunil Sampat interviews the Cuban jazz trumpet legend

Sunil Sampat Oct 26, 2017

Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. Photo: ataelw/CC BY 2.0

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I am willing to bet that only one musician has both won 10 Grammy awards and also spent three and a half months in prison simply because of his love for music! I have checked neither the Guinness nor Limca book of records but this has got to be a unique instance. The 10 Grammies are well documented but learning of his stint in a Cuban prison is a bewildering surprise. Yet it happened to one person.

Such a man is Arturo Sandoval, jazz trumpet player extraordinaire who has been living in the US since 1989, having defected there from his native Cuba. His story is as fascinating as it is intriguing; in fact a Hollywood movie, “For Love or Country” has been made, starring Andy Garcia which is based on the life of Arturo Sandoval.

Sandoval was thus a late entrant onto the American jazz scene, making his entry at the age of 40, by which time most musicians have established a niche for themselves on the jazz firmament. Despite his very difficult times as a jazz musician in Cuba–or perhaps because of the tough challenges–Arturo rose to a high and unique position in his field.

I remember a conversation with a prominent American jazz saxophone player in around the year 2000; he was speaking of a jazz festival in Caracas, Venezuela where he was performing. “There were several of us from the US who were playing. We were well taken care of. Then there was Arturo Sandoval who was accorded first-class status all the way because of how much in demand he was”. Arturo has been a special category of performer. His shows are always sold out and his well-deserved popularity continues to this day.

There seems to be some extra element of excitement when Cuban musicians are at work, and especially when they are playing jazz. From the early days in the 1940s when Chano Pozo collaborated with Dizzy Gillespie, this added excitement has been evident. Compositions such as Manteca, Tin Tin Deo, Con Alma and others from this Dizzy Gillespie–Chano Pozo combine are still very popular and in many ways unique in jazz.
This was perhaps the first introduction of the Latin sound into jazz. Since then, this sound has remained an integral part of jazz.

With their natural flair for rhythm, Cuban jazz musicians, who also always seem to be immensely talented individuals seem to have always brought delight to audiences. On the contemporary jazz scene, Cuban musicians such as Paquito d’Riveira, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Arturo Sandoval have dominated the jazz scene.

Great music is way beyond analysis, certainly beyond pigeonholing and usually defies category. I was truly privileged to be present at Yoshi’s, the well-known jazz club in Oakland, California to hear Arturo Sandoval in concert. Several hours after the experience, I was still struggling for words to describe the truly magical experience.

This great music came from a combination of talent, perfect technique and the exuberance of delivering one’s feelings via song. The entire exercise seemed effortless and the hour and a half performance was so compelling that it seemed to finish soon after it began!

I believe that “bucket lists” are a waste of time. Why restrict to five or ten things that you really want to do or experience in life? If you want something, simply go out and get it! Don’t keep putting off stuff to do for another day… rainy or bright.

But, if I  had ever made a “list” of stuff to hear in the jazz world, hearing Arturo Sandoval live would certainly be one of them. I have not been actively seeking out this possibility but serendipity stepped in! Arturo was to play a few sets of his great brand of music in a city that I just happened to be visiting at that time. A wonderful, happy coincidence brought up this opportunity to hear this man in concert. It got even better and I had the opportunity not only of hearing him live but also got invited by him to spend an hour or so and to hear him perform another set thereafter. I was privileged when he played a bit of piano and did a trumpet solo for an audience of one: me!

Quite apart from enjoying his recorded music over the years, I always felt that we had something in common: our great admiration for Dizzy Gillespie–the man himself and his great music were awe-inspiring to me from another land. I had the good fortune of hearing Dizzy ‘live’ on quite a few occasions in Toronto, Montreal, New York and Mumbai. I also had a chance to meet and speak with him and, in another era, in 1963-4 wear a badge saying, “Dizzy for President” when the great man stood for US President!

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Arturo Sandoval had a much deeper and much more significant association with Diz. He played jazz bebop while growing up in Cuba. For Arturo, Dizzy Gillespie was simultaneously a role model, hero, mentor and finally a Godfather, when he helped him defect to the US. Even n the US, Arturo stayed close to Dizzy Gillespie, having played in his band after leaving Cuba and always playing a lot of his music. He has recently made an album, “Dear Diz” where the title song has a subtitle,”I think of you every day.” Arturo’s trumpet style has been influenced initially by Dizzy; he has, however, emerged with his own expression and sound although he considers himself to be a true bebop trumpet player.

His stage presence is magnetic and the audience is firmly in the palm of his hand. We heard him do a concert with his terrific band comprising of piano, upright acoustic bass, drums, keyboards, percussion and violin. Arturo played trumpet, sang, played percussion and regaled the audience with his humor and his philosophies. Midway through his set, he walked into the audience with his message in song, “Smile.” On the trumpet he played bebop, ballads, standards and Cuban pieces where he would alternate on piano.

We found out later that each set he played during his three days at Yoshi’s  was different from the others.
For a second set we heard a couple of days later, he totally surprised us by announcing,”we have written a special piece for my new friend’s from  India!”–which he then played.

I had a nice, informal chat with Arturo Sandoval where he seemed to be holding nothing back–rather like his music! Here are some excerpts:

Sandoval receiving the Medal of Freedom from then-U.S. President Obama. Photo: Rena Schild/Shutterstock

Sunil Sampat: So great to have heard your concert the other night and wonderful to be chatting with you now.
Arturo Sandoval:  Hey, I hope you will stay back for tonight’s gig as well. Of course you will be my guest! (calls an assistant to instruct him to give us a prime table. At this set he also plays his  new piece he has composed for us!).

SS: You know, we both share our great respect for Dizzy Gillespie. For me he was a superb musician and a man of peace and harmony. For you…
AS: For me he was everything. I wouldn’t be here today if not for Diz. You know I made an album, “Dear Diz” where I say, “I think of you every day”. That’s how I feel about him.

SS: He stood for US President in 1964. I remember having a badge, “Diz for Pres”.
AS: He was not serious. He was just not happy with the choice of candidates I think. But he made his statement!

SS: In any case he said he could never be the President because he didn’t believe in international borders nor in war. He was a Bahai by his religious faith.
AS: True. He was totally dedicated to peace amongst people in the world. Peace and harmony.

SS: In the movie on you, “For Love or Country” there is a scene where Dizzy, landing in Havana asks to go to Chano Pozo Square or street and you came as a taxi driver just to meet him. Is this what really happened?
AS: It’s quite accurate. I did borrow a taxicab from a friend and posed as it’s driver. I had to tell Diz that no one in Cuba even knew who Chano Pozo was. He was a forgotten man. Sad.

SS: When I walked in you were playing the piano–and quite lost in it.
AS: I just love the piano! Love to play it at every chance. At home I wake up and first spend time on the piano.
You know, I recently heard this fabulous pianist, Juju Wang in New York. She is only 29 or 30 years old but in my opinion the best pianist that ever lived! She is of Chinese origin and how she plays! Not only that, she is very nice looking and dresses very boldly. I could listen to her anytime. She is so very skilled.

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SS: Someone said that every jazz musician should also learn the piano apart from their own instrument…
AS: So true. You will have a much better understanding of the music and so be a better player. You also need it for composing.

SS: You just told me that you spent 3 1/2 months in jail in Cuba. How did all this happen?
AS: It was compulsory for young men to serve in the army. I was enlisted and was in the army for a few years. I had a little transistor shortwave radio and would tune in to the Voice of America Jazz Hour. I would hide and listen to it. But it was not allowed in Cuba to listen to American ‘facist’ music. One day I was caught with my radio to my ear and was imprisoned for three and a half months! Just for listening to jazz!

SS: That was pretty harsh.  It was Willis Conover with his VOA Jazz Hour. It reached the world. I remember being hooked on to his show in India. A great many jazz fans today have grown up with this show.
AS: Do you know, I actually got to meet Willis Conover. I was playing at a festival in Poland and he was the Master of Ceremonies. When he introduced me on stage, I was very emotional.

SS: He was the MC at our first Jazz Yatra (festival) in Mumbai. He got a standing ovation!
AS: The Americans used to broadcast jazz to all the communist countries to reach the people. That’s why there is so much being played there now. They had also made Louis Armstrong a Jazz Ambassador.

SS: I suppose jazz and peace go hand in hand.
AS: That is so true. We feel the peace and love through the music.

SS: I noticed the other night during your concert, when you played “Stardust”, that at the end you said, ‘sorry, it should be played like this’ and played the last few bars in the upper register. That sounded like Clifford Brown’s version!
AS: You noticed! Yes, I was playing it in the end in Clifford’s style. That’s how he played “Stardust”.  He was such a perfect trumpet player. There’s no one like him. Love his music!

SS: Who else has influenced your playing?
AS: Oh, so many. They don’t have to be trumpet players. I have learnt so much from various musicians. But I made an album, I think my best album, “Evolution of the trumpet”, where I play 19 tracks, each in the style of a different trumpet player. It is my tribute to all the people who have contributed to jazz trumpet history. They are all my influences.

SS: How did you choose the 19 trumpet players. You must have had to leave out several.
AS: It was a very difficult choice but I had to omit some.

SS: Did you have people like Louis Armstrong or even Clark Terry in the list?
AS: I am glad you mentioned Clark Terry. He was very helpful to me in putting this album together. I spent many days with him. His inputs and his patience with my project were invaluable. For example, I would agonize over whether to put in Kenny Dorham or Woody Shaw… both superb players. If so, whom would I leave out? It took me a long time. Clark Terry was so helpful.

SS: You played and sang a few bars of the hit “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi in your Friday set and mentioned that this one hit has made more money than all jazz hits put together! Is this true?
AS: Despatico is the most watched YouTube video ever! You know jazz doesn’t bring in much money. But it is a beautiful music. So satisfying.

SS: What do you think of coming to India to play?
AS: [Checks his diary]. I can be free as early as November this year. I have a full calendar but to go to India, I can make myself free. But apart from playing in concerts with my band, I really want to play with local Indian musicians. Your instruments and particularly your percussions fascinate me. I would love to interact with them.  Will that be possible?

SS: We cannot wait for your India visit. You will be a big hit!

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