|January 1, 2015|
Interview by: Tracey Whitney
The 2013 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom award, and a protégé of the legendary jazz master Dizzy Gillespie, Arturo Sandoval was born in Artemisa, a small town in the outskirts of Havana, Cuba, on November 6, 1949, just two years after Gillespie became the first musician to bring Latin influences into American Jazz. He has since evolved into one of the world’s foremost-acknowledged guardians of jazz trumpet and flugelhorn, as well as a renowned classical artist, pianist and composer.
Over the course of his storied career, Sandoval has also been awarded 10 Grammys (including a very impressive 19 nominations), 6 Billboard Awards and an Emmy, and 2014 has been a stellar year for the maestro as well, with the April release of Dizzy Gillespie: The Man Who Changed My Life (Robert Simon, Gia Publications) chronicling his relationship with mentor Gillespie, and October’s Eternamente Manzanero, his 35th studio album (see review).
His versatility can be heard on recordings with everyone from Gillespie to Woody Herman, Woody Shaw, Michael Legrand, Bill Conti, Stan Getz, Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, Paul Anka and Rod Stewart. He’s performed with John Williams and the Boston Pops, and at the Super Bowl with Tony Bennett and Patti LaBelle. Still in constant demand, he’s recently performed with the likes of Celine Dion, Justin Timberlake at the Grammy Awards, and even the Billboard Awards with Alicia Keys. A prolific composer, his compositions appear on the soundtracks to Dave Grusin’s Havana and Random Heart, in the Mambo Kings (his Mambo Caliente was nominated for a Grammy), and the soundtrack for The Perez Family, and many more.
One frequently speaks of Arturo Sandoval’s virtuoso technical ability or his specialty in high notes, but if you’ve seen him on the piano, lyrically improvising a ballad, or had the opportunity to enjoy the diversity of his music, through his compositions from the most straight ahead jazz, Latin jazz or classical, you know that Arturo Sandoval is one of the most brilliant, multifaceted and renowned musicians of our time.
Smooth Jazz Magazine caught up with Arturo Sandoval for a lesson (or two) in music and life…
SJM: I was watching Dizzy Gillespie en Cuba, and in the film Gillespie says that the two of you were “Better than true brothers.” I’m sure it’s not an understatement to say that he was not only your mentor, but also a great influence. When you think of him in your quiet time, what crosses your mind?
Arturo: (Wistfully) Oh, his smile, you know? And his love for music, which was incredible. He never got tired of talking about it, or trying to learn something new all the time. He was amazing.
SJM: As much as Dizzy was an influence, I understand Woody Shaw was also a big inspiration for you.
Arturo: Oh yeah, we actually met in Cuba in 1979 when he came down with the CBS All-Star Band, and we met again several times in Europe. He was an unbelievable guy, and a great creator of a particular kind of playing; a real inventor of style in jazz trumpet.
SJM: One of my musician friends had this question: when you’re preparing for a solo, are you spontaneous or do you work it out in advance?
Arturo: (Laughing) Prepare for a solo? It’s not that simple. I think it’s a matter of being sure that you’re very familiar with the chords, with the changes – that’s very, very important! I never thought about preparing a solo. That’s not sincere. That’s not from your heart. We’re supposed to be improvising. When you’re improvising, you’re creating in that specific moment. Its not like you’re supposed to be playing something you’ve created or put together in the past. That’s not sincere. That’s not what we call Jazz!
SJM: In addition to the trumpet, you also play the flugelhorn and piano. Do you play any other instruments?
Arturo: I play a little bit of percussion, you know? I sing a little bit. I love music, and I’ve tried to do as many things as I could to have fun and enjoy it.
SJM: Compared to the trumpet, is the piano harder or easier for you?
Arturo: I’ve got a lot of limitations with the piano. I don’t really consider myself to be a great piano player. Let me tell you why I say that: with the piano, I play what I can, NOT what I want. It’s different with the trumpet. With the trumpet, I play what I want. I can play classical or any other kind of music that gets put in front of me. But with the piano, I’m very limited, you know? I cannot read music for the piano, BTW; I can only play it by ear, so it’s very difficult for me. To be honest, the piano came much later. I played the trumpet for many, many years before ever touching a piano. I actually bought my first piano when I came to the U.S. 35 years ago. I didn’t have a piano in Cuba.
SJM: You’ve won 10 Grammys, 6 Billboards and an Emmy award. But what went through your mind when you heard that President Obama was awarding you the Presidential Medal of Freedom award?
Arturo: It was one of the biggest honors I’ve ever had in my life, a huge honor. I was so grateful because it’s such distinction, and I’m in the company of three great jazz musicians! I couldn’t pick better ones than them – Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie…
SJM: You’re running in fast company, my friend!
Arturo: Oh my goodness, it’s overwhelming! It’s such a huge honor for me because I love this country with all my heart, and its great to be recognized by the government of your favorite country in the world. It’s such a privilege and an honor.
SJM: As an African American myself, I think it’s so wonderful that President Obama was the one who presented you with the medal.
Arturo: Oh yeah, he really is a jazz fan! I had the privilege to hang out and talk with him, and he really knows his music. And to have a president who really loves jazz is something that is just so good for us, you know?
SJM: Indeed. President Obama is such a huge supporter of music in general, and I just love that about him.
Arturo: Yes, and whether you like his politics or not, I tell you, he’s a wonderful man. And his wife? I’m really very impressed with her! She’s such a wonderful lady, so warm, and a very kind smile. I loved being around them. They’re just such a nice couple, and they treat you on an equal basis.
SJM: So when you heard that you were going to get the award, did your mind travel back to your life in Cuba? You were the #1 musician in the country before you defected, but could you have ever imagined back then all that you would achieve?
Arturo: Life gives you a lot of surprises, and it’s so nice when you get things you weren’t expecting! To be honest, my philosophy in life - my way of thinking - is to concentrate on today. This twenty-four hours that are running right now. What happened in the past we have no control over. The past is history, and whatever is going to happen in the future is in the hands of God. I prefer to live in today. What I’m doing now. The rest, I don’t pay any attention to.
SJM: Speaking of your history, how awesome was it to have Andy Garcia portraying you in the HBO biopic, For Love or Country? I mean, he’s handsome, but he’s no Arturo… (*Sandoval won an Emmy award for the film’s underscore.)
Arturo: (Laughing) Andy Garcia is very musical. He’s a big time music fan and he’s Cuban like me. We have a lot of things in common. He came here when he was very young, but he knows what its all about to leave your country and not be able to go back. It’s truly very painful, and it’s a horrible feeling. But on the same token, I’m gonna tell you something: I’m so happy being in this country that I don’t suffer that thing people call “nostalgia.” No, that’s not me. I’m enjoying every second of being in this country, and I don’t go, (feigns crying) “I want to go back to Cuba.” My wife loves the U.S. and my kids grew up here. We’re so grateful to live here.
SJM: You’ve performed some 50 years or so now, and you’ve literally played with the best musicians on the planet. What keeps you going? What’s your motivation?
Arturo: You know, anything can be a motivation. You get up in the morning and you’re still breathing without a machine, that’s an inspiration. You’re enjoying your health, and you’re doing what you love to do. Driving my granddaughter to school, that’s a motivation. Anything can be a motivation. Anything.
SJM: You were a judge for the 2014 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition this past November in Los Angeles. What’s your impression of the up and coming trumpet players?
Arturo: Oh my goodness. I was very, very impressed with the quality, musicianship and desire those young musicians had to be great jazz players! I was blown away, because they were extremely good players. They really love the trumpet, and they love jazz. Whoever loves jazz, that’s my friend. Whoever loves jazz, I love them. And to top that, if you’re a great trumpet player? Oh my goodness, we’re gonna be more than friends. We’re brothers!
SJM: Is there a particular young player that makes you go, WOW?
Arturo: I’m actually a big fan of Till Brönner. He’s an amazing, amazing jazz trumpet player from Germany. And I like the three guys who won the competition (*in order: Marquis Hill, Billy Buss and Adam O'Farrill). I listen to everybody. I try to pay attention. I don’t ever want to be unaware of what’s going on in jazz in general.
SJM: Interesting that you said that, because my next question was, in general, what do you think of the state of jazz today?
Arturo: Oh, it’s always the same thing. Some people love it; some people hate it; some people are not aware; some people have never heard any jazz. And I don’t think it’s the artists’ fault. I believe it’s a matter of the media, especially the radio programmer and the people who are responsible for playing music on television. For example, I’ve lived in this country for 25 years, and I’ve never seen any jazz on TV. And that’s horrible. Horrible. We need people to realize that jazz is the most important art form in this country. If you are not aware of that, I consider that a crime – a cultural crime – because you are not defending and protecting this incredible legacy. Jazz is respected worldwide as one of the major contributions of America to the world.
SJM: You’ve teamed up again with Argentine composer Jorge Calandrelli for your new CD, Eternamente Manzanero (*Calandrelli won a Latin Grammy for Producer of the Year for Sandoval’s A Time for Love), and you’re singing the entire collection of 12 boleros.
Arturo: Yes, this is the first time I did a full album singing! The composer of the whole album is (revered Mexican composer) Armando Manzanero. He’s an incredible musician, wonderful piano player, great singer, and his music… the melodies and lyrics are so beautiful. I’ve always been a big fan of his music, and it’s a privilege for me to have him as a special guest on the album. He even sings three duets with me. I know you’re gonna love the CD, because it’s very romantic music. It’s very pretty. The melodies are wonderful, the lyrics – how’s your Spanish?
SJM: My Spanish is about as good as your English was when you came to America. I seriously have to work on that…
Arturo: (Laughing) Oh my goodness, my English is still very limited… As for singing this album, the problem is that the lyrics are a very important part of Manzanero’s music, and I didn’t want to leave them out. I didn’t want to do the CD as an instrumental, because then we’d miss out on 50% of the song.
SJM: I loved the CD, and you’re right, it’s very romantic, in any language. Tell me about the song Somos Novios. I played it over and over. It’s so beautiful, but the melody sounds exactly like It’s Impossible.
Arturo: You’re right; it’s the same song. Armando Manzanero wrote it with Spanish lyrics, but somebody wrote English lyrics for it later. (*Adapted in1970 by Sid Wayne.)
SJM: You’ve created soundtracks for TV and the big screen, but what was it like to compose the score for Pepito’s Story for the Kennedy Center Ballet?
Arturo: Oh yes! I’ve collaborated with choreographer Debbie Allen on a lot of different projects. She’s such a multi-talented lady, and she’s also extremely musical. Pepito’s Story was the very first thing we did together, but we’ve done several other musicals since then, like Oman O Men, Soul Possessed, and I also did a CD for her workout videos. Last year I did the music for The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker based on her book.
SJM: Speaking of books, your memoir, Dizzy Gillespie: The Man Who Changed My Life: From the Memoirs of Arturo Sandoval, about your time with Dizzy Gillespie must have been a labor of love.
Arturo: My wife Marianela provided writer Robert Simon (with a forward by Quincy Jones) with all my personal testimonies and photos, and he interviewed me several times. We are very close friends now. He’s a great writer and the book came out very nice. He’s also a classical conductor, and a great musician himself.
SJM: It seems like there’s absolutely nothing you can’t do! What’s next for Arturo Sandoval?
Arturo: (Laughs) I don’t know! Coming up, I have four nights in Boston, after that another four nights in Washington, DC. I have a concert with my big band at the Walt Disney Concert Hall here in Los Angeles, I have a Christmas show the 24th, then I go on a jazz cruise for 9 days, then I play a concert in New Orleans at the Contemporary Art Center, then I’m going to play Miami (exhales deeply), whew.
Talk about motivation. I see now how Mr. Sandoval defies time: a tour schedule that already reaches midway into 2015, composing soundtracks (can you say, “Spiderman-2” with Hans Zimmer and Pharrell, boy and girls?), producing other artists, helming the Arturo Sandoval Institute where he teaches both clinics and Master classes to the next generation of jazz artists, and on and on… He is both humble and grateful. And phenomenal. Yet, he still maintains a sense of wonder, with an obvious joy at how truly blessed his life has turned out. And he laughs. A lot. As he so eloquently put it long ago, “I know that I haven't invented anything myself, that I am only a mixture of countless influences, and thanks to that I am able to find my own style of playing.”
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