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Arturo Sandoval’s Hard-Earned Truths

Lesher Center for the Arts

8/20 at 5 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Arturo Sandoval is one of the top jazz trumpet players in the world, on a short list that inarguably begins with Wynton Marsalis and then includes, in no particular order, Tom Harrell, Dave Douglas, Ryan (and Justin) Kisor, Jon Faddis, Terence Blanchard of course, Tal Gamlieli, Claudio Roditi, Dominick Farinacci, and you name it. 

Sandoval was born in 1949 in Cuba, which turned out to be both a curse and a path to glory. His musical taproots go back to his mentor and champion — and “savior” may not be too strong a word — Dizzy Gillespie; and so back to the beginnings of Bebop in the early 1940s, at Minton’s Playhouse up on West 118th Street in Harlem. 

Other roots go back to Machito, one of the great auteurs of Afro-Cuban jazz, salsa, and Cubop. More roots go back to the National School of the Arts where, in 1964, Sandoval began training to become a classical pianist.  Incidentally, he has become a classical music composer along the way and just last week, the week of August 9, in the Czech Republic, premiered his second concerto for trumpet and orchestra.

Still other of Arturo’s roots wind back to that group of young jazz artists, his comrades in the equatorial gulag, who found themselves trapped by the revolution, set against the Fidelistas, and unable to create new bands or even play their own music. Or in the end, for some, to play music at all.

While touring with Gillespie in Spain in 1989, Sandoval defected to the United States, along with his wife and young son; all became naturalized citizens in 1999. Sandoval has never returned. He went on receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. 

It was Gillespie, who died in 1993, who set the often-reluctant bureaucratic gears in motion that enabled the defection. One of the highlights of Sandoval’s discography is his 2012 composition: “Dear Diz Every Day I Think of You.”

Flight Times

Sandoval’s story was portrayed in an HBO film released in 2000, For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story. Sandoval was played by Andy Garcia; the love of his life, Marianela, by the Argentine, singer-songwriter, Mia Maestro. 

The film is slight, shall we say, but it has some memorable moments, particularly when Sandoval goes home for the last time, in 1989, back to his neighborhood, pretending to be leaving for a month on one of Dizzy’s European tours — his wife and young son having already quietly left on a ‘vacation’ trip to London — and here is Arturo bidding farewell to this mother and father, who sense the moment’s significance, and then finally goodbye to his stepson, his wife’s child from a first marriage, a teenager who resents Arturo for seeming to kowtow to the government, and who doesn’t grasp Arturo’s ambitions or that he, himself, is about to be left behind permanently. 

On the one hand, it is a terrible betrayal, but un-embittered two years later when Arturo’s mother and father, and stepson, all find asylum in Miami. Both his parents have since died.

Of the original band members Sandoval played with in Havana, four have died; one is living in Miami; another in New Jersey; another in Los Angeles. The original pianist is still in Cuba. As a genre, says Sandoval, Cuban jazz has given way largely to Cuban dance music.

We spoke to. Sandoval earlier this week. For the last seven years he’s lived in Tarzana, California, a moderately diverse island of 35,000 in Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, just west of Encino. You could hardly hear him over the sounds of grandchildren in the background.  

He was preparing for concerts at the Lesher Theater in Walnut Creek this Saturday night, August 20, at 5 p.m. and at 8 p.m.

Melodies Are Made of This

Asked about his new concerto he began talking about the need for new music. “The thing is I’ve been playing these concertos that everyone plays all the time, all the time, all the time. We just don’t have enough new material. And to be honest, I don’t like all the new ones: They are extremely weird, a kind of avant-garde kind of music, very elaborate, very sophisticated, but you cannot remember one bar of the melody. You know, something you can sing or you can whistle. I really don’t like that kind of music. I love melody!”

“I’m a melodymal,” he added, and repeated slightly different variations of what may be a new word.

As a student at the National School of Music Sandoval fell in love with the impressionists just for this reason. “I’m a huge fan of Ravel, Debussy, Satie, and I am also a huge fan of Sergei Rachmaninoff. I love those piano concertos; that’s my favorite music. Romantic music. And why? Because the melodies are so beautiful.”

He went on to talk about the difference for him between classical music and jazz. “For us, the jazz musician, the melody is just an excuse to improvise; but in classical music it’s the other way around. It’s two different states of mind. With classical you have to be extremely well prepared, you have to know the music very well and you have to play as neat and clean, as perfect as possible. And so your merit is your interpretation of that music; that’s the difference between a good artist and a so-so artist.”

And for the jazz musician?

“Jazz is synonymous for me with freedom. It’s beautiful, man! Because if you really express yourself all the way without limitation, if you really have the opportunity to say what you want to say, in the way you want, in the moment when you want: this is for me, equal to freedom.”

The Immigrant’s Wisdom

In addition to his life as musician and composer, Sandoval has become a popular motivational speaker, largely in schools, always offering up anecdotes about his struggle to be free, in all senses.

“I don’t avoid anything. I tell it the way it was and the way it is. I cannot fake any stories. I have to share my reality.”

But what does that mean?

“When I came here I stopped struggling. I stopped completely. When I jump up on stage now I feel like I can express myself all the way without thinking what some people are going to think. I don’t care. For 27 years now I just express myself. And when I talk to people I just try to inspire them. Just do your best. Get the discipline to practice. I never discourage.”

But how does success perhaps lead to other struggles?

“The titles, all the compliments, they never went to my head. I practice probably more than ever. I am more inspired more than ever. I’m always hungry for more information and to learn new things. From anyone. Anywhere.”

Mark MacNamara, a San Francisco-based journalist, has written for such publications as Nautilus, Salon, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair.  Recent pieces for San Francisco Classical Voice include profiles of San Francisco Symphony Executive Director Brent Assink, and the great violinist, Midori; along with essays on Teddy Abrams’s effort to build political bridges with music and Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast.

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