Interviews / Music News & Info: Rock, Jazz, World Music, etc.

A chat with Arturo Sandoval: the legendary musician talks about the state of jazz, sharing it with younger generations, the importance of Arban, and much more

The multi-talented Arturo Sandoval, best known as a jazz trumpeter, is in the middle of a four-day residency at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.  He plays a concert tonight, but the bulk of the “Sandoval Jazz Weekend” at The Wallis is devoted to showcasing and engaging young jazz talent via his Arturo Sandoval Institute.

This past Thursday, he opened with a Master Class for three local ensembles of high-school-aged musicians, with free admission to anyone wishing to watch.  While he did offer some stylistic and technical pointers to the participants, the bulk of his teaching focused on improving how they communicated with the audience through the music and that they project joy and fun they feel while playing jazz.

It reflects his passion for the most American of musical genres, and for sharing that passion with audiences of all kinds, but especially with the younger generation.

I had the distinct privilege of speaking to him over the phone earlier this week and learning more about his thoughts regarding the state of jazz in America, his approaches to music making, how others influenced him and how he tries to influence others.  Here is much of that conversation.

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CK Dexter Haven: You’ve been living in Los Angeles for a few years now. Do you consider it home?
Arturo Sandoval: This is home. We still have a little apartment in Miami Beach and another little house for vacations in La Quinta in the desert, but this is home.

CKDH: How long have you lived here?
AS: Nine years.

CKDH: What led you to settle here?
AS: My wife and I had been wanting to settle here from the beginning, ever since we moved to the U.S. We really wanted to come here. But you know, her father lived with us, and my parents lived very close to us in Coral Gables. We didn’t want to go 3,000 miles away from them. After they all passed away, we moved here the next day.

CKDH: What was the draw of Southern California?
AS: Oh, we love it here, man! We love everything about it. We really like the people, and we love the weather, of course. And of course, intellectually and artistic-wise, you can’t compare Miami and Los Angeles. This is the mecca of various aspects of our business: the movies, the recordings, the concerts, the culture. A lot of things are going on here that you can’t compare to Miami. No way.

CKDH: In the past 12 months, local audiences have had the pleasure of seeing you in various kinds of venues: you did a Christmas concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall at the end of 2016, last summer you did a free open-air concert in the park at Marina Del Rey, and you recently played Catalina Jazz Club. Now you’re about to play The Wallis in Beverly Hills. Some very different venues with different audiences.
AS: Oh yeah, absolutely. I like playing all kinds of concerts at all types of places: performing arts centers, parks, universities even. All kinds. But my favorite are jazz clubs.

CKDH: What are the differences to you for playing those different kinds of places?
AS: It doesn’t matter so much as long as people understand and enjoy what we do, that’s what matters to me. That makes me happy and we’re good with all those places. But the thing with the jazz clubs is that those audiences really know what they’re listening to. They not only know the music, they’re like your friends: they know your life, they know everything you’ve been up to, and so you feel like you’re playing for friends even if you don’t know them personally. We played Catalina for three nights at the end of last year, and it was like a party.

CKDH: How would you describe the state of jazz in LA? We have a lot of history, but people don’t have as strong a sense of the jazz scene here vs other cities like New York, Chicago, or even Miami.
AS: It’s good. Of course you know, in the 50’s there was what was the movement of West Coast jazz. A little more mellow of an approach, not quite as aggressive as New York or Chicago, but I strongly believe that the jazz audiences are the same all over the world. They like it and appreciate it, and it doesn’t matter what city in the world you’re in.
I really must say, though, that my biggest disappointment is with the support we don’t have with media – radio, TV, whatever – we have no support at all for the jazz music. I’ve lived in this country for almost 30 years. I never saw any jazz on television on this country.

Sorry, that sucks, excuse my French. You can go any place in Europe or Japan or anywhere, and on price time on a main network on Saturday night, maybe you’ll have a couple of hours covering a major jazz festival on television. Not on pay per view or anything like that, I’m talking the main network. That always makes me feel sad that we don’t have that kind of opportunity in this country.

And then the younger generation, it’s so difficult for them to have access to jazz music. Where are they going to watch those musicians? Where are they going to get access to that, to learn about the history and legacy of what to me is the most important art form created in this country. It’s extremely respected and appreciated all over the world as one America’s major contributions to art in the world. But not here in the US – that sucks! It’s difficult for me to process and to understand.

CKDH: Do you think recent movies like Whiplash or La La Land, given that they focus on jazz, do they help? Have you seen any difference since they’ve come out?
AS: Nah. You know what I think of those movies? They’re Hollywood oriented. They’re pure fiction and don’t represent real life jazz. It’s not real life.

CKDH: So if you were in charge of programming a major network in the U.S., like ABC or CBS, what would you show about jazz to mainstream audiences?
AS: Oh, all the different variations of the style, even all the new artists, very young artists that are extremely talented and love jazz and have beautiful contributions to modern jazz. But they don’t have the exposure that mainstream artists in hip hop, rap, reggaeton, all those things. Young people can hear all that music all the time, but they have no exposure to jazz music, and I consider that a crime.

The legacy we got comes from so many great American artists from almost 100 years. To not recognize that, to not promote it to keep the legacy alive, for me that’s a crime.

CKDH: To that point, there’s perhaps two different ways to expose new audiences to what you’re talking about. One is more historically informed, something like Wynton Marsalis is doing with Jazz at Lincoln Center where Duke Ellington informs a great deal of their concerts. And then you’ve got younger musicians going in completely different directions. I think of someone like Trombone Shorty, for example, who can play the full range of traditional jazz and improvisation, but his music adds hip-hop and rock elements to it; it’s definitely not your typical Duke Ellington jazz. What do you think of those two directions?
AS: They’re both okay. We should embrace any kind of manifestation, any kind of new approach with new stylistic fusions or new rhythms or something, but still keeping the accent of jazz, we have to embrace that. We should have absolutely nothing against that all the way around.

But the thing is: you mentioned Trombone Shorty, and if you ask 1,000 young people from 16 to 30 years old, picked randomly, and you asked them who Trombone Shorty is, I guarantee – I’m positive – none of them would have any idea. No one would know. But if you ask them, “Who is Kim Kardashian or Beyonce,” they can give you the whole story about them, they know everything [whether they like them or not]. But they won’t know Trombone Shorty, and they won’t know who Arturo Sandoval is either.

CKDH: Well, they might know him as the guy from the Apple commercial
AS: [laughs] Maybe, who knows.

CKDH: Who are the newer jazz artists you’re most excited about?
AS: There’s a lot of them. So many. I’m a big fan of Alex Sipiagin, the guy from Russia who lives in New York now, a wonderful composer and a great jazz trumpeter. Also, there’s a young man from England called Jacob Collier – extremely talented.

In fact, later today, I’m doing a recording with the vocal group Accent. They’re extremely talented, a great group of kids. It’s amazing that they live in different parts of the planet and they get together on the internet after they record tracks separately and they put it all together. They’re great advocates of jazz music.

Today we’re going to record some jazz standards, just trumpet and vocals, and I’m very excited about it. I think it’s going to beautiful, and I can’t wait to do that job.

CKDH: This is a great segue into the education and outreach that you’re doing this weekend at The Wallis. You’re playing one night, but you’re also presenting you jazz musicians on two other nights, and doing a Master Class with high school musicians on a 4th night. What’s your approach in working with all of these young musicians?
AS: For years, I’ve been trying to keep my eye open, watch videos, and other things because I want to stay aware, you know? So I want to curate this music over those three nights, with a different group of young artists every night. And this is very exciting to offer them the opportunity to be in a very nice place that The Wallis is to showcase their talent.

I’m very happy that the Arturo Sandoval Institute – ASI, pronounced like a word, “así” – is very involved with them. We’ve been doing that for a few years now – a 100% non-profit organization helping kids from low-income families with scholarships, instruments, private lessons. For a few of them, we even cover health insurance. We’re so happy to be blessed by God to be able to help others who are in need.

I strongly believe that it’s an obligation to share with the people what we’ve learned from others. I haven’t invented anything, I just learned from some great musicians along the way, and I think that it’s a spiritual necessity for me and my obligation to share what I’ve learned with those younger than me.

CKDH: So thinking back to when you were a young musician in Cuba, was there ever a moment that you remember where someone more experienced than you offered some key advice that stuck with you and influenced your playing or your approach to music?
AS: Unfortunately, I never had that opportunity ever. No. I learned the hard way, trying to figure it out for so many years. I never even had a lesson when I was young. I took some trumpet lessons finally when I was 50 years old. [laughs]

CKDH: You tell many stories about working with Dizzy Gillespie, sometimes from the stage during a concert. Are there two or three things that stick out most to you?
AS: I took hundreds of lessons from him indirectly. Just watching and hearing what he did, how he approached any situation and any harmonic sequence, how he resolved chords, those kinds of things. He was a genius, you know. He was a creator of one of the most intricate and beautiful styles of music: bebop.

Bebop is one of the master styles of music of all time. In intensity, in improvisation, you cannot compare any other style with bebop.

CKDH: Certainly the technical requirements are insane, even if you wrote bebop out. Then to think that you or Dizzy or any other of the masters improve that is truly mind-boggling
AS: Absolutely. You know, you need so many things to play bebop correctly. It demands a lot of concentration. You cannot be like “um, uh” and be timid or slow. You must be smart, 100% involved in what you’re doing with your brain thinking so quickly because the chord progression is so fast that you have no time to think sometimes. Fractions of seconds at the most to figure out what you’re going to play.

The other thing: you must have great skills as an instrumentalist to play bebop correctly and to actually enjoy what you’re doing. You have to let the people feel that you’re enjoying it, that you’re having fun, that you’re not struggling. If they feel that you’re struggling, it’s not good for you but especially for the audience.

CKDH: You’re right: when the audience senses the players are struggling, you don’t enjoy the music as much. And of course, the more the audience is knowledgeable about the music, the easier it is for them to tell.
AS: That’s right. And as a musician, it’s easy to tell if someone is trying to pretend.

At a minimum, the audience has to believe that you’re having fun even if that’s not the reality. The reality is that you have to be very aware, to concentrate a lot, and to have the chops. You have to be under control and be the master of your instrument to say what you want to say and sound organic and spontaneous, like you’re not suffering to solve all the musical problems you face.

To make that happen, you have to practice a lot. A lot of jazz musicians – not all of them, but some of them – they like the shortcut. They play jazz, but they don’t practice their instrument to get the skill to have command of your instrument in every sense. When I practice, my approach is to NOT think of any style of music. That’s been my way forever. When I practice, I don’t worry about style of music, I work on my technique, my control of the instrument, the quality of the sound, and my ability to do things on the instrument so I’m relaxed when I’m improvising.

CKDH: So what kind of technical work do you do?
AS: I use the books.

CKDH: So you’re doing Arban for example?
AS: [laughs loudly] Absolutely! You know what I call Arban? The Bible! I’m so sorry right now that we aren’t doing a video call. If I had a camera, I’d show you my music stand, and you know what you’d see? Arban! I’m almost 70, and I still play Arban.

CKDH: I’m sure all the music teachers reading this will love that. [Laughing] There are too many students who think they can get by strictly on talent add don’t practice the basics, saying “Oh, I want to work on my improvisation by just listening to the greats play.”

AS: As far as I know, all the greatest trumpet players in the world practice Arban. One of the greatest trumpeters of all time, Clifford Brown, was fanatical about Arban. I was a good friend of his widow, LaRue, and she told me that he was fanatical about Arban and the great trumpeter Rafael Méndez. He had such amazing technical skills that have been virtually unmatched even today.

CKDH: You mentioned Clifford Brown. Any other trumpeters that jump to mind that you’d like to mention?

AS: There are too many. I’m a big fan of all of them, and I listen to all of them. I recorded an album a few years ago, Trumpet Evolution, nineteen different songs of me imitating the way they played. It’s the most challenging thing I’ve done in my career. I respect them all very much. It’s something that shows only my love, respect, and dedication to learn from those that came before me.

[His voice gets more energized as he rattles off names in rapid succession]

People like Harry James, Clifford Brown, Rafael Méndez, Maynard Ferguson, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Clark Terry, Louis Armstrong of course, Miles [Davis] of course, Roy Eldridge, King Oliver. All of those who came before us and made a contribution to the art form and to the instrument. Of course, it’s mandatory for any trumpet player to get to know them and be familiar with their sound. . . . I’m sure I’m forgetting people . . . Ray Anthony, for example, oh my goodness.

And also in the classical field: Maurice Andre, Timofei Dokschizer, Bud Herseth, and all those great players over the years. Listening to those people is like going to school!

CKDH:  I wish we could talk more, but you have a recording session to go to.  Thank you so much for your time.

AS:  My pleasure!  This was a lot of fun.

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Photo credit:

  • Arturo Sandoval:  courtesy of the artist’s website
  • Arturo Sandoval and Dizzy Gillespie:  courtesy of NPR
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