Arturo Sandoval

Arturo Sandoval: “Focus on today”

Short Profile

Name: Arturo Sandoval
DOB: 6 November 1949
Place of birth: Artemisa, Cuba
Occupation: Musician, composer

Mr. Sandoval, as one of the world’s foremost jazz trumpeters and a musician for more than 50 years, do you still need to practice?

Oh, you bet! Every single day! Here’s a story for you: are you familiar with the name Pablo Cassell? He was probably one of the best cellists in history. And even when he was very old, he was still playing like an angel. Somebody once asked him, "Maestro, why are you still practicing so much?" And he said, "You know why? Because I think I'm improving a little bit!" (Laughs) That's a great lesson for everyone! I actually think that the older you get, the more you have to practice. I even invented this little device, it’s been nicknamed the “Sando-valves,” it’s a mouthpiece attached to the trumpet keys and it allows me to practice anywhere, sometimes I’ll even practice while I’m sitting in the movie theater! It’s essential, especially with the trumpet!

What is it that is so difficult about playing the trumpet?

It’s a tough instrument. It’s very demanding, you need excellent breath skills, you need a lot of air and to train the muscle of the diaphragm to push that air in the way that you need… All those kinds of physical skills before you start thinking about the actual music. The difference between the trumpet and the piano, for example, is that with the piano, you sit down and the music is there already. But with the trumpet you make the sound from scratch. I have to produce the sound. The commitment, the discipline, the passion, the desire to really practice, one hundred percent concentration in what you’re doing… That's the only way you could get a good command of your instrument.

“There’s a big difference between playing what you want, playing only what you can.”

You once said that complete command of your instrument is the only way to truly play with complete freedom.

Some people prefer to find out a shortcut, you know, but I don't believe in that. To express yourself, you should have the skills, the technique in the way you handle your instrument. You have to take that in the palm of your hand. Even if you are extremely musical and you have the ideas and everything, if you don't have that kind of command, you're going to be struggling: you’ll imagine how you want to sound, but you don't have the skill to do it. There’s a big difference between playing what you want, playing only what you can.

That’s also a big part of being able to improvise, which is a crucial skill for a jazz musician.

It’s a very important part! My recommendation for learning improvisation is actually to get the approach of classical training, to prioritize the quality of the sound, to take care of every note, to have perfect pitch and the right intonation… Because when you play a couple of notes with perfect sound, everybody will appreciate that. But if you play a million notes with the wrong sound? Eh, good luck! (Laughs)

Aside from skill and technique, is a passion for music also important?

Of course, I mean, the bottom line in the end is to grab the heart of the audience and talk to them directly and tell them: "Hey I share with you my soul and my heart," but to be able to do that you need all those skills together.

Do you feel free when you’re playing jazz music in the way you just described?

When I'm playing jazz, yes, absolutely. Classical music is a different story, but when you are improvising… You're doing what you feel, you’re saying what you want to say in the way you want to say it, and you have absolute freedom to do that. And that is a joy.

Arturo Sandoval in a live session, 2012.

During your youth in your native Cuba, jazz music was seen as propaganda from the United States, and was treated with a lot of hostility from the government. It must be feel very special to play it with such freedom now.

The dictatorship in Cuba, they called jazz the music of the junkie Imperialist! Can you imagine such stupidity? I was a victim of that kind of misinformation, until I eventually found out that jazz music comes from the south of the US, mainly from black people who were descended from slaves. How can you associate that with Imperialism?

How did you end up learning about jazz despite your country’s hostility towards the genre?

When I graduated from school, I started playing with a big band and one day we met a journalist, he was a big fan of jazz music, an aficionado who also played the saxophone. He asked me, "Did you ever hear any jazz music?" And I said, "No, what is that!" He played me an LP of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. I’ll never forget that day. It was many, many decades ago when I was 17 or 18 years old. Now, I'm going to be 73 this year. But I never forgot that, that changed my brain upside down. I loved it. And later on, I was even in trouble in Cuba because of my love for jazz.

You were put in prison for it, right?

Yes. The only way we got to listen to jazz was through shortwave radio, this station called the Voice of America in Washington, DC. They had a daily jazz program they called The Jazz Hour. During my mandatory military service, I used to listen to that program every day. They caught me and they put me in prison for for three and a half months! They said that I was listening to the voice of the enemy.

But still, that didn’t stop you from continuing to listen to jazz, and even playing it in a subtle way.

(Laughs) You’re right, in the early seventies, we had a band called Irakere and we weren't allowed to use the cymbals because they said that's from jazz and rock n’ roll all those things. So we had to make some changes — we’d use cow bells and some Afro Cuban drums. And then in the end, we were playing a kind of jazz, we were playing bebop, But with that an Afro Cuban rhythm that they accepted. We survived that way.

“Concentrate on today. Whatever’s going to happen in the future, we have no control. And whatever happened in the past, it’s history already… So focus on today because the rest is in the hands of God.”

It sounds like you really did whatever you had to do in order to be able to make jazz music your life.

You have to do what you have to do. We had no choice. But for me, all of that changed 32 years ago when I came to the US and I started to experiment and enjoy so much the most important thing in life: freedom. It’s the most important word in the dictionary for me. Freedom of all kinds. When you really learn the difference between having freedom, and having no freedom… That's when you really appreciate it so much more. In the US, they take it for granted. They don’t appreciate the freedom that they have. It’s a shame because I think we need to protect that freedom. Life without freedom is not life at all!

Apparently it was the great jazz icon Dizzy Gillespie who helped you immigrate to America.

He helped me a lot in every sense, including as you said, to get the political asylum to come to America. The first time I met him in 1977, Dizzy was playing on a cruise ship that was stopping in Havana for two nights. I showed up at the harbour because my friend got me a job as a chauffeur, and when I saw Dizzy, I was so starstruck. I couldn’t believe it. They asked me if I was a musician, and I said no! I was so nervous! So he got in my car and I showed him Havana for the first time.

When did they find out you were a musician as well?

Well, later on they were having a jam session and I got out my trumpet, and Dizzy said, “What the heck? My driver is playing the trumpet!” (Laughs) And then we played together. We established an incredible relationship, he was like a second father to me. That was one of the best gifts I ever got from God, to meet my own hero and become so close to him. This taught me that you never know what’s going to happen! My philosophy is to concentrate on today. Whatever's going to happen in the future, we have no control. And whatever happened in the past, it's history already, it's gone… So focus on today, do the best you can, because the rest is in the hands of God.