From Cuba To America, Arturo Sandoval Is An Ambassador For Jazz

Aug 20, 2013
Originally published on August 20, 2013 4:17 pm

Cuban-born trumpeter Arturo Sandoval is set to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom later this year for his contributions to the world of music. He's won nine Grammy awards and an Emmy. He's also collaborated with legends like Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis, and contemporary stars such as Justin Timberlake and Alicia Keys.

But his most famous and consequential musical partnership was with his hero, Dizzy Gillespie. Tell Me More guest host Celeste Headlee sat down with Sandoval to talk about his start as a trumpet player in Cuba, and how his journey to America influenced his music.


Interview Highlights

On growing up loving jazz in Cuba

"We used to listen every day, every single day, [to] Voice of America. [It] was a shortwave radio program, and they play everything in jazz music. That was the only way we have to hear that kind of music and to be connected with the music we love. I was in the obligatory military service for three years when the sergeant [caught] me listen[ing] to the Voice of America, and then they put me in jail because I was listening to the voice of enemies."

On meeting Dizzy Gillespie for the first time

"I was dying to meet him. Finally we get together and [at] that time I couldn't speak any English at all ... but we connected so well since the very first moment that I drove him and I showed [him] the city for the first time. I never told him I was a musician myself. When he saw me with a trumpet in my hand and he said 'Hey! What [is] my driver doing with a trumpet?' Somebody said, 'No he's a trumpet player.' He said, 'No no, he's my driver.' That was the very beginning of our friendship and collaboration."

On the legacy of jazz

"I always say that jazz is the most important art form created in this country. We have to really be aware of that — that we have to carry that legacy and let everybody, [the] younger generation, that this is a beautiful music created in this country [with a] wonderful legacy and also big recognition and prestige [from] all over the world. You know the people love and admire and respect jazz immensely. [There] isn't any place on earth where the people don't know about jazz.

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Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

And now it's time for our "Wisdom Watch" conversation. That's when we speak with those who've made a difference in our lives through their work. Cuban-born trumpeter Arturo Sandoval is set to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom later this year for his contributions to the world of music.

He's won nine Grammy awards and an Emmy. He's collaborated with legends like Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis and contemporary stars like Justin Timberlake and Alicia Keys. But his most famous and consequential musical partnership was with his hero, Dizzy Gillespie. Here are the two jazz greats playing on Gillespie's 1982 tune "Wheatleigh Hall."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEATLEIGH HALL")

HEADLEE: You can hear the sense of humor in both those gentlemen. That's "Wheatleigh Hall," as played by Dizzy Gillespie and Arturo Sandoval. And Arturo Sandoval joins us now from a studio in Los Angeles. Welcome to the program, and thank you so much for speaking with us.

ARTURO SANDOVAL: Thank you very much for the opportunity. Thank you. I am very happy to talk to you.

HEADLEE: You know, knowing your background growing up in Cuba, having been jailed at one point just for listening to jazz music, coming to the United States in the '90s seeking asylum here, I wonder what your reaction was when you found out you were going to get the Presidential Medal of Freedom. What did you think?

SANDOVAL: Well, I, you know - so happy and grateful to God for such a distinction. I'm so happy to be in this country. Every day is a wonderful day for me in this wonderful nation.

HEADLEE: Well, if I could, let me take you back a little bit to the time in 1990 when you were seeking asylum here and came to the United States from Cuba. This is a clip from your very first album that you recorded in the United States called "Flight to Freedom."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAPRICHOSOS DE LA HABANA")

HEADLEE: That was "Caprichosos De La Habana" from Arturo Sandoval. The album was called "Flight to Freedom." Has your idea of what it means to be in the U.S. changed since, say, you wrote that piece?

SANDOVAL: Well, it's changed every day. You know, every day is a wonderful surprise - is something different to do and another opportunity to share the stage or do a recording or do something with people I always dreamed to collaborate. I can't imagine how was my life way back in Cuba when I was a complete hopeless kid, you know. After so many years working hard with a lot of dedication and respect and love and passion for the music every day, you know, is a brand new things and I enjoy every second of it.

HEADLEE: Well, let's take you back a little further even. I mentioned that at one point, you were jailed for listening to jazz. What was it like when you were growing up, loving jazz in Cuba? How did you even get connected with the music?

SANDOVAL: We used to listen every day, every single day. The voice of America was a short wave radio program, and they play everything in jazz music. That was the only way we have to hear that kind of music and to be connected with the music we love. I was in the obligatory military service for three years when the Sergeant catch me listen to the voice of America. And then they put me in jail because I was listening to the voice of enemies.

HEADLEE: And yet, you started playing trumpet and much of that was taught - you taught yourself, correct?

SANDOVAL: Basically, yes.

HEADLEE: And so then in 1977, Dizzy Gillespie came to Havana and you met him. Can you tell me the story of that meeting?

SANDOVAL: Somebody called me and told me that Dizzy going to come in the cruise - that was doing a jazz cruise through the Caribbean. It was a group of another important artists, you know, there was Earl "Fatha" Hines and Stan Getz, among other great jazz musicians. But my special interest, of course, was to meet my hero Dizzy Gillespie. We never met, but I was listen to him for quite a number of years and I hear a lot of his recordings and I was dying to meet him.

Finally, we get together and the time I couldn't speak in English at all, and then we communicate through a third person who translated for us. But we connected so well since the very first moment, you know. Then I drove him and showed the city for the first time. I never told him that I was a musician myself. When he saw me with a trumpet in my hand he said, hey, what my driver is doing with a trumpet? Somebody said no, he's a trumpet player. He said, no, no, he's my driver.

That was the very beginning of our friendship and collaboration. And later on, he became my mentor and he inspired me so much. He gave me so many opportunities and so many things he did for me. And, you know, he is part of my family. He's part of my soul. And I miss him terrible.

HEADLEE: Well, let's play a clip from your latest album. This was written for Dizzy Gillespie and the song is called "Every Day I Think of You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY DAY I THINK OF YOU")

HEADLEE: "Every Day I Think of You," that's the song you wrote for your friend Dizzy Gillespie. Your remained close with him until his death in 1993. What do you miss most about him? Do you miss playing with him? Do you miss just talking with him?

SANDOVAL: I miss everything about him. Everything. Not only his playing, but his company, his warm person, you know. He was a big-hearted person.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY DAY I THINK OF YOU")

SANDOVAL: He encouraged me so much to do things and to keep practicing, to write music, to keep loving music, especially, you know, because he was a big-time music lover. He loved music so much and he inspired everybody around him with that kind of passion for the music.

HEADLEE: Do you think that young people today get the same thrill out of hearing jazz as they did when you were growing up listening to that voice of America broadcast? I mean, they say that the jazz audience is really aging and that young people are more interested in R&B and hip-hop, that jazz doesn't have the edge that it used to have. What do you think of that?

SANDOVAL: It's not a matter of then only. It's also a responsibility. It's not only a musician, a jazz musician. It's everybody who have something to do with that. And I always say that jazz is the most important art form created in this country.

We have to really be aware of that, and we have to carry that legacy and let everybody - younger generation - that this is the beautiful music created in this country and have a wonderful legacy and also a big recognition and prestige of all over the world. You know, the people love and admire and respect jazz immensely. Isn't any place on earth where the people don't know about jazz.

HEADLEE: One last question for you. I know that you're in your sixties now and you're still teaching and you're obviously still recording. Dizzy passed away in 1993, as we mentioned, he was 75. And he was very busy all the way up until he passed away. Is that part of the secret? Is it continuing to work?

SANDOVAL: Yeah, you know what - that keep you alive in every sense of the word. I can't conceive my life without playing music or writing or practicing or singing or doing something. I don't know. But to be happy, I have to do something around music.

HEADLEE: Arturo Sandoval - accomplished jazz trumpeter, as well as a well-respected pianist and composer. Later this year he will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Thank you so much. It was really a pleasure talking to you.

SANDOVAL: Thank you very much. Thank you. Have a wonderful day. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.