“Jazz Monthly Feature Interview” Arturo Sandoval
Interview by Joe Caroselli
Jazz Monthly: You know that there’s an expression that a person is a jack-of-all-trades and a master-of -none meaning that someone does a lot of things but really none of them on a high level, well our guest; Arturo Sandoval is a jack of all trades and a MASTER-OF-All! He is a renowned Jazz and classical trumpeter, a brilliant pianist, a stellar composer and arranger – a fine vocalist in his own right, a bandleader, and a tenured university professor of music. Arturo has won four Grammy awards, six Billboard awards, and an Emmy, this for his scoring of the HBO movie based on his life “For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story.” The protégé of the legendary trumpeter John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, Dizzy was a huge supporter of Arturo and proudly features featured Arturo in his United Nations Orchestra. Mr. Sandoval has performed at the White House also with the Boston Pops Orchestra, and at the Super Bowl. In fact I think it would be easier for me to list who Arturo hasn’t performed with, but just to mention a few, Arturo has performed with his great pal and kind of his adoptive father Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, Michel Legrand, Johnny Mathis, Celine Dion, Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock, Woody Shaw, Tony Bennett, and recently with Alicia Keys and Justin Timberlake. We here at Jazzmonthly.com feel that if God did not create and give us Arturo as a musical gift on this earth than an Arturo Sandoval would had have to have been invented. Welcome to Jazzmonthly.com Arturo.
Arturo Sandoval (AS): Thank you very much. Wow, I’m very overwhelmed with such a beautiful introduction, oh my goodness.
Jazz Monthly: Well you deserve all of it, every bit of it my friend.
AS: (Laughing) Ah, I work; I’ve been working hard all my life.
Jazz Monthly: Well let me just say we’re going to tell our people who might not know your background. Of course it all started musically for you when you were about twelve years old in the early sixties. How do you pronounce your province in Cuba?
AS: You say this really well Artemisa (ar-tay-MEE-sah).
Jazz Monthly: Artemisa in Havana province, Cuba, And I know you’ve played a lot of different instruments but you really fell in love with the trumpet, right, I mean when you first picked up a trumpet was it love at first sight?
AS: That was true, yeah. I started a little before; I think I was like ten years old, ten, eleven years old when I started music. They gave me a try in; it was a kind of marching band in my home village. Artemisa was in the province of Bernarde Rio. You know we were in the countryside of the island and the city hall started to put together like a kind of a marching band with a bunch of kids in it, and I joined those kids. I went to that place to learn to read the music and to play an instrument. They gave me few instruments to try but I always was looking for the trumpet with the corner of my eye. One day I talked to the teacher and said, “Well I think I’ve made my final decision, I think I want to go to the trumpet,” and he said, “I’m so sorry I don’t think we have any trumpets left,” and I said “oh, my lord. What about if I find a trumpet, will you let me play it in the band?” and he said yes. Then my aunt bought me a cornet and I found someone in my village to teach me a little bit to play the instrument. One day I went to him and he said play something and I said, “no, I don’t know how to play anything I just got this instrument.” He was a cranky old man he said “I said play something,” I said okay and I played whatever came out of the horn and a few seconds later he said “You know what, don’t make me waste my time and I recommend you don’t waste yours; don’t even think about it, you should think about something else and don’t think about music or trumpet, you’re never going to make it.”
I was ten years old. Then I was walking home and I was crying all the way up until I get home. I was so lucky because when I got home I stopped crying and I got my little cornet out of the case and I went to the patio and I went down to the mango tree and I started to blow that thing until blood came out of my mouth and that was my cue. From then on, I tried to figure out how to make it sound better and I still try to figure it out how to make the sound out of that horn.
Jazz Monthly: Arturo, was part of it that you wanted to not prove him wrong, but he didn’t believe in you. I’m sure he’s lived that down many, many times after he heard of your incredible success.
AS: Unfortunately he passed away like kind of close to that, unfortunately he never heard me play, I was so sorry about it because I really was thinking about offering him a private recital you know, free and private recital dedicated to him.
Jazz Monthly: (Laughing)
AS: I learned a good lesson you know… nobody should say such a thing to a kid. You never know how the kid is going to develop. It’s unpredictable, you never know.
Jazz Monthly: Well we sure know how you developed. By the way, you mentioned how you’re still trying to figure it out and I think you’ll get a kick out of this quote by you’re long time friend and your mentor, Dizzy Gillespie. We’ll talk a little bit more about Dizzy in a little while, but Dizzy said this about playing the trumpet, “Some days you get up and you put the horn to your chops and it sounds pretty good and you win; some days you try and nothing works and the horn wins. This goes on and on and then you die, and then the horn wins.” (Laughing) That’s typical of Dizzy isn’t it?
AS: That’s very true, the trumpet is unpredictable, and it is a very tough instrument. That’s the reason he was an incredible trumpet player. He always said, “The mouth piece never smiles to your face.” (Both laughing)
Jazz Monthly: You know, you mentioned you’re still trying to figure it out – which is very humble of you and modest of you. But are there days… because remember it’s your body, it’s your lips, it’s your chops… are there days when you’re not as good as other days, when you can do no wrong Arturo?
AS: Those days don’t exist you know, because the horn is always going to win; we try to break even sometimes. (Both laughing) But in the end, it is impossible to win the battle to the horn because it’s a piece of metal, and you have to create a sound. If the horn doesn’t make any sound, you have to make the sound and the horn amplifies and organizes the sounds that came out of your mouth. You have to produce the sound with your lips.
Jazz Monthly: That’s right, it’s all you; it’s all your body. For good or for bad it’s you. That’s a good way of saying it Arturo. When you were about sixteen and still living in Cuba, and I know you were playing for the all-star national band, was it around that time when you became totally immersed with Dizzy – not knowing that Dizzy would become your adoptive father and you his adoptive son – and Charlie Parker, and Clifford Brown? Was it around your late teens when you really started loving Jazz in Cuba?
AS: Yeah, I was playing for quite a number of years, and the first thing that that I did was play a lot of traditional Cuban music in my village with some local bands. Then later on, I got a scholarship for three years to get Classical training to learn how to play Classical music. So far, I never heard Jazz at all… never before. When I got out of that school I started to play in a big band in Havana, that was my first visit to the Capital, and a journalist, who was an Aficionado-of-Jazz and he played a little bit of saxophone, he talked to me once and he said, “Did you ever hear Jazz Music?” I said no, what is that? Then he said, “Come with me,” and he played for me a record of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. That was it! That was the thing that really changed my way of thinking of music completely. From that moment on, I start to think about how to learn how to play that kind of music. I still have that mission of how-to-play-Jazz. How to: understand Bebop, how to play those chords, and be able to handle your instrument, and say something when you are inventing and putting together those phrases. It still fascinates me! I enjoy playing that music so much; I full believe that to play Bebop correctly you have to really be very dedicated. You have to really, at least try to master your instrument because it is such a challenge for any instrumentalist… but that challenge is good for you… because that pushes you and forces you to keep practicing and keep improving, keep growing and learning, studying… which is a daily mission, you know.
Jazz Monthly: You know Arturo, Garcia Lorca said, “Arturo Sandoval’s greatest skill is, and I’m going to ask you to translate this is to what he refers to as the “duende.”
AS: Duende is like a ghost, like a leprechaun, like a ghost.
Jazz Monthly: So, Garcia Lorca said that your greatest skill, Arturo Sandoval’s greatest skill is the duende – a difficult-to-define phrase in the Spanish arts that means emotion and authenticity!
You know Arturo, you can’t mention the name Arturo Sandoval without saying in the same sentence and mentioning of course Dizzy. This was kind of a life altering relationship. All of the videos that I’ve seen, with you playing, you could see that Dizzy was so proud of you, you could see Dizzy looking at you like a father would look at a son.
AS: Oh, he was so good to me. He always helped me so much and always gave me a demonstration of that kind of protection. He was very paternal to me you know he protected me all of the the time and tried to give me the opportunity, give me the chance to get some exposure and he always tried to in general, help me a lot in my life. When I met him I was almost doing nothing and he said, “You know what. You have to keep trying, you have to keep trying because you have to do something with your career you know.” He encouraged me a lot.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, that was the exact opposite of what the guy in Cuba said when you first blew the trumpet right?
AS: Oh, of course, of course.
Jazz Monthly: But you can see it in his eyes, you know, there was one, I think you were playing “A night in Tunisia.”
AS: He was such a great human being you know, he was so sweet and he always helped a lot of people you know, and he was very much in love with music… and everything related to music. That was the most important thing in life for him: To be in love with music and that kind of passion and a kind of hungry necessity to learn and to develop things, and to improve… and as a human being he was an incredible human being, a beautiful person.
Jazz Monthly: When I was watching you and Dizzy play his tune, “A Night in Tunisia” and you were taking off on an incredible solo, you know incredible high notes and just blowing away and really cooking, he looked at you kiddingly, jokingly as if to say you show off but you know that he was joking.
AS: (Laughing) He would get a kick out that and when I tried to play like a “backup” you know or doing “less” of something, he always said “Hey, What’s wrong with you are you sick or something.” (Both laughing)
Jazz Monthly: But there was such a great humor, a great simpatico between you and Dizzy…
AS: We had a lot of fun, a lot of fun always.
Jazz Monthly: In fact you know when he passed away in 1993, you were one of the first persons I thought of. I said I know Arturo was like a son to Dizzy and I’m sure you remember that day too.
AS: Yes, that was January 6th. But I have to tell you something, I think of him every day of my life… everyday…and I’ve got pictures all over. I’ve got a picture on the license plate of my car of him. I’ve got the only big picture in my house is him; he’s everywhere, He means a lot to me.
Jazz Monthly: I mentioned that you are a tenured professor at the Florida International University, and I know you established, speaking of Dizzy, the Dizzy Gillespie Trumpet Scholarship in Dizzy’s honor. I think Dizzy would have liked that, wouldn’t he?
AS: Oh yeah, of course. He liked to share things with people all of the time and to help you to understand the music better; always was teaching someone how to learn something in music.
Jazz Monthly: You know, another great hero of yours was of course Clifford Brown and you know I have that album. I’ve had that CD in my collection for about ten years and it’s the “I Remember Clifford” album. What a great, great CD.
AS: Oh, thank you.
Jazz Monthly: You played that great tribute of him, “I Remember Clifford” written by Benny Golson. By the way, Benny Golson is still around, I think he’s 80 years old.
AS: Absolutely, you know what, a couple years ago we did a week together in George’s, a Jazz club in San Francisco. It’s a well-known Jazz club in Oakland, and now they opened another one in San Francisco. But the one in Oakland, we did a week there, was a tribute to Clifford Brown and I played together with him, with Benny Golson.
Jazz Monthly: Well you know I have to tell our readers here at Jazz Monthly.com to go out and get Arturo’s CDs but the “I Remember Clifford” CD, Arturo plays that tune so beautifully and so sensitively. It was just you on the trumpet and the piano player, and it was kind of a tribute to Clifford and Richie Powell, the pianist, Bud Powell’s brother, who also died in that accident. That was so poignant, so touching, the fact that you did it with only piano as a tribute to Clifford and Richie Powell.
AS: That’s true.
Jazz Monthly: The other thing about that CD that I absolutely love, I just love it and I think you know what I’m going to say. The last cut on the album, was written by you and its called “I left this space for you” where you play in a very understated way. You’re holding back deliberately. In other words you were – on purpose – leaving the space for him; leaving it for Clifford. I get chills just thinking about it.
AS: That was the idea. I didn’t do any solos. I just played the melody I wrote for him and I left like a hole there where there was supposed to be a solo… and I didn’t play anything.
Jazz Monthly: That was so touching. I mean, just the thought of that because if you wanted to you could have just blown a whole spray of notes and yet you held back in reverence to Clifford, how beautiful!
One thing that we have to mention, of course, is the HBO movie “For Love or Country” which really was the Arturo Sandoval story. One of the things that you said just made me laugh. You were saying that you were really glad that Andy Garcia was playing you because you said that he would be your first choice because: “First of all he’s Cuban, he’s a musical guy, he’s very good looking and that makes me look even better in the movie.
JazzMonthly: That was great. Now what made that happen? Andy was the executive producer too, wasn’t he?
AS: Yeah, he got involved. In the beginning it was HBO, you know, HBO came up with the idea and they made it. They produced the movie and did everything. But when they hired Andy to play me, he got involved and he embraced the idea and then he more and more got involved, you know.
Jazz Monthly: One of the greatest lines… I was watching the movie with my wife and I’m paraphrasing, I’m not saying it exactly… but when Charlie Dutton who played Dizzy was with you and you weren’t sure you could go on tour with Dizzy, and Dizzy’s response was something like “Arturo, your sound doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to the world.” What a great line!
AS: It’s a good line, that’s one of the lines in the movie, yes.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, and I was really touched by that. I was looking at my wife and we both kind of got filled up in our eyes when that line came out. That really is your story, isn’t it, do you feel that?
AS: Oh, no it is, it’s not fiction, it’s not like an invented story, it’s based on the reality, you know, the real story.
Jazz Monthly: I know that you and Marianela spent a lot of time on the set of the movie. Now tell us Arturo, (Laughing) was it kind of weird or kind of strange seeing people playing you?
AS: (Laughing) You know, we are not prepared for that; we never will be, you know… but it’s a privilege… an honor to have such a beautiful tribute, and most of the time when they do that, they wait until people pass away.
Jazz Monthly: That’s right, let’s do it when you’re still alive and still very vital.
AS: I always say whatever you want to give to me; please give me it now before I pass away. (Both laughing)
Jazz Monthly: When you and Marianela were watching it, the rehearsal, not the finished movie, did you say, “That’s how I would have said that,” or that’s NOT how Marianela would have said it…
AS: We were all the time, there, trying to help and do whatever we could do to make it authentic, I was hired to do that, as a consultant, to be sure that everything that was said or done was according to reality.
Jazz Monthly: I mentioned that you played at the White House, now Arturo when you look back, there you were an eleven year old, twelve year old, from Cuba and now here you are playing at the White House, how did that feel?
AS: You know… dreams are free… you know we always dream. What is going to happen is in the hands of God. The only thing you should do is: try as good as you can to do what you have to, be serious about your profession, and study, and practice, and concentrate on what you’re doing, and don’t get involved in weird, strange things… and if you do all of those things, maybe God will come help you.
Jazz Monthly: I know that you are a very spiritual man and God has certainly helped you.
What is on the horizon? What’s some of your latest projects? What is Arturo Sandoval up to?
AS: I’m going to be in the studio pretty soon, by the end of this month, doing a new project, a new CD which is going to be very soft and intimate… ballads and a little bit of Classical pieces too – something very nice and… very romantic music.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, you know, I saw you in New York at the Iridium a while back and you were playing, and of course it was your gig and there were some singers guesting. The one thing I noticed Arturo, again is when you were backing up a singer you played so beautifully with a mute, you laid back, now you could have “killed” that song if you wanted to, you could have overpowered, and yet you played so musically and so tastefully. Does that come with maturity?
AS: I think so, yes I mean sometime in the past, many years ago, especially when I was living in Cuba I didn’t have too many opportunities and then when I had a chance, once in a while, you only get to play your music in eight bars. You didn’t have the chance to play in eighty million bars and that’s rough. You have only eight bars to play.
When you really don’t have to demonstrate anything, when you don’t have to prove anything… you think differently. Of course you play differently and you make the thing more musical. You have to realize it’s only a matter of circumstance. When I was in Cuba I didn’t have so many chances to really think about oh, I’ve got to back up here now, I’ve got to put the mute, I’ve got to do this very soft, because I’ve got one thing, one chance in years, to play eight bars. (Laughing)
Jazz Monthly: So you had to throw your whole life into those eight bars! (Both laughing)
AS: Yeah, and some people sometimes make a wrong judgment you know. Because, you have to think about where that guy was at that moment. What was his life or his reality at that specific moment? Then, if you put yourself, in context in that moment, then maybe you can make a better judgment.
Jazz Monthly: That’s well said Arturo.
You were granted political asylum back many years ago and I know that you have become a citizen of the United States, a very proud citizen, I might say for ten years now. And so that leads me to… I saw you on TV at the Orange Bowl… I think you know what I’m going to say now. You played the national anthem at the Orange Bowl just this past January, and you know Arturo, getting back to playing taste – you played the National Anthem at the Orange Bowl with such great respect and reverence. You played it so beautifully, and that’s not an easy tune to play is it?
AS: Especially, you know, I’m going to tell you something that happened that night. It was a kind of a windy and a little chilly… a little cold in the stadium and I was in the dugout you know where the players. I told the coordinator, I’m going to try to be here until the last minute because I don’t want the wind to get my chops too dry you know, and they said okay we’re going to give you a sign when you should come here to play; I said okay. Then, like a minute before it’s time to play, a guy from television… because I was live on FOX television… he came over to me and said “Just for your information there’s about thirty, almost forty million people watching you now.” (Both laughing) I said, “Oh, thank you so much for that information, and then they called me and said, “Hey, it’s time now.”
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, (Laughing) thanks for reminding me that first of all: it’s a little cold out, it’s a little windy… hey Arturo, are you ready to play the National Anthem, and just to remind you there are forty million people watching you. (Both laughing)
AS: Oh, my lord, I’m going to tell you yes, my knees were shaking. (makes sound effects) (Both laughing)
Jazz Monthly: Hey Arturo, was it also, I mentioned that you are a proud United States citizen, and with the way that America has embraced you and loves you, was it also an emotional moment, besides the chops and the cold. Was it also emotional for you to play the national anthem?
AS: Absolutely, its not the first time I played it, I played it many times before, but its always very emotional because you know, as you say, I never try to add any notes or any kind of scale or this or that. I believe the National Anthem deserves all of the respect when you play those things you must, you should play the melody as is, and this is exactly what I always do every time I play the Anthem: I play just the melody, straight, with dignity, with good sound, and with the best of your emotion.
Jazz Monthly: The key word that you said Arturo was respect, respect and reverence for this country that you love and this country that loves you!
AS: I owe so many things to this country because sometimes I believe when I was forty-one years old… I was forty-one when I got here, and I’m here already for 19 years which means I’m sixty years old. My kids grew up here, my grandchildren were born here and I am so grateful to America and I’m going to die in this country and I am very happy to be an American citizen and I love America.
Jazz Monthly: Arturo, and we love you. Before we leave, I just want to say something that you’ve said. It’s kind of a quote and I think this is a great way to end this beautiful interview. You said something like “My philosophy has always been that I love music… period. I don’t want to be remembered as a Jazz trumpeter, I’d like to be remembered as a man who loved music because: I like to play piano, I like to compose, I like to do all of those things as much as I like to play the trumpet.” Those were your words.
AS: Absolutely, one-hundred percent and I back that up.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, because its not just about you picking up the horn and showing how fast you can play – all of those cascading notes. One thing I did notice that you do beautifully though, is that you hold back and then when you need to do it, you let it erupt – like a volcano!
AS: I think you have to go with the flow; you have to go with the kind of intensity of the music and the kind of music that you are playing. You cannot extract your playing and take it out of context of the music. Whatever you are playing should go with the style, should go with the dynamic of the piece.
Jazz Monthly: When I saw you at the Iridium and the Blue Note, one thing I really liked was your showmanship, and you know what, it reminded me of Dizzy a little bit, you know, the way you go back and forth…
AS: He’s my teacher. He’s my teacher, man. (Laughs)
Jazz Monthly: Yes, you go back and forth with the audience, playfully, with humor, you know.
AS: when you are on the stage you have to be grateful and you have enjoy yourself and let everybody know you are having fun.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely, and you sure do Arturo, and you make us have a lot of fun too.
AS: I try… I try. (Laughing)
Jazz Monthly: You sure do, Arturo.
So in closing, I just want to say thank you so much for sharing.
AS: You’re very, very welcome, and thank you because you make wonderful questions and it was very nice and I enjoyed myself doing this.
Jazz Monthly: Thank you for the gift of music that you share from God to all of us Arturo.
AS: As a mission we came to earth to do it.
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