Arturo Sandoval: The Lessons in Life

December 17, 2013

sandoval-slidby Bryan Reesman

Arturo Sandoval’s prolific, expansive career has been fueled by passion, sustained by perseverance, and was developed through his longtime association with famed trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, who discovered him in Cuba while on a tour stop. Since that time, Sandoval’s international reputation has grown and prospered. He survived Communism, became reborn in America, and has become an important name in the jazz world. He has proven that simply possessing the desire to play and having the education under your belt is not enough; you have to driven and believe in yourself and what you do.

“You have to work so hard, every inch for everything, little by little,” Sandoval tells JAZZed during a tour stop in Buffalo, New York that included a gig and a master class. “It’s a hard world [that requires] strong dedication, especially when you’re a jazz musician. If you’re into pop or rock ‘n roll or you’re a movie star or soap opera star, there’s a big difference. But being a jazz or classical musician, it’s very different to survive.”

Sandoval knows all about survival. He has been playing music for 54 years, since the age of 10. He began playing music in a marching band in his hometown of Artemisa, Cuba. They gave him a few instruments to try, and eventually the trumpet caught his eye and ear. His public education was cut short around fifth or sixth grade because he had to work to help his poor, starving family. But fortune smiled on him when he was 14 years old and he received a two-year scholarship to attend the Cuban National School Of The Arts in Havana for classical training. After he finishing school, he began playing with different orchestras and bands, including the Orquestra Cubana de Musica Moderna whom he started with in 1967.

Arturo Sandoval behind the console while working on a new recording.

Arturo Sandoval behind the console while working on a new recording.

Sandoval’s musical trajectory was later derailed when he had to begin obligatory military service in 1971. “Man, that was horrible,” he recalls grimly. “Three years and four days…” Essentially the only music he got to play during that unhappy period occurred whenever he performed “Taps”. But he survived, and once he was released from the military joined the genre-spanning band Irakere, which incorporated everything from funk to Afro-Cuban to classical music and included former members of the Orquestra Cubana. After being discovered by Dizzy Gillespie in May 1977 during a Havana stop on a jazz cruise tour that also included Stan Getz and Earl Hines, Irakere later signed to CBS and released three albums, winning the Grammy for Best Latin Recording in 1980 for their self-titled album, which included tracks from their live performance at Carnegie Hall in 1978. They also went to Japan to record an album. In 1981, Sandoval left Irakere to form Arturo Sandoval Y Su Grupo, which he played and recorded with until his defection to the United States in 1990.

Sandoval praises Gillespie – “He was my hero, my mentor, my godfather, he was so good to me”– whom he says was responsible for all the things that happened to him and his musical compatriots while he was in Cuba. His friendship with his fellow trumpet player will be chronicled in the upcoming coffee table book entitled Dizzy Gillespie: The Man Who Changed My Life: From the Memoirs of Arturo Sandoval, which is due out in April 2014. Sandoval assembled it with his wife Marianela and writer Robert Simon, and it will include a wide array of photos.

The Cuban musician learned much from the iconic jazz figure. “His passion and love for music, that was the most important thing,” notes Sandoval. “That guy loved music so much. He never got tired of talking about music and trying to learn new things from anybody and sharing his ideas. He was in love with music his whole life.”

Sandoval loves music too, and he certainly paid more than his share of dues to achieve the fame and recognition he has today. During the period that Irakere and then his own group were signed to album deals while in Cuba, he and his bandmates never dealt with the contracts. Those were all handled by Castro’s Communist regime. “We only received a little, miserable per diem that wasn’t even enough to eat [on],” reveals  Sandoval. “We never saw any contracts at all and didn’t participate in them moneywise. The Cuban government took care of everything and took the money, of course.”

Even though he had the musical talent and prestige which he brought to the States when he defected and sought asylum in 1990 while on tour with Gillespie, times were tough for the veteran musician. “It wasn’t that easy like some people maybe believe,” he remarks. After their arrival, he, his wife, and their younger son – their older son was married and came later – stayed in a little efficiency in Hialeah. “The three of us [were] sleeping on the floor on a mattress with some furniture. We had nothing. I was 41 years old and saying to my wife, ‘We have to start again.’ We were working all our lives, and then we had to forget about that and start from scratch again. That was a difficult move.”

Through that arduous time of transition, Sandoval’s biggest lesson was that freedom was the most important thing in life. “I always say: no freedom, no life. If I had to do what we did all over again, I would do it 100 times if I had to. I never regret what we did.” He became an American citizen in 1997, the same year that he performed with Celine Dion on the Academy Awards. Prior to that time and afterward he released a steady stream of albums and also recorded and/or played live with the likes of Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, Dave Grusin, Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Tito Puente, and many others. He even recorded a famous John Williams trumpet concerto in Abbey Road Studios with the London Symphony Orchestra. In 1995, he performed at the Super Bowl XXIX halftime show with Patti LaBelle, Tony Bennett, and the Miami Sound Machine.

Sandoval’s most recent release, 2013’s Mambo Nights.

Sandoval’s most recent release, 2013’s Mambo Nights.

“I never stopped working, my friend. Never, never,” declares Sandoval. “I work all the time. I’m so happy and proud to be an American citizen. I love this country. Nobody loves this country more than me. Equally, maybe, but more? Forget it. I started to enjoy the respect and recognition for my career and felt like a human being after I moved to this country. I went through so many humiliations and problems in Cuba. They never showed me any kind of respect or admiration for what I was doing, and that was horrible. When you are an artist, that’s the last thing that you want, people who don’t admire you or appreciate what you do.”

Along with performing, Sandoval has actively taught music for nearly a quarter of a century since moving to America in 1990. He spent 19 years teaching at Florida International University before moving to Los Angeles four years ago. During his first year in California he taught at USC, and now he teaches private lessons at home and also oversees the non-profit Arturo Sandoval Institute in Los Angeles, whose mission he says is to “help low income kids to buy instruments and pay tuition and get scholarships. We have been helping a lot of kids in the community.”

Teaching is the trumpeter’s way of giving back. “It’s like an obligation that you should feel when you learn so many other things from other people,” declares Sandoval. “To share that experience with people who would be interested in learning from you, this is what it’s all about. You feel you’re giving back something when you’re sharing your experiences and the things that you have been learning for so many years. At the same time, I always have my instrument in my hand when I teach. It’s challenging and good because when you’re teaching, you have to be sure about what you’re doing and you have to check even yourself, that whatever you ask a student to do you can do it, too.”

Although one might expect the famed trumpeter to focus on jazz and classical in his lessons, he says he concentrates on the technical side, the basics of the instrument. “This is what people need more than anything else,” he asserts. “You have to master your instrument first before you can start even thinking about any specific style of music.”

Sandoval always teaches private lessons one-on-one and adapts each lesson to each specific student. “They’re different individuals – nobody plays the same way or has the same kind of approach,” he says. “I have to go by individuals.” Rather than present favorite pieces of music to teach students, he focuses on “the regular books. That’s my bread and butter, the books that have been there for more than 100 years. That’s what I really concentrate on.”

When it comes to educational clinics and master classes, he takes a different approach. “At the clinics, I concentrate on answering questions,” he explains. “I like to answer as many questions that they have about anything. Sometimes I play a little bit. It’s not like a performance, but I play examples. I make an introduction, go into the Q&A, then wrap it up.” He goes with the flow. At a Buffalo clinic, he worked with three or four different bands who played and then allowed him to offer some advice, perhaps some musical examples of his own that included playing a little with them.

For his master classes, his advice is offered one-on-one as each student plays and he offers his thoughts. “I don’t even like the word, ‘criticize’,” says Sandoval. “I prefer recommendation or advice or just sharing experience, ideas, and approach. In Spanish, the word ‘criticize’ is a little harder.”

With all of the activity going on in the 64-year old trumpeter’s life, it’s impressive that he finds the time to teach, but it shows how invested he is in music. “When people are interested, I’m interested too,” he explains. “When I find a student who really loves music and really appreciates the time we spend together, I have fun, too.” He views life as a learning process, whether for himself or others. “Every single day there are some new things you can learn and improve upon. If you really want, you can improve things every single day.” When asked about common mistakes or problems he finds with new students early on, he observes that “some people don’t really care very much about the sound, the tone, the quality of the sound, and they want to find the shortcut. In this career, I don’t believe the shortcut is a good way. I believe that dedication and passion, daily routine and discipline are what really make a difference.”

The latest musical adventure that Sandoval has embarked upon is scoring films.  His music has been heard in many films before, but now he is composing specifically for that medium. Since moving to Los Angeles four years ago, he has written for a few soundtracks. “I’ve been doing some of that and still have a few to go in the future. I’m really happy about it because I really enjoy scoring movies. It’s a different bag.” He looks to composer John Williams for inspiration there. “He’s my role model and my hero. The melodies, the orchestration, the sounds, the ideas — he’s a genius. If you want to learn how to do a wonderful soundtrack, he’s the guy to listen to.”

Such musical diversity makes sense given that Sandoval loves music of all sorts, regardless of genre or other factors. “I don’t care who wrote it or when or where or why, but if I like it I want to learn it,” he says. “I’m a huge fan of Dizzy Gillespie, but I’m also a huge fan of Sergei Rachmaninoff. I love his piano and orchestra concertos, and I’m a big fan of Ravel and Debussy and love Erik Satie. I love all kinds of good music. I love Bach, Mozart, and Mahler symphonies. I love Chopin.”

Just recently, the life and music of Arturo Sandoval reached another major milestone. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 20 from President Obama. “I feel so happy and grateful and really humbled to receive such a recognition, which is the highest award that the US can give to any civilian,” beams Sandoval. “It’s an incredible recognition, and we’re so happy, man. When they recognize you and give you such an important award, you feel so happy, and it’s also like a challenge for me to keep doing my best for the rest of my life.”

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