Q&A: Arturo Sandoval at the Playboy Jazz Festival

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By Devon Wendell

Legendary jazz trumpeter and composer Arturo Sandoval and his big band will be performing at the 36th annual Playboy Jazz Festival this year at The Hollywood Bowl on Saturday, June 14th.  I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Mr. Sandoval on his upcoming performance at the festival and discuss his incredibly illustrious and influential career, and much, much more.

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DW: Arturo, tell me how it feels to be performing at the 36th annual Playboy Jazz Festival this year and tell me what you and your big band will be bringing to the festival.

AS: I’m very excited. It’s an honor and a privilege. It’s a great festival. I’m so happy, man, because the big band that I have here in LA is an amazing band with some of the best musicians in town. It’s such a joy. Every time I play with that band I know heaven, man. And we’re going to try to do our best to entertain the people the best we can. It’s really great.

DW: My love and obsession with the music of Dizzy Gillespie brought me to your wonderful music. Tell me how Dizzy’s music and spirit still inspires your recordings and live performances.

AS: Dizzy was my hero even before I met him and after that he became my mentor and best friend. I always say that I believe that was a gift from God to become a good friend with my hero. That opportunity doesn’t happen very often. And he was so good to me in so many different ways. The only thing I can tell you is that I miss him very, very much.

DW: That is the greatest gift for an artist. We musicians dream about that happening and everything about Dizzy was larger than life.

DW: I often feel that younger people don’t appreciate or aren’t even aware of the music of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Clifford Brown, especially in America. Besides carrying on the legacy of these pioneers, do you feel obligated to educate younger generations on this music?

AS: Of course because it’s the legacy of the most wonderful art form in this country, jazz. I have no doubt about that. And I strongly believe that it’s a crime that people don’t realize or are aware of the importance to keep this style of music alive. It’s the mission of not only the musicians but also the press and the media, the radio stations, producers, programmers, record labels; everybody has to get together to preserve this wonderful legacy.

DW: Absolutely. I try to do my part and I’m often met with a lot of adversity from people in the “industry” but it’s worth it.

DW: Was there a greater exposure to jazz growing up in Cuba as apposed to what’s being taught to the youth of America in schools and music programs today?

AS: Oh No, man. In Cuba people don’t talk about jazz. They don’t even have a radio program that plays jazz music at all. We listened to jazz from the voice of America through short wave radio. Other than that, you have to try hard to find a record, recording, or tape, otherwise it’s almost impossible. There’s no record store where you can go and buy a jazz record. It just doesn’t exist. But when information is in the atmosphere you will find it no matter what. It’s up to you to really find that information.

DW: Tell me how other forms of music other than jazz inspire you. Do you listen to all kinds of music?

AS: I listen to everything, man. Music is music. There are only two types of music; good and bad. If it’s good, I’m always interested in trying very hard to learn it. That’s my way of thinking and philosophy. The music is one and whatever sounds good, I’m going to study and learn.

DW: That is what it really boils down to, good and bad and we either create those barriers that keep us from growing or not.

AS: Yeah, That’s it.

DW: Tell me about some new jazz as well as some Cuban musicians on the scene today that inspire you or that have gotten your attention.

AS: I left Cuba 35 years ago and have never gone back. I’m not aware of what’s going on there. There are always new and great musicians coming out of the island. All over the world it’s the same story. There’s new musicians who really embrace this style of music and want to develop and bring new ideas to it. And we must respect and embrace that and encourage them to keep trying to grow.

DW: As a musician myself, I often find it difficult to practice as much as I did when I was younger. How long and often do you currently practice?

AS: I must practice everyday, I must. It’s not a choice. You either do it or you cannot survive, especially with the trumpet. The trumpet is a tough instrument and very physically demanding so you have to stay on top of that every single day otherwise you start to sound worse and worse every hour.

DW: That actually leads me to my next question. As Dizzy used to remind us, the trumpet is a very physically demanding instrument. Are there certain nights in which you feel the instrument is kicking your butt on the bandstand or do you feel a more confident control over the trumpet? Is that control possible on a consistent basis?

AS: You cannot take anything for granted with the trumpet. You have to fight every day. And as Dizzy used to say; “The trumpet’s always going to win. Tomorrow, maybe you have a chance, but the day after, the trumpet’s going to win, and then you die and the trumpet wins.” (Laughter)

DW: Ah, that makes me reconsider trying to learn it. I’ll stick with the guitar where you just break strings and constantly go out of tune. Tell me about your process of composing music. Does the melodic and harmonic structure come to you first or the rhythm, or all three at once?

AS: Oh, I don’t really have any kind of formula you know? (Laughing) I’ve got a routine in which I sit down at the piano every morning and try to put together something. I don’t know what, Sometimes a piece of melody, or some progressions and changes. Sometimes the harmony comes first. Sometimes the melody will lead me to a progression of chords.  The bottom line is to always try when you’ve got the desire to create something.

DW: Tell me how other instruments besides the trumpet inspire your fluent and beautifully melodic playing.

AS: Oh I spend a lot more time with the piano than with the trumpet. The piano is the best teacher you can have. It helps you to compose, to learn harmony, with improvisation, and most importantly, the piano helps you truly understand music.

DW: Dizzy always said that the piano is the foundation for composing and understanding all instruments.

AS: That’s it. I start at the piano always.

DW: Tell me what records you are currently listening to both on the road and at home?

AS: I listen to internet radio. I listen to jazz stations a lot. I also listen to a lot of classical music, especially the impressionists. I’m a big fan of Erik Satie, Debussy, Ravel, and I’m also a big fan of Rachmaninoff. His concertos are unbelievable. I listen to everything and don’t discriminate against any genre of music. If it sounds good, I try my best to get familiar with the style.

DW: Tell me about the very first jazz recording you experienced as a child growing up in Cuba.

Arturo SandovalAS: The first record I ever heard was Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and man that impression still lingers on in my head. Before that I didn’t hear any jazz. I had already been playing for quit a number of years but only traditional Cuban music and then I got a scholarship to get classical training, then a journalist in Havana asked if I had ever heard any jazz music and I said “no, what’s that?” (Laughter) and then he gave me that record of Dizzy and Charlie Parker.

DW: Do you mean the Bird & Diz album on Verve with Monk on piano?

AS: No, I think it was Kenny Clarke on drums, Milt Jackson on vibes, and Slam Stewart on bass.

DW: Oh, yes from 1946 and ‘47. Charlie Parker and Dizzy were my introduction to jazz as well.

DW: Tell me about the moment in which you felt you had truly arrived as a trumpeter with legendary status.

AS: I don’t know about that, man..(laughter) I don’t believe in those titles, especially with the trumpet. With the trumpet you have to fight and learn every single day. You have to start from scratch everyday. Oh man, it’s a tough instrument.

DW: Many artists do not like the label of “jazz musician.” I know the late great Yusef Lateef found it limiting. Are you accepting of this label? How would you label your music?

AS: I don’t know. I am open to all kinds of music. When I’m on stage I don’t want to feel any limitations. If I feel I want to go in a certain direction, I go. I think the most beautiful thing about jazz music is the freedom. You feel free on the stage to create, to improvise, and come up with different ideas every time, even with the same tune. I try to play a piece differently every night.

DW: Many musicians find it very difficult to transition from other genres of music such as blues and rock to jazz, which has a very specific musical language. What is your advice to such musicians struggling to grasp and utilize the language of jazz in their music?

AS: We have to listen to everything. The more styles you listen to, the better you’re going to be. We have to be prepared to play different styles of music with completely different approaches, even in the sound and the articulation, and the colors of the sound. The more you add to your vocabulary, the more entertaining and interesting your performance will be.

DW: Tell me about the difference in experience when playing with your big band in contrast with playing with smaller groups?

The Arturo Sandoval Big Band
The Arturo Sandoval Big Band

AS: Oh, it’s a different feeling, man. The big band sound is so powerful. I’ve got to tell you, I’m so excited because the big band I have here is amazing. These musicians are incredible. It’s such an honor for me to share the stage with those guys. A small combo is completely different; there is more freedom to improvise. With my small band we’ve played together for so many years that after I play a few notes, they know exactly which direction I’m going. With the big band we have to follow the arrangements and structure more.

DW: Where do you see the world of jazz headed in the next ten years?

AS: It’s in the hands of God, my friend, but it’s also the responsibility of all of us to preserve the legacy that we’ve gotten from so many great artists from the past. I believe it’s the most important art form created in this country.

DW: Amen to that! I couldn’t agree more.

DW: Tell me about your plans for the future. Are you working on a new recording project at the moment or do you have one planned? If not, please keep this fan updated.

AS: Yes, thank God I always have something cooking. I’m working on a lot of scores for films which I love to do. I’ve got a brand new record that’s going to be out by the end of June. It’s a tribute to a Mexican composer named Armando Manzanero who is the number one bolero composer in the history of the genre. I’m very happy that he participated on the record with me. It’s very special because it’s the first time that I’m singing on a record. I play a little bit of trumpet on the album but I’m singing on the whole project. It’s a beautiful piece of music with beautiful lyrics and compositions. I’m very excited about it and look forward to what the people are going to think about it because I never did a record singing before. Nobody can say it’s not pretty.

DW: Manzanero is amazing and this will introduce his music to a whole new audience. That sounds very exciting. I’m looking forward to hearing it. Thank you so much Arturo. I will see you at The Playboy Jazz festival very soon.

AS: Thank you so much. I look forward to it.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.

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Photos by Bonnie Perkinson and Faith Frenz.




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