Renowned jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval has come a long way from the Cuban village where he was born 66 years ago. He has won 10 Grammys, an Emmy and, in 2013, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His many recordings have been influenced not only by his Latin roots, but also by such jazz musicians as Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Clark Terry and Sandoval’s onetime mentor, Dizzy Gillespie.
A U.S. citizen since 1999, Sandoval has continued to tour extensively while scoring dozens of film soundtracks and recording his trumpet, piano and classical compositions.
We talked to the jazzman recently, not long after he had played with the house band on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and participated in a “trumpet-off” with Colbert, who didn’t have a chance of besting Sandoval’s signature high notes.
Q: Was the trumpet your first instrument?
A: In the very, very beginning, no. I tried different things, because there wasn’t a little marching band in my home village where I grew up. They gave me different instruments to try. But I think very soon the trumpet started to call my attention.
Q: When did you become aware of jazz music?
A: That was much, much later. I started in music in 1960, ’61, around there, and I didn’t hear any jazz until ’66, ’67. I never heard any jazz, and then a journalist guy in Cuba played for me an album of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. That was it. Goodness. I couldn’t believe it. I said, “Oh, my Lord.” I’m still thinking about that.
Q: How did you start to find other jazz music after that?
A: I started to listen on the shortwave radio the Voice of America with Willis Conover. He had a radio jazz program every day.
Q: Were there jazz bands to join?
A: Jazz bands? Not really.
Q: So you had to learn it from the radio?
A: Absolutely. I couldn’t even buy an album or a record or something, because there wasn’t a music store.
Q: In your village?
A: No, in the whole island!
Q: So you had to learn how to play just from hearing these things on the radio and remembering it?
Q: That sounds difficult.
A: No. Music is in the air. Music is in the atmosphere. The only thing you need is the desire to learn and to absorb that information. When you really want to, it doesn’t matter what you have to do, but you will find a way to learn.
Q: Many musicians focus on one type of music or another, while you’re adept in two – jazz and classical.
A: A lot more than two. Actually I’m writing a score for movies, which has nothing to do with jazz. And I play the Cuban music, of course; I play Latin jazz, I play bebop, I play funk, I play a little bit of classical music and I love baroque. I love impressionist music so much, and I’m a fanatic of Sergei Rachmaninoff. I love his piano concertos and his orchestra concertos.
By the way, I wrote two classical trumpet concertos. I recorded the first one with the London Symphony a few years ago, and I just finished writing a second one that I plan on recording in Poland, in Warsaw, this coming summer.
Q: When you play in clubs, do you perform any classical pieces?
A: No, because this is a small group, and we are playing in a jazz club and the people are going there to listen to jazz. It’s a jazz club, it’s not like a venue for people who go listen to classical music. … Our first obligation, our mission, is to give something that the audience will love and will feel comfortable and enjoy what you’re doing onstage. … We owe everything to the audience. What are we without the audience? We are homeless. I think we better pay attention and give your best things to the audience.
Q: You finally got to meet Dizzy Gillespie in the ’70s.
A: It was May ’77. He stopped in Havana for 24 hours on a jazz cruise. That was a boat that was doing a Caribbean jazz cruise. I went there to see him when he came down the stairs of the boat. … What a privilege. I always considered that a gift of God to meet my hero and the guy who was my biggest musical influence of my entire life. To become a friend of your hero? Man, that’s more than an honor, and for me I always considered that a gift from God.
Q: You played and toured with him many times over the next decade. But it wasn’t until 1990 when you defected from Cuba, while on tour in Spain. Why did you choose that time?
A: I could do it many times before. But I was married and I had a son. I didn’t want to leave them behind. I was waiting for an opportunity to have my wife and my son on the other side. And the Cuban government gave them special permission to travel and join me in Europe for a short vacation. That was the opportunity I was looking for.
Q: What do the recently relaxed relations with Cuba mean for you?
A: We appreciate the attention of the administration of President Obama. … But I knew what was going to happen: The response from Cuba is the middle finger right in the face. The response from them is, as always, they don’t care what anybody else thinks. They’re so tough and hard-headed people that they don’t care about anything.
Q: How will that change?
A: They have to change the complete government. They have to shed that mentality. They have to establish respect for human rights. They have to establish a democracy. And they have to let everybody speak their opinion and allow freedom of all kinds. Because there is only one newspaper and one TV and one radio station, controlled 100 percent by the government. The people don’t have any kind of opportunity to express any kind of idea that is not exactly what the government wants to hear.
Q: You’ve collaborated with such a wide variety of artists, from Frank Sinatra to Justin Timberlake and Alicia Keys. I was wondering if you ever had the chance to work with Prince.
A: I’m so sorry and sad about the bad news. But, no, I never did. But the thing I should mention to you is that in two different occasions, I was playing my gig with my band, and people told me he was in the audience. Oh, my goodness. For me, that was a beautiful detail, that he went to see my gigs.