“Man, I’m here to hang with you today,” Arturo Sandoval said. One of the world’s greatest living trumpeters had just finished a two-hour Master Class with about 200 young jazz aficionados listening in rapt attention; not one person left during the entire session. But now, he was ready for a cigar.
A week earlier, I didn’t even know Sandoval was going to be in Queretaro, Mexico. Promotions of events here still aren’t all that sophisticated, and even though I knew the city’s annual International Jazz Festival was on the calendar, there hadn’t been any big ad campaigns around the city announcing Sandoval, the headliner and opening night act. I reached out to him through every avenue I knew (all going through his close friend, Carlos Fuente Jr., of Arturo Fuente Cigars.) I had interviewed Sandoval once for a profile in Cigar Aficionado, and had seen him over the years at Fuente events and cigar industry gatherings. And, I was hoping to get a little one-on-one time with him. Magically, the day before he arrived, I got an email from him and we agreed to meet up after the Master Class.
We hopped in my car and I gave him a quick tour of Queretaro’s Centro Historico, a part of the city that dates back to the early-1500s. We walked through the door of La Sirena, my renovated antique colonial home in the Centro, greeted our new puppy Tequila, and quickly found a seat at the back patio picnic table. I offered him a cigar from my humidor, but he pulled out an Arturo Fuente Don Carlos Robusto. “I’ve got my own,” he said. I grabbed a Don Carlos out of the humidor and joined him.
He regaled my wife, Donna, and I with stories about his life, from his early days in Cuba where he began playing the congas and then a trumpet gifted to him by a neighbor, to his early success with Irakere, a famous Cuban jazz band, and then his arrival in the United States in 1989. He has harrowing tales about trying to get his family out of Cuba, and then his mother and father; the story ends well—they all finally made it to Miami.
Sandoval insisted I join him for a lunch being thrown for him by the Secretary of Tourism, Paulina Aguado, a delightful young woman who is leading a cultural renaissance in the city. Sandoval’s stories continued to delight his audience, and the meal ended with, of course, another cigar.
I left him at about five o’clock to head back home, change and pick up Donna before heading to the opening night concert. The stage dominated the Plaza de Armas, one of the iconic destinations in the city. It’s a tree-lined park ringed by colonial-era buildings. The plaza was packed. At around 7:45, the band started playing, and Sandoval walked out to a huge ovation. For the next 90 minutes, he played his trumpet, danced, kept the beat during other musician’s solos on the congas and went out into the crowd with a microphone to sing “When I Fall In Love.” The crowd brought him back for two encores.
Donna and I went backstage after the concert. Sandoval was safely ensconced in a big tent, drenched in sweat, and looking exhausted. But in his hand, he held another Don Carlos Robusto, his way to relax after a performance. He was headed to Mexico City early the next morning, and so we said our goodbyes.
But I will never forget my day with Arturo.