[Jakarta, LttW] “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”, is an Albert Einstein quote that, to us, describes Arturo Sandoval. We were fortunate enough to see his shows at the 2017 Jakarta International Java Jazz Festival.
The event almost served as a comparative study. We were able to move from one performance to the next at any time. Imagine watching at least five different concerts in less than a six-hour period. It was difficult not to compare among the musicians.
Arturo Sandoval had a quite late time slot for his first performance night. Though we were quite beat, our energy was lifted by his complete package of a show. The ten-time Grammy Award winner was definitely a musician in his own right, but, to our surprise, he also had proficient comedic timing. There was a point when he shared a story and unexpectedly transitioned to a song. It was such a flawless transition that the audience was caught off guard, making us unable to hold laughter, myself included. At the end of “A Night in Tunisia”, he kept hitting higher and higher pitch on the trumpet that, in fear of losing breath, he crossed himself before hitting the final notes, a gesture unlikely if one doesn’t have a good sense of humor.
This level of stage and audience control truly showed the years he dedicated to his craft. There was not one nervous muscle in his performances throughout the two days.
Arturo was trained in classical music. His native Cuba is home to one of the most respected classical music conservatories in the world. Like the rest of the Americas, Cuba domesticated classical music and gave birth to authentic pieces by the likes of Leo Brouwer. Arturo, however, fell in love with jazz, a music that originated in a country considered hostile by Cuba at the time. He was jailed for that love. Later, thanks to bebop legend Dizzy Gillespie, he was able to move to the country that gave birth to that very love.
Our friend, jazz bassist Christy Smith, once told us that an individual lives jazz. It’s not just music. Arturo didn’t only show us his comprehension of jazz; he was showing us his life. The expertise, the fun, and the control, were all reflections of jazz itself. Virtuosity by itself was too complicated an explanation for what jazz is. Arturo showed us a simpler explanation that was able to include all the details. It was simply himself.
The following are answers to some questions we had for him. [GP]
Arturo, when did it all start musically for you?
Although music entered my life when I was 10, it wasn’t the easiest of starts. In Cuba it was practically impossible to get a hold on an instrument, but when I was 10 years old, my aunt brought me a small horn and I never stopped striving to get better, even now!
What made you fall in love with music?
I fell in love with music at a very young age, maybe 5 or 6 years old. Of course it was initially Cuban music and I started playing percussion, or whatever I could find, as it was very hard to get your hands on an instrument in Cuba. I used to do a little “circus act” when I was 6 or 7. I would hang a rope from one end to the other of a chair, and put food on both side. I would have my cat walk from one end to the other while I played the congas, and I would charge my friends one cent to watch the show! It was the start of my performance career, haha!
A lot of folks in the jazz world don’t know that you’re just as respected in the classical world. How long have you been playing classical music?
I started playing classical music when I was 14, and that is what I studied as a young man. Later I was hooked on Jazz, but I still perform all around the world with symphony orchestras and I am very grateful for that, it is such a good time for me to play classical concerts too. I actually just finished composing my second classical concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, and I am very excited to begin playing it live.
You’ve played a lot of different instruments but you really fell in love with the trumpet, was it love at first sight?
Love at first sight? No! haha! It was very challenging. The first trumpet teacher I went to in Cuba told me to play for him, and since I have never played before, he immediately told me to throw the horn away and give it up. That day, at 10 years old, I walked all the way home crying the whole way. That’s when I decided I wasn’t going to let him discourage me, and embarked on my journey as a trumpet player. The trumpet is one of my loves, the piano is definitely up there too!
You are known to be a cigar smoker. Doesn’t it affect your performance as a trumpet player?
I have been smoking cigars for over 50 years and thankfully it has never affected my playing! I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true.
You are a renowned Jazz and classical trumpeter, a brilliant pianist, a stellar composer and arranger – a fine vocalist in your own right, a band leader, and a tenured university professor of music. How do you manage all this? Is there a secret you can share with us?
Thank you, you are very kind. You know, I just never stop practicing, that’s the secret! I am truly a lover of music, so I try to express myself in every way I can. Sometimes I just want to blow the horn, others I want to sit at the piano and compose, write a song, write lyrics, or teach. As long as you have the inspiration, its about practicing and being consistent and determined to follow the passion.
One can’t mention the name Arturo Sandoval without mentioning Dizzy Gillespie. You had a life altering relationship with him, in a way. Explain to us how.
Yes, meeting Dizzy changed my life, just as music did. It was with his help that I was able to get political asylum and move to the US with my family. He afforded me the greatest freedom as well as more personal and professional opportunities that I could have ever wished for! I was very fortunate to meet and then play and tour with Dizzy. It’s a truly marvelous thing to meet your hero, and then form a relationship and a bond with him. He was my mentor, my friend, my teacher and is still an inspiration to me every day!
How difficult it is for a musician from Cuba to get a world wide recognition?
Well, it was very difficult while I lived in Cuba, because we weren’t allowed to listen to Jazz, it was considered the “music of the enemy”. I was so desperate to listen to Jazz and learn from the masters, that I actually got arrested for listening to the Voice of America. I am forever thankful to Dizzy Gillespie, who helped me escape the dictatorship and allowed me to open my eyes to freedom both personally and professionally.
For a man jailed for three months in Cuba for listening to jazz on Voice of America, the thawing of relations between your homeland and your new land means a lot?
I appreciate President Obama’s efforts, I know it comes from a positive place and a desire to help Cuba and its people. However, it’s hard for me to believe that the politics there will change easily. It is so saddening to see how people really live there and the struggles they have been going through for so many decades. I wish that one day Cuba can be rid of the dictatorship and that the people can finally enjoy freedom, one of the greatest gift in life.
You live in USA. Are you going to Cuba sometimes?
I am very thankful to live in the US, it has been the greatest gift! Unfortunately I will not go back to Cuba, as the dictatorship still goes on, communism is still very much alive, and the poor people of the island continue to suffer immeasurably.
For Love or Country has been critically acclaimed. Do you feel this film is your legacy?
I am very proud of this film. I was very thankful that HBO asked to do the film and more-so, that they were willing to tell the real story of what I went through and what many have gone through (and still do) living in Cuba. I was also so happy to write the underscore for the film, which I won an Emmy for Best Composer! But my true legacy is what I leave behind, and 4 years ago I started the Arturo Sandoval Institute (ASI). It is a 100% non-profit organization which provides instruments, master classes, music education and so much more, to underprivileged students throughout the country. I want to be a part of making sure that our children and grandchildren have music in their lives, despite the fact that schools are cutting their music programs!
What is on the horizon? What is Arturo Sandoval up to?
Again, I am so grateful to be traveling around the world performing! I am also working on my new album, which is my first Duets Album, and I have some really phenomenal artists confirmed including: Pharrell Williams, Josh Groban, Placido Domingo, Alejandro Sanz, Juan Luis Guerra, Stevie Wonder, Frida Lyngstad (Abba), Al Jarreau, and more!
You’re still as much on the move, you’re everywhere. You’re not tired of all the ripping and running?
I am very lucky that I get to travel around the world and do what I love. Not only for me, but its such a wonderful thing to be able to bring my music to audiences world wide. Yes, it’s tiring, I’m getting old! Haha! But no matter how old I get, I feed off of the energy of the people I play for, and that keeps me energized and excited for the next show.
How many gigs do you play per year now?
Wow so many. I think I am home about one week a month! It’s a lot of traveling, but I am grateful for the opportunity.
Garcia Lorca said, “Arturo Sandoval’s greatest skill is the “duende”*. What does it mean exactly? Do you agree with him?
It’s hard to translate exactly, but having “duende” means having soul, a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity, it comes from a fairy-like creature in Spanish mythology.
Watch one of Arturo’s performances:
Arturo Sandoval ‘There Will Never Be Another You’ | Live Studio Session, uploaded by KNKX Public Radio.
*The “duende” is actually a connotation of characters mentioned by Arturo, and is often associated with flamenco.
Featured image attribution: By Frolzart (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons