Horn o’ Plenty,’ ASCAP’s 10th Anniversary salute to Arturo Sandoval

Arturo Sandoval
Arturo Sandoval
Arturo Sandoval interview for PLAYBACK
By Jim Steinblatt

Composer/trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, now celebrating his tenth anniversary as an ASCAP member and the fifteenth anniversary of his arrival in this country, is one of the most celebrated Cuban musical émigrés in the United States. A protégé of the late Dizzy Gillespie, Sandoval is a living example of an artist’s resistance to totalitarian repression. In the year 2000, the story of Sandoval’s struggle for freedom was made into a critically acclaimed HBO film, For Love or Country – The Arturo Sandoval Story, starring Andy Garcia.

Sandoval has been the recipient of four Grammy Awards, an Emmy Award and numerous other awards and accolades. In addition to working with giants of jazz like Gillespie, Stan Getz and Woody Herman, Sandoval has recorded or shared stages with such performers as Frank Sinatra, Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, Patty LaBelle, the Boston Pops, Rod Stewart, Tony Bennett and many more. His own recordings have ranged from jazz to Latin to classical music.

He has composed scores for film and ballet and – between his intensive touring and recording schedule – is a tenured professor at Florida International University, and heavily involved with music education efforts in the U.S. and abroad. His most recent CD release is Live at the Blue Note (Half Note Records), which is also available as a DVD – an excellent introduction to Sandoval’s virtuosity, dynamism, warmth and pure musicality.

Most recently, Sandoval wrote several songs to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the American Red Cross. One of the titles is “The Motherland of Jazz.” The tunes have been recorded by Sandoval and an all-star band featuring Willy Chirino, Rudy Perez, Jon Secada and Ed Calle, and will soon be released as and EP.

Playback caught up with Arturo Sandoval not long ago by phone at his Miami home. He reflected on his musical development, growing up in Castro’s Cuba and finding a new home in the United States.

PLAYBACK: When did you first take an interest in music? Did you come from a musical family?

SANDOVAL: My dad was a car mechanic and it was not at all a musical family—no one was interested in any art. At the age of six or seven, I started playing on top of tables, anything to make rhythm and percussion. My neighbor bought little conga drums for me. I started to play with them and I came up with the idea of a little circus, making a tent from sugar cane sacks. I had an “animal act” – a cat would move from one side of a rope to another to get at a piece of meant, and I played the congas behind it. I charged one-penny admission. I made four cent altogether – my first attempt at capitalism.

Was there any formal music education?

Two or three years later, there was an attempt to start a musical academy in the area to teach children to read music and play an instrument. I went over with some neighborhood kids. They gave me a few instruments to try out and I wasn’t happy with the clarinet or the bass drum. The flute made me dizzy. I noticed a trumpet out of the corner of my eye and asked the teacher about it, but he said he had promised the trumpets already. I asked him if he’d let me play one if I found my own and he agreed. My aunt bought me a pocket cornet that was horrible. It was suggested that I go see an old man in my town who was quite a good trumpet player about lessons. I was ten or eleven. I went to see him and he said, “Play something for me, whatever you know.” I told him I don’t know anything. He was a cranky old man and ordered me to play. I tried for about 25 seconds. He said, “Put that thing in the case and get out of here. Find something else to do with your life.” Man, I was ten years old. I walked the two or three miles home, crying all the way. When I got there, I stopped crying and said “F*** that old man. I’m gonna try!” I put that trumpet in my mouth till the blood came from my lips. I haven’t stopped since.

In my early teens I began to play gigs, locally. After a few years, I was offered a scholarship to receive classical training at the National School of the Arts in Havana. I went and it was my first time in Havana. I really committed myself to practice, with or without proper teachers and books. I wanted to figure the instrument out and I still do after 45 years.

What did you know about the outside world during these years?

Not much. The only thing I used to do, for years, was to listen to the Voice of America broadcasts on the short wave radio from Washington. Willis Conover had a beautiful program each day – The Voice of America Jazz Hour. When I was in the Army, I would have my small battery powered radio and listen to VOA in the corner. The sergeant caught me, charging me with listening to the “voice of the enemy,” and I was jailed for four months.

So that music meant a great deal.

We had no record or record stores. There was no radio program where you could hear jazz.

Not a very wonderful country…

It’s a wonderful country in terms of the beauty of the land. The problem is the government. We’ve been very unlucky in Cuba for the past couple of hundred years. Not just Castro, but the one before and before and before – horrible. But not as bad as Castro, who had been in power for nearly 47 years with no elections, no respect for democracy or law or human rights.

So Irakere began after your military service?

When I got out of the army in 1974, a group of us who were members of that big band put together Irakere. Almost as soon as we started, we got into some serious problems with the Ministery of Culture. They said we were nuts if we were going to try to play jazz and rock. The bottom line was we wanted to play bebop, and had to find a way to mask it. You know, they removed the cymbals from our drum kits! We traded the cymbals for cowbells and other Afro-Cuban instruments. We experimented with Afro-Cuban, but at the bottom, we were playing bebop, though it was disguised. They weren’t smart enough to figure it out. They believed it was brand new, experimental Cuban music. What we came out with was a little different, but really, it was Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo and Mario Bauza who first did that 30 years before.

You met Dizzy Gillespie in Cuba. What were the circumstances?

Dizzy came to perform in Cuba for the first time ever in 1977. He stopped there for 48 hours. He was working on the Caribbean Jazz Cruise along with Earl “Fatha Hines” and Stan Getz. I went to the harbor when they came off the boat. It was one of the happiest days of my life to see Dizzy in front of me. But it was frustrating – I spoke no English at the time – and there were so many things I wanted to say to this man. I was lucky, though. A percussionist (of Peruvian/Puerto Rican decent) named Ray Mantilla was walking behind Dizzy. He said, “Can I help you?” I said to tell Dizzy that I’m a huge fan and that I’d be happy to help him in any way. They asked if I had a car, which I did – a 1951 Plymouth that was falling apart. I drove him all day long and never mentioned I was a musician. That night the government had organized an event for the visitors and local musicians, including Irakere, at the hotel ballroom. When Dizzy came backstage and saw me warming up on the trumpet, he exclaimed, “What in the hell is my driver doing with a trumpet?”

That was the beginning of a beautiful, beautiful friendship. I loved him so much and I miss him so much, you wouldn’t believe it. He gave me all sorts of opportunities, and right from when we met he encouraged me to continue. He came back to New York and began telling people about Irakere, including people at CBS Records. In 1978, a group of people from the label, including the President, Bruce Lundvall, came to Havana and attended an Irakere rehearsal. From that rehearsal they went to the government office and signed the band for three years. A few months later we landed at LaGuardia Airport, where we were put on a bus for soundcheck at the 1978 Newport Jazz Festival. The first half of the show was Mary Lou Williams and the Bill Evans Trio. We played the second half. There in the front row was Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Mario Bauza, Tito Puente and more. All those people were there to hear a Cuban band – something they hadn’t heard in a very long time. I don’t know how we were able to play – my knees were shaking.

When you arrived in New York at that time, had you already thought about defecting to the U.S.?

You bet! I wanted to stay right there, but what could I do about my family?

When did you leave Irakere? I know that your fellow band member, saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, defected to the U.S. in the early 1980’s.

I left Irakere not long after Paquito left Irakere and Cuba. But I could not leave for about ten more years. When I did leave, in 1990, with my wife and son, I still left a lot of family behind.

You finally mad your big move in 1990 in Rome, when you had your immediate family with you.

That’s correct. The Cuban government made the mistake of agreeing when I asked for special permission to bring my wife and son with me on the trip where I was playing with Dizzy Gillespie. As soon as they arrived in Rome, the next morning we were in the American Embassy in Rome asking for political asylum. Dizzy accompanied me to the embassy.

So you were granted asylum in the U. S. and it was a new life for you. You must have relished the opportunity to try so many things – not just jazz and Latin music, but pop, classical and even an album of your own piano-playing.

I love jazz the most, but I like to play a good piece of music – it doesn’t matter who wrote it or when.

In music it doesn’t matter what you did the day before. No one cares. What matters is what you’re going to do tonight. The people who bought a ticket to see you this evening don’t care about last year, last week or last night. Don’t rest on your laurels, especially with an instrument like the trumpet – it’s an instrument that is merciless. You have to go for it every day.

[“‘Horn o’ Plenty,’ ASCAP’s 10th Anniversary salute to Arturo Sandoval, was reprinted with permission from the Fall 2005 issue of “Playback,” ASCAP’s member magazine.”]