Code Switch
3:45 pm
Wed November 20, 2013

Arturo Sandoval: Free To Blow His Trumpet The Way He Wants

Originally published on Thu November 21, 2013 8:43 am

A former president, a media mogul and a Cuban jazz trumpeter are among the 16 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Wednesday. That Cuban jazz trumpeter, Arturo Sandoval, happened to be performing not too far away from NPR West, at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, last Friday. So I went to pay him a visit during rehearsals.

A heads up: This is one of those stories that are truly an aural experience. The best way to take in Sandoval is to hear him: his wonderful accent, his exuberance, his command of his instrument. So if I were you, I'd click on the play link above and enjoy the ride.

At rehearsals before his sold-out show, Sandoval was coughing, blowing his nose and sniffing Afrin like his performance depended on it. "To blow the trumpet like this, I'm telling you, is a pain on the butt," the nine-time Grammy Award winner said in his heavy Cuban accent, laughing and coughing simultaneously. He just finished touring for 22 days straight, celebrating his 64th birthday on the road.

He nodded toward the boom mic I was dangling in front of him and asked what it was for. "It's for NPR," I said. "All Things Considered."

"All Things Considered," he repeated. "Even a crazy Cuban trumpet player? That is part of the 'all things'?"

The self-proclaimed crazy Cuban trumpet player looks more like a jolly Cuban Santa Claus. Tall, big belly, but instead of a red suit, he wears hip red glasses. On this evening, he was frantically flipping through lead sheets for his band, cracking jokes with the musicians and scatting like a pro with boundless energy. Sick as he was, he said there's a reason he can keep going like this. "I'm gonna tell you something, I love good food and I never... look in my eyes," he said, closing in. "I never touch any kind of drugs. Zero. Food is the first priority for me, and then family and then the music."

Jokes aside, this man sweats music, and he's been doing that for more than half a century. He started playing trumpet in Cuba as a 12-year-old and had a successful career there as a musician — most notably in the '70s, with the band Irakere. Their music was funky, jazzy, with strong Afro-Cuban rhythms. But as different and free-form as the music sounded, Sandoval says, he didn't feel free as an artist, constantly having to check with the Cuban government for permission to play what he wanted, when he wanted, the way he wanted. In 1990, he defected. The first solo album he made in the United States he called Flight to Freedom.

"'Freedom' is the most important word in the entire dictionary. You know about it when you lose it and then you have a completely different idea and perspective of the whole thing," says Sandoval. Since Flight to Freedom, he's recorded 30 albums that range from straight-ahead jazz to classical to Latin jazz.

Steve Loza, a jazz trumpeter and Latin jazz expert at UCLA, says Sandoval is a beast of a musician with the ability to play the trumpet in various styles, not just with precision but with passion. He points out that Sandoval is not necessarily an innovator but a jazz ambassador to a new generation, keeping the spirit of greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Sandoval's longtime friend and mentor, alive.

"I think Dizzy admired his passion. The soul," says Loza. "Dizzy Gillespie and Arturo Sandoval play the way that I have always attempted to play, like it's the last time you'll ever play."

"That always for me has been my priority, you know, try to be as good as I can, today, this 24 hours," said Sandoval. "What happened yesterday is history; what's going to happen tomorrow is in the hands of God." And with that, he blew his nose, made himself a hot cup of tea and prepared to blow his trumpet, with all the passion he could muster, like it was the very last time.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to focus now on another name from today's list of medal recipients, jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji caught up with him before a performance in California just a few days ago and she sent this profile.

ARTURO SANDOVAL: OK. Letter E, guys. One, two, and one, two, two.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Arturo Sandoval is rehearsing with his band before a sold-out performance at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The nine-time Grammy Award winner is not feeling too hot this evening. He just finished touring for 22 days straight and he's 64.

(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)

SANDOVAL: To blow the trumpet like this, I'm telling you, it's a pain in the butt. What's this for?

MERAJI: He nods toward the boom mic I've been dangling in front of him. It's for NPR, I say, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SANDOVAL: All things considered, even a crazy Cuban trumpet player.

MERAJI: The self-proclaimed crazy Cuban trumpet player looks more like a jolly Cuban Santa Claus. Tall, big belly, but instead of a red suit, he's wearing hip red glasses. Sick as he is, he says there's a reason he can keep going like this.

SANDOVAL: I'm going to tell you something, I love good food and I never - look in my eyes. I never touch any kind of drugs. Zero. Food is first priority for me, and then family and then the music.

MERAJI: Jokes aside, this man sweats music. He's frantically flipping through lead sheets for his band, scatting like a pro with boundless energy.

SANDOVAL: Bep, bep, bep. Guys, also pull number three, Anthropology. I would like to try that.

MERAJI: Sandoval left his native Cuba in 1990, after years as a really successful musician there, most notably in the '70s with the band Irakere. Their music was funky, jazzy, with strong Afro-Cuban rhythms.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: But as different as the music sounded for the times, Sandoval says he didn't feel free as an artist, constantly having to check with the Cuban government for permission to play what he wanted, when he wanted, the way he wanted.

SANDOVAL: Freedom is the most important word in the entire dictionary. You know about it when you lose it and then you got a completely different idea and perspective of the whole thing. Oh, yeah.

MERAJI: So he defected. The first album he made after was called "Flight to Freedom."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Since then, he's recorded 30 albums that range from straight-ahead jazz to classical to Latin jazz.

STEVE LOZA: He synthesizes all of these styles that he's heard and absorbed. And because he's such a talented musician, he can then express it. He can play it.

MERAJI: That's Steve Loza, jazz trumpeter, Latin jazz expert and professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA. He points out Sandoval is not necessarily an innovator but a jazz ambassador to a new generation, keeping the spirits of greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Sandoval's longtime mentor, alive.

LOZA: He played Dizzy Gillespie with no mistakes, you know. And I think Dizzy Gillespie admired his passion, the soul. Dizzy Gillespie and Arturo Sandoval played the way that I have always attempted to play. It's like you're playing like it's the last time you'll ever play.

SANDOVAL: And that always for me has been my priority, you know, try to be as good as I can, today, this 24 hours. What happened yesterday is history. What's going to happen tomorrow is in the hands of God. We have no control whatsoever.

MERAJI: And with that, Sandoval blows his nose, pours himself some hot water...

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER TRICKLING)

SANDOVAL: Sounds like somebody's peeing. No. I put in hot water to make tea. Please, be sure you put that on the tape.

MERAJI: And gets set to blow his trumpet for a packed theater with all the passion he can muster, like it's the very last time. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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