PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
May 29, 2007

Rumba in the Colonial Palace

by Jim Newsom

Cuban-born trumpeter Arturo Sandoval began studying classical trumpet when he was 12 years old. But he soon discovered jazz, developing into one of the finest players in both genres.

In the 1970s, he was a member of Irakere, a band led by pianist Chucho Valdez that melded Afro-Cuban, Latin and rock influences into a distinctive sound and included fellow future jazz greats Paquito D'Rivera and Jose Luis Cortes. He played with Dizzy Gillespie in the United Nations Orchestra and formed his own band in1981, occasionally being allowed out of the country by the Castro regime to perform at international jazz festivals and with symphony orchestras.

In 1990, he defected at the American Embassy in Rome after getting his wife and son out of Cuba, and became a United States citizen in 1999. He has a long string of recordings, the latest of which, Rumba Palace, came out last week on Telarc Jazz. The multi-Grammy winner brings his current band to the Sunken Garden at the College of William & Mary Saturday night as part of the Virginia Arts Festival's weeklong Festival Williamsburg.

I called him at his home in Miami two weeks ago. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

How did you develop in so many different musical directions?

Because I love music. Music is only one-good music. I listened to all kind of things and I tried to learn as many styles and as many things as I can.

Growing up in Castro's Cuba, were you exposed to a lot of good music?

No, not much. But when you really want to find the information, you will, you're going to try very hard. I used to hear the short wave radio, the Voice of America in Washington, DC. They had a jazz program everyday and I'd never miss one. That was the only way I got to be familiar with jazz at all.

Did you fall in love with Dizzy Gillespie right away?

Oh yes. The first record that I ever heard was Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

Was there an immediate connection when you met Dizzy?

Absolutely. I was 27 years old. I couldn't speak any English at all when I met him, but somehow we communicated and we expressed our feelings. I wanted to understand about his music and to tell him how much I loved him.

It must have been difficult for you being a jazz musician and trying to tour while living in Cuba.

It was very difficult. Actually, they don't let us call ourselves jazz musicians; we weren't allowed. Jazz was a forbidden kind of thing there; they called it the music of imperialism.

Your new album, Rumba Palace, is named after your new nightclub in South Beach Miami. What is it like owning jazz clubs?

It's a beautiful experience. We never saw that as a business. It is a privilege and an honor to make a contribution to the development of culture in the city where I live. We bring in great artists and it's very nice to see people recognize and appreciate that effort.

You have always been involved in the educational side of music. In fact, you are a professor at Florida International University.

That's correct; that's my seventeen years already in the school. I teach as many classes as I can because I travel a lot. When I go there, I give a master class and clinic with the trumpet students, and I play with the big band. I play with the symphony orchestra and the school choir often. I enjoy teaching when the students really appreciate it and love music.

"I think it's a kind of an obligation because I learned so many things from so many people. It's good, you feel great when you have the opportunity to give back and share what you have learned with so many students and people who have interest to learn about it.

Latin music is pretty hot these days.

You think?"

Don't you?

Oh, I don't know about that. You know, I am really concerned. It's difficult to hear good jazz on the radio or television. And that breaks my heart. I have a strong belief that jazz is the most beautiful and profound art form created in this country. Everybody loves and respects and appreciates that style all over the world.

But here, sometimes we don't realize how important it is to preserve that tradition and the legacy we get from so many great composers and musicians who have been playing jazz music for so many years. And it's not fair that we don't keep it and maintain it and talk about it in the proportion we should.

Do you think there is a way for jazz to recapture some of the audience?

We need the help of the media, the radio and television. They focus on something else. God is not happy with what we're doing with jazz over here.

Your music has a broad appeal beyond just the jazz audience.

I try to make the concert the kind of music I enjoy to play. I don't want to be remembered as a guy who did one single style of music. That's not me. I love music. My favorite composer is Rachmaninoff, those piano concertos. And I like the impressionists very much-Ravel and Debussy, those composers. I love that kind of music.

How do you think your classical influences enter into your jazz playing?

You know, good music always touches each other in some way at some point. As much as you learn about any style of music, you're going to have more tools, more skills to approach any kind of song from different perspectives.

I am trying when I go on the stage for people to have a good time. That's my first priority. That's a unique experience when you're on the stage and you see people having fun and enjoying what you do."

copyright 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.