Arturo Sandoval is on a mission to elevate jazz

by Jordan Levin

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

11 September 2007


Arturo Sandoval is a big man. Makes a big sound on the trumpet, big gestures, big talent, big cigar in his mouth whenever he’s not playing the horn. But it doesn’t slow him down.

Right now he’s dancing, rolling his hips - arms pumping, feet buoyed by the silky voice of 18-year-old Dana Lauren, a student from the New England Conservatory of Music who Sandoval met at the Newport Jazz Festival and invited to record in the tiny studio of his sprawling Coral Gables home.

“Yeahhhhhh,” Sandoval hisses delightedly. “She don’t push, don’t pretend, she feels like a natural singer,” Sandoval says.

“But I don’t do it for her. Everything I do, I go like this,” he says as he rolls his eyes upwards, stabs at the ceiling with his cigar stub. “What you think? Is it OK by you? As long as I’m OK with the old guy up there, I’m good.”

He starts to play an enormous Bosendorfer Imperial grand piano - once owned by legendary jazz pianist Oscar Peterson - and soon bassist Chuck Bergeron is plucking the bass, Lauren is singing, and the other musicians have gathered. Sandoval is grinning, feet tapping, music swirling around him.

“No pueeeedooooo seeer feliiiizzzz,” he bellows - I can’t be happy. Right.

Sandoval has just about everything he wants, and he adds to it by doing more. Since he defected from Cuba in 1990, he has become that rarity, a commercially successful and artistically revered jazz artist, with 15 U.S. recordings, four Grammy awards, a whirlwind touring schedule.

But his own career isn’t enough. He’s on a nonstop mission to elevate jazz in Miami. He teaches in Florida International University’s music department and plays alongside teenage aspirants in the school’s jazz big band.

Against everyone’s advice, last year he opened the Arturo Sandoval Jazz Club in the Deauville Hotel on Miami Beach to give the music he loves a proper home in his home city.

He plays benefit concerts for community radio station WDNA-FM and for FIU’s scholarship program. He recently opened a second club, Rumba Palace, in South Beach, and released a CD by the same title that was just nominated for a Latin Grammy.

The more he does, the more he seems to want to do. The more he gets, the more he seems to feel he ought to give.

“I don’t want to get the point where I retire, get old and they say he was a greedy son of a gun,” Sandoval, 57, says. “I think the satisfaction you get when you give something back is priceless.”

His drive to accomplish is as powerful as his music.

“Arturo has amazing energy - it’s the same energy that comes out of the horn,” says saxophonist Ed Calle, a close friend and musical collaborator for more than 15 years.

“He has a great ability to overcome challenges, whether it’s musical or a situation. And people like that have a natural leadership ability that creates opportunity for those around him. It’s like a pebble that goes into a pond and starts a ripple - but he’s a boulder.”

The natural wave-maker is the son of an auto mechanic, born and raised in Artemisa, a small town east of Havana. Sandoval initially studied classical trumpet at the Cuban National School of the Arts, but in his late teens a journalist played him Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

“It blew my mind,” Sandoval says. “This was a new world.”

That was a dangerous world in Cuba, whose government then labeled rock and jazz “imperialist music.” But Sandoval nonetheless started listening to a jazz program on Voice of America radio - landing him in jail during his military service.

In 1973 he became one of the founding members of the groundbreaking jazz-rock-Cuban fusion group Irakere. Although he enjoyed considerable success in Cuba, Sandoval is bitterly critical of the island’s socialist system, and just as enthusiastic for his adopted home country.

“As much as I suffered there, that was a kind of lesson to appreciate a lot more the opposite,” he says. “When they say, `You miss Cuba?’ I say `You know what? When I’m traveling, I miss Coral Gables a lot.”

His life changed in 1978 when a friend with the Ministry of Culture tipped him off that Gillespie was arriving in Havana that afternoon. Sandoval took his idol on a whirlwind tour of the city, then startled Gillespie in an Irakere performance that night.

“He say, `What the hell my driver doing with a trumpet?’” Sandoval remembers, chuckling. Gillespie became a mentor and close friend, helping Sandoval perform in the United States and Europe, and to defect.

“He was SO good to me,” Sandoval says. When Gillespie came to Cuba, “I was kind of lost, wasting my time, drinking rum. He gave me the desire to continue.”

Gillespie’s generosity is one of the reasons Sandoval is a teacher. He’s been at FIU since 1991. “I learned from a lot of people, and I feel the obligation to share that,” he says. “That don’t belong to me. I should be able to transmit that.”

At a recent master class at the FIU School of Music, Sandoval talked to 19 students about everything from why he opened the jazz club, to performance energy, to staying sober, to practice habits and tricks of lip placement. Underlying everything is this message: focus, discipline, love the music.

“If God played the trumpet he’d have to practice,” he says. “In this business it doesn’t matter how musical you think you are, if you don’t practice, they’re gonna bury you with it.”

But he’s also encouraging and practical: “In the end, what makes the difference is the ability to figure out your own problems.”

As he talked, the students slowly shifted from leaning back to forward. When he blew an impossibly skittering sequence of notes or a golden, soaring melody, they laughed, shaking their heads in wonder.

“It gives you a lot of optimism because someone of his caliber is spending that time and treating us with respect,” says Jesus Mato, 30, a senior who plays trumpet in the FIU big band.

Sandoval’s reward is when someone like Mato responds. “When he recommends a student work on something and comes back in a month and they have, he’s the happiest guy in the world,” says Sam Lussier, FIU’s director of jazz studies.

If teaching is one way Sandoval spreads the music, the jazz club is the other. It’s an elegantly gleaming, bronze-and-black room in the Deauville Hotel that Sandoval and wife Marianela, who designed it, created from a bare, dilapidated space. It is not a money-maker, he says.

“If you see that place as a business you better run,” Sandoval says with a snort. But because it books some of the best national and local jazz artists and because of its respect-the-music attitude - there’s no talking during shows - it is widely regarded as the best and only serious jazz club in South Florida.

“He’s certainly not in it for the money,” says Maggie Pellaya, general manager of WDNA-FM. “But it gives him pleasure musically to have these kind of musicians come to his club, and it exposes the community to the music. I think he wants to make sure that jazz stays alive and well here.”

Civic-musical satisfaction is a part of the reason for the club, Sandoval agrees: “How can you put in dollars and cents the honor and satisfaction when people come to you and say congratulations, we appreciate a lot what you do to bring jazz to this city?”

It’s also another way for him to prove himself - as someone who can add something to jazz, and bring that culture to a city.

“I like challenges,” says Sandoval. “I like a little bit of pressure. That move me, drive me to keep trying. Otherwise I get confident, relax. I can’t get confident. Something have to stick in my” - and he pokes himself from behind.

The club also gives Sandoval a place to play when he’s home. At one of his shows last month, the club was packed with well-dressed, middle-aged couples, excited and a little awed.

Sandoval makes sure they stay that way, moving confidently from trumpet to piano to timbales, even scat-singing, joking, explaining, grimacing extravagantly with emotion - an old-school showman.

“What, you want more of the same!” he shouts, as they yell for an encore. “No! It’s gonna be so boring!”

“Arturo was always one of the most admired musicians in Cuba, and he still is,” says 79-year old percussionist Gilberto Valdes, an old friend from Havana visiting Miami and in the club audience that night.

“It’s been a while since I heard Arturo - but wow. You change the way you live, but you don’t change inside. He’s still the same - no brakes.”

In Cuba or out, Sandoval can’t stop.

“You have to hustle, you have to fight,” he says. “You can’t just let things happen - you must make things happen.”

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