Cuban-born trumpeter Arturo Sandoval’s life was changed when he discovered legendary jazz hornman Dizzy Gillespie. Sandoval had been his study of classical music at the age of 12, but when a friend played a record of Dizzy and Charlie Parker, he switched allegiances. “That was my very first time, and I said, ‘Oh my goodness–what is this?’ I was so impressed,” the trumpet player remembers. “And I’m still, still trying to figure out how to play be-bop.”
But the young trumpeter figured out jazz pretty well. By the time he got to see Diz perform when Gillespie visited the island in ’77, the 28-year-old Sandoval was changing Cuban music as a founding member of Irakere. Mixing traditional Cuban music with jazz, rock and classical music, the band shook up the Montreaux Jazz Festival in ’75 and won a Grammy for Best Latin Album in ’78 and was nominated again in 1980.
While on tour with Gillespie and with his help, Sandoval defected to the United States in the summer of 1990. Sandoval has been lauded for his range, tone and technique, which features a flurry of notes in the upper registers delivered at blinding speed with precise intonation. Gillespie praised his “bull chops.” Since relocating to Miami, Sandoval has been nominated for 12 Grammys (winning for Best Latin Jazz in ’95 and ’98) and four Emmy; he won an Emmy for his composition for the movie score For Love Or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story, which starred Andy Garcia. Sandoval keeps a busy touring schedule appearing with symphonies across the country and holds down a full professorship at Florida International University.
On his most recent release, Trumpet Evolution, Sandoval turns in a mesmerizing performance demonstrating the styles of 19 very different famous trumpet masters including Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Wynton Marsalis and Dizzy Gillespie. These are not just clever imitations. Sandoval seems to become the artist he is paying tribute to; he captures the heart and soul of their work, say heartfelt testimonies in the liner notes by Clark Terry, Freddie Hubbard and Maynard Ferguson.
And although Sandoval has assimilated American musical genres in his music, he’s very picky about what should represent Cuban music to the rest of the world. Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club recordings introduced a lot of Americans to Cuban music, but Sandoval doesn’t think much of it. “I think the Buena Vista or whatever they call it was a marketing situation,” the trumpet player says bitterly, “because that kind of music has been there for a hundred years. I’m very disappointed that some people discovered or rediscovered Cuban music through that thing which does not really represent us–it’s not the best of our music. Not even.” Sandoval explained that the musicians in the video and on the record were retired and completely ignored in Cuba when Cooder went there and recorded them and started to market them like the real thing of Cuban music. “That’s not fair. But anyway I always said that the best representative of Cuban music is not in Cuba, it’s in New Jersey. Her name is Celia Cruz. Nobody represents Cuban music better than her.”
The Independent: What about Dizzy’s playing impressed you so much?
Arturo Sandoval: I strongly believe that he’s the most musical trumpet player that ever lived. He’s got so much music in his head, and he was so smart and such a great sense of humor and he applied that into his music. He really is the creator of one of the most important musical styles, be-bop. Some people make a mistake and give more credit to Charlie Parker, but that’s not correct.
Be-bop seems so difficult. Would you say that you’d have to be about an as good a mathematician as you would a musician?
(Laughs.) Yeah, yeah, yeah. Be-bop is an incredible style; you really need to be quick-thinking, you know. But besides style, its sound is so fascinating. It’s so incredible, and you need so much control and mastery of your instrument and know a lot about changes and chords and everything to be a good be-bop player.
Speaking of thinking quickly, when you sing scat, you seem to have a lot fun with it. It would seem difficult to me to sing a long string of nonsense syllables and keep a straight face.
I learned it watching Dizzy–I learned it from him. He always had a lot of fun. I believe in general you must have fun with things. If you aren’t having fun, you better quit. That’s what it’s all about. You have to transmit that to the audience that you’re having fun, you’re having a great time. Otherwise, if you’re feeling bad, you’re never gonna transmit that to the public
Playing trumpet the way you do takes a tremendous amount of daily maintenance. How many hours a day do you devote to your horn?
I travel a lot and I play almost every day. When you play every day, you have to warm up, but you cannot practice for several hours because you need that energy for the gig. The trumpet is mer-cee-less. Like Doc Sevrinsen says, the mouthpiece marks your mouth. It’s a physical thing besides the intellectual part of the music. It’s a physical thing involved with that thing, you really have to work hard every day to keep it together. And that’s our choice, you have to do it.