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For Love & Jazz

Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval is living freedom's dream in front of audiences around the world.
By Gordon Mott | From Gen. Tommy Franks, Nov/Dec 03
For Love & Jazz

The turquoise 1957 Chevy Bel Air glides up the winding drive under the peach-colored portico of the Biltmore Hotel, one of Miami's grand old buildings erected in the city's golden era. Sporting a tropical-print shirt, Cuban trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval sits behind the wheel of the classic American car and lets the rhythmic melody of Latin music boom from the speakers.

The perfectly restored Bel Air is a rolling monument of Sandoval's life. It recalls his childhood in Cuba and his love of cars (Sandoval's father was an auto mechanic before the Cuban revolution). It's a reminder of his young adulthood in Cuba when he couldn't afford a car, but envied the aging relics from Detroit's heyday chugging along the streets of Havana. And it's a symbol of how far he has come since he fled Cuba with his family in 1990 during an international musical tour.

"I owe so much to my music," he says between puffs on one of the four to five cigars he smokes every day. "It saved my life. And, when I play today, it is from my heart, 100 percent."

The 54-year-old Sandoval comes from that world of jazz musicians most Americans don't understand or follow. His is not a household name, but whether you realize it or not, you have heard his music, and maybe even seen the 2000 HBO biopic For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story, starring Andy Garcia as Sandoval. Whether it's a Gloria Estefan arrangement, a movie score with a Latin influence or a live performance with Celine Dion at the Oscars, he has left his mark on music. Sandoval's résumé in the world of jazz reads like a Hall of Fame archive. He has played with Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton, performed on stage from Tokyo to New York and recorded 13 solo albums since arriving in America. He has won four Grammys and has more plaques for Grammy nominations in his Miami home than the walls can accommodate. He won an Emmy for his soundtrack of For Love or Country. In just the last year, he has completed a kind of audio anthology of 19 of the most influential trumpet players of the twentieth century, called Trumpet Evolution, and composed the original scores for two documentaries on the cigar-making Fuente family (see "A Love Story," page 263).

Music is his first love, but Sandoval also has a deep love of his homeland, although he doesn't like to talk politics or delve too deeply into the situation in Cuba. "I'm not a hero. I'm not a patriotic hero for Cuba. First is my family. My parents. My kids. And my wife. I have to try my best to give them the best life possible. I'm not a politician. I'm not a martyr. I am a simple man, a musician who is trying to give my family the best life possible," he says when the subject of Cuba comes up.

But he's also had negative firsthand experiences in Cuba that forever shaped his ideas about communism: being imprisoned, being prohibited from playing the music he loved and being separated from his extended family because of his decision to live outside Cuba. "Why can I not go back to my own land? I wasn't involved in any secret organization. I was just a musician. I want to live somewhere else. Why am I not allowed to come back to [my] land, my country, because of that decision?" he asks, with passion rising in his voice.

While he doesn't agree with Fidel Castro's policies, he thinks that the exile community in the United States hasn't always adopted the right course of action. "We've made a lot of mistakes, the exiles in the United States. We've made the Cuban people afraid of us, that we will go back and try to confiscate our property," Sandoval says. "But that's not what a majority of the people feel. They just want to be able to go back to their country and visit at least. You don't want to be there forever. We need a visa to be able to visit your own land. That's difficult to understand for people who grow up under freedom and democracy."


Arturo Sandoval was born on November 6, 1949, in Artemisa, a small town east of Havana in the Pinar del Río province, home of Cuba's finest tobacco growing region, the Vuelta Abajo. His family was poor, subsisting on income from his father's mechanics business. Despite his love of cars, Sandoval was never interested in them as a career. By the age of six, he knew his destiny lay elsewhere.

"I had a strong desire to be a musician," says Sandoval, "but my family didn't give me any support. My grandfather said musicians have a lot of trouble. They are hungry and they have alcohol and drug problems." Nevertheless, Sandoval began playing the congas and put together a mini-circus act with a cat on a high wire. He charged the neighborhood kids a penny to see the show. "It was my first business as a musician. My first capitalist idea," he laughs heartily. When his village organized an orchestra for local events, he joined and tried out a bunch of instruments, including the trombone, bass drum and the flute, which he didn't like because it made him dizzy. "I started looking at the trumpet and decided that's what I wanted to do," he recalls, as he sits in his private recording studio built in his recently purchased home in Miami.

However, there was a problem. The band didn't have an extra trumpet, and the family had no money to buy one. His aunt, who was a seamstress, heard about his wish and bought him a coronet. "I'll appreciate that until I die,'' says Sandoval. "I started to blow it. I just figured it out." There was another bump in the road when he sought out a well-respected local trumpeter for some training. After blowing a few notes for the cranky old maestro, Sandoval says the man looked up and said, "Don't waste your time. Better you think about doing something else." For the young Sandoval, the criticism lit a fire under him. "I walked home, two or three miles, crying the whole way," Sandoval says. "But I got home, opened the case and I started blowing the horn, and I've never stopped." He adds that "I learned a lesson that day, and when I hear young musicians I always say, 'It's up to you what you make of yourself.' I'm only sorry I never had the chance to give that old man a private recital."

Amazingly, Sandoval never received formal trumpet lessons. He played and practiced, but that was it. One day in 1963, Sandoval saw a flyer for a scholarship program offering classical music training at the National School of Arts. He applied, and secretly went to Pinar del Río for an aptitude exam that was mostly gauged to test his musical ear. When the telegram arrived with his acceptance, he announced to his parents that he was going to go to Havana to become a full-time musician.

Sandoval continued his education and musical training until he was about 16, when the government formed a big band, known as the Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music. The first trumpet in the national symphony, Luis Escalante, also was tapped as lead trumpet in the big band. The announcement energized Sandoval, who had begun to chafe under the restrictions that he could only play classical music at the school.

"I was dying to meet Luis Escalante," says Sandoval. He says that Escalante's hobby was fixing cars, and because of his experience helping his father, he established a connection with the vaunted trumpeter. They became friends, and finally Sandoval told Escalante that he was a trumpet player, too. They started playing duets, and one day, according to Sandoval, Escalante asked if he'd like to take his place in the big band group. "I was speechless," Sandoval says. "I told him they wouldn't let me play." But after Escalante intervened, the young Sandoval became the last chair in the trumpet section. Three years later, at the age of 20, he became the first trumpet in the orchestra, which in big band parlance meant he really became the band's leader.

Then, the jazzman says, life threw him a curveball. On January 24, 1971, be received his induction notice into the Cuban military, a mandatory service for all young men. "It was the worst three years of my life," Sandoval says. He was required to clean barracks and build latrines, but the worst part was that he didn't have the time, or the place, to play his trumpet.

Nonetheless, when his three years were up ("three years, four days and seven hours"), he expected to resume his former duties as first chair trumpet. But the band director relegated him back to the sixth chair and reduced his salary from the 450 pesos a month he'd been earning as first chair to the 120 pesos he had received at the age of 16. "That was the first time I really wanted to leave Cuba," says Sandoval. "I decided to leave music and go back to my village and work."

The big band conductor, however, sought him out in Artemisa, telling him he'd talk to some people and get him back his old job. Within a short time, Sandoval was back in his first chair. "But we were playing for the national circus, and we were all disappointed. That wasn't why the orchestra had been created," he says. A small group of musicians in the orchestra decided to start playing jazz. "When the government found out, they threatened [us] by saying, 'Whatever you're doing, it's not good for the government or the country.'"

Sandoval and his fellow musicians prevailed and he formed an Afro-Cuban band called Irakere (the Yoruba word for "forest") in 1978 with saxophonist Paquito De'Rivera and pianist Chucho ValdÈs. By the early 1980s, it had become one of the premier Cuban musical groups in the world, fusing elements of rock, jazz and Cuban folk music, and even won a Grammy award. The government relented a bit, too, and let the band play on television in Cuba and perform public shows. But Sandoval couldn't shake the conviction that he wasn't allowed to pursue music the way he wanted to.

"One of my biggest inspirations came from a man named Willis Conover, who did the "Jazz Hour" on Voice of America, every day at 3 p.m. He played the latest records and had the news about the world of jazz. I got a lot of information that way," says Sandoval. It was dangerous to listen to the show, and when Sandoval was serving in the military, a sergeant heard him listening to VOA, and he was imprisoned for three months. The combination of the jazz world outside and his own conflicts with the government led him to begin plotting to leave Cuba.

Irakere began to tour worldwide, and Sandoval knew it was his ticket out of Cuba. But there were complications. He had met and fallen in love with a bureaucrat named Marianela Gutierrez, whom he married in 1975. Families were not permitted to travel together, and Marianela's son, Leonel, from her first marriage, and a son, Arturo Jr., whom she had with Sandoval, were never permitted to leave the country with him. Although Marianela did not originally share Sandoval's disillusionment with Castro's Cuba, she listened to her husband's complaints and eventually began to share his desire to leave.

In 1990, Sandoval was scheduled to tour with the United Nations Orchestra, which had been formed by Dizzy Gillespie, one of Sandoval's mentors. "I went to the vice minister of culture and told him that I was going to be on the road for four months and it was too long to be away from my family," Sandoval says. After much back-and-forth, the government finally agreed to give Marianela and their young son permission to join him in London, but because her first son was of military age, his visa was denied. Nonetheless, the Sandovals went ahead with their plan to defect, and once his family arrived in London, Sandoval explained his plan to Gillespie, who helped set it in motion with American authorities at the U.S. embassy in Athens.

Although the defection was successful, it wasn't until 1993 that the family could get Leonel out of Cuba, along with Sandoval's mother and father. They now all live in Miami, and after much handwringing and accusations of communist ties, Sandoval became a U.S. citizen in 1999.

No matter where he lives, Sandoval says that he will live and die a Cuban. And that means he takes special pride in one of the country's great symbols: the cigar. "I started smoking when I was 14 years old, and I haven't stopped smoking them in 39 years," Sandoval says, a lit Punch double corona in his hand. He says his aunts worked as tobacco leaf strippers in a factory in Artemisa. He used to walk by the factory sometimes and stop to listen to the lector read the news or read from a book. "A cigar is a kind of style, a way of living, and it's a great feeling, especially after a good meal to have a great cigar. When I finish, I'm dying to burn a good cigar. It's like a vice. A little Cuban coffee. A little brandy. And after a sip of coffee, I love the taste of tobacco."

Sandoval smoked with his mentor Gillespie, who was also an avid cigar smoker. "We'd just sit together and talk," says Sandoval. He discounts any negative effects on his trumpet playing. "People ask me, 'Why do you smoke?'" says Sandoval, implying that it's bad for his breathing. "I just say, 'Maybe the cigar is the reason I'm able to blow this way, and if I stop smoking cigars, I won't be able to blow anymore.'"

Sandoval smokes his first cigar of the day after breakfast, another after lunch, one in the afternoon, one after dinner and, sometimes, one before bed. "I love a good cigar, one that you don't have to relight every three minutes." He says that he had almost stopped smoking Cuban cigars a few years ago when their quality declined. "It was so sad because Cuba produces the most incredible tobacco leaf in the world," he says, "and I was disappointed when I'd try to smoke one and couldn't." But he says that he hopes the quality returns. "Look, I'm going to die a Cuban, and cigars represent us and my country."

For now, Sandoval is content to keep exploring the frontiers of his musical creativity. "We have a saying, 'Don't go to sleep in the top of a tree, because if you fall asleep, you fall and hit the ground.' That's like my career. When I go to a concert tonight, no one cares how you played last night. You have to do your best in that moment. People don't have to come see you. It's a privilege that they do. You must keep yourself in shape, and practice and keep learning.

"I've heard people say, 'I don't have anything to prove," says Sandoval. "I don't agree with that. We always have something to prove. If you don't, you'd better quit. For me, every day is a challenge."

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