October 2007

Arturo Sandoval: From Cuba, With Love

A trip to the Arturo Sandoval Jazz Club in Miami Beach is a bit of a luxurious time warp. An entire wall of the upscale nightclub is dedicated to black-and-white photographs of its namesake Cuban trumpeter rubbing elbows with celebrities, from Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea and Bill Cosby to Jim Carrey, Robert Duvall and Kenny G. The shots provide a glimpse into Sandoval’s 40-year career, but they’re only a part of the journey backward.

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Arturo Sandoval
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Arturo Sandoval
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The club is located in the Deauville Beach Resort, a venerable, posh hotel that’s hosted celebrity performers like Buster Keaton, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Diana Ross, Tito Puente and Barbra Streisand. The Beatles even played their second-ever U.S. show in the Deauville’s Napoleon Ballroom in 1964.

Sandoval’s club doesn’t yet match the oceanside resort’s historic star power. Tucked into one side of the ground floor, near the reception desk and next to the elevators, the intimate venue has seating for 145 people and a capacity of 180. But on any given night during the 18 months since it opened, you could’ve seen performances by the likes of James Moody, Pat Martino, Roberta Flack, the Bad Plus, Joshua Redman, Terence Blanchard, Jane Monheit, Danilo Perez, Kurt Elling and, of course, Sandoval. This, however, is not any given night.

“I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been better,” Sandoval says after arriving from his home in neighboring Coral Gables. Smoking a cigar and sipping coffee on one of the club’s couches, he makes you believe him. With his glasses and salt-and-pepper hair and mustache, the tall, hulking Sandoval could pass for another of Miami’s numerous Cuban exiles while outside the Deauville.

***

Inside of his nightclub, though, Sandoval seems larger than life, especially if you know how he got to this point. If you do, you’re more easily convinced that he can keep the doors open at a live music club—particularly a jazz club—in a city that’s now known more for its dancing, celebrity residents and visitors, and on-location modeling photo shoots.

“If anyone decides to start a jazz club to make money, they’re doing it for the wrong reason,” Sandoval says. “I’ll probably never get back what I invested to start this place, but that’s OK. I think jazz is the single most important American art form ever created in history. It’s part of the reason why I love this country. The people here who criticize the U.S. probably haven’t done enough traveling elsewhere, in my opinion. I had to be able to exist with no money for 41 years somewhere else.”

Sandoval, who turns 58 on Nov. 6, is referring to the years he spent in his native country, most of them under the dictatorship of Fidel Castro. Sandoval defected, and was granted political asylum while on tour in Greece with trumpeter idol Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra in 1990. Sandoval then became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1998. On this day, his Cuban coffee and cigar symbolize a life left behind, but he has few regrets.

“It was a very big and important decision, but one I felt I had to make,” Sandoval says. “The hardest part was knowing that I couldn’t go back to the country that I was born in and loved.”

His eyes narrow, and he leans forward. “Can you imagine,” Sandoval asks, “what it would be like to leave your homeland and know you couldn’t return?”

For most people, especially Americans, the notion is inconceivable. Like many Cubans, Sandoval refuses to even speculate on what the country might be like after Castro’s regime ends.

“It’s like a joke that’s popular among Cubans now,” he says, retelling it through laughter. “Two Cuban friends see each other on the street, and greet each other with ‘Hey Ramon’ and ‘Hey Pedro.’

“Ramon says, ‘God called me on the phone yesterday.’

“‘What did he say?’ Pedro asks.

“‘I talked to him about everything: world peace, global warming, terrorism,’ Ramon tells him.

“‘Did you ask him about how things were going to turn out in Cuba?’ Pedro asks.

“‘Of course,’ says Ramon.

“‘And what did he say?’ Pedro asks again.

“‘He hung up on me.’”

***

Talking to Sandoval is like opening separate musical history books in two disparate worlds. He was born in Artemisa, in the Havana Province of Cuba, in 1949, seven years before Castro’s revolutionary forces invaded Cuba and 10 years before he forced out the existing, U.S.-friendly dictator Fulgencio Batista. At the time of the takeover, Sandoval was learning other instruments, including piano and percussion. But his family was neither a precursor nor an encouraging factor in his talent.

“Quite the opposite,” Sandoval says. “No one else in my family had much interest in music. For me, it was a gift from God.”

Part of that rationale stems from the fact that, after only three years of classical trumpet studies at the Cuban National School of the Arts, the 16-year-old Sandoval had improved enough to be a part of the national all-star band. He got important early professional experience with the big band Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, which would downsize into the influential Latin fusion act Irakere by the mid-1970s.

Sandoval’s early career coincided with military service after he was drafted in 1971. During those three years of obligatory duties to Cuba, he was once jailed for nearly four months for listening to American jazz on the radio.

Both the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna and Irakere were government-sponsored bands featuring future international stars in Sandoval, saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and pianist Chucho Valdes. Sandoval had envisioned that the smaller, streamlined Irakere would showcase the influence of American stars like Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. But Cuban artists didn’t receive that kind of artistic freedom.

“We wanted to play bebop,” Sandoval says. “But we were told that our drummer couldn’t even use cymbals, because they sounded too jazzy. We eventually used congas and cowbells instead, and in the end, it helped us to come up with something new and creative.”

For Sandoval in particular, that involved blending his classical training with Gillespie’s bop influence, plus a fondness for the instrument’s upper register a la Maynard Ferguson, to create a new style of trumpet playing some 30 years ago. Despite the government’s restraints, Sandoval won the first of his three Grammy Awards for Irakere’s self-titled 1978 release. The others came later for solo recordings Danzon (Dance On), released in 1994, and Hot House, released in 1998.

Sandoval left Irakere in 1981 to pursue his solo career. His friend D’Rivera had defected from Cuba while on tour with Irakere in 1981, which influenced the trumpeter’s eventual defection. But the Cuban government blocked D’Rivera’s immediate family from leaving to join him for the following 10 years.

For Sandoval, that change of scenery in 1990 paid immediate dividends, as it had for most exiled Cuban musicians. He’d always recorded with top players in Cuba, but his 1991 debut as a U.S. resident, Flight to Freedom, was different.

“Oh, man,” he exclaims, “to record with Chick [Corea], Anthony Jackson, [Dave] Weckl and Danilo Perez, I was in heaven. Ed Calle played saxophone on that record, too, and he’s been on almost every one I’ve done since. A great player; very underrated, and one of the smartest people you’ll ever meet.”

***

Sandoval’s life in and flight from Cuba was the subject of a critically acclaimed HBO film in 2000. For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story was directed by Joseph Sargent, and starred Andy Garcia in the title role. Sandoval was a consultant throughout the filming, and even won an Emmy for his soundtrack.

“The Emmy is right over there,” he says, pointing to a display case near the entrance to the club. “They wanted me to do the soundtrack at first, then they decided they wanted someone else, and then they finally had me do it in the end. It wouldn’t have made sense to have some random composer write the soundtrack to my life!”

For Love or Country centers on the Cuban government’s incessant attempts to keep its highest-profile musician from getting away, especially after D’Rivera’s successful defection. The dramatic buildup involves Sandoval, in Athens, arranging the simultaneous defections by his wife Marianela (portrayed by Mia Maestro) and their young son while they’re abroad in England. The couple’s relationship is complicated throughout the film by the fact that Marianela initially works for the Cuban government. Sandoval repeatedly tries to open her eyes to its repression, and she gradually relinquishes her pro-Castro stance. Singer Gloria Estefan co-stars as one of Marianela’s co-workers.

Gillespie (played by Charles S. Dutton) befriends Sandoval when the Cuban trumpeter hears about his idol’s arrival in Cuba and goes to greet him in 1977. The visit ends a near 20-year Cuban ban on appearances by American musicians. Sandoval, who never reveals that he’s also a musician, takes the jazz legend on a tour of the island after Gillespie requests to see percussion icon Chano Pozo’s home.

Gillespie next sees Sandoval onstage, and is impressed enough to trade trumpet solos, waving his white handkerchief in surrender when Sandoval hits a few impossibly high notes. Thirteen years later, it’s Gillespie who takes Sandoval to the U.S. Embassy in Greece for his flight to freedom.

“I thought Andy Garcia did a great job,” Sandoval says. “He even had the trumpet parts down, the fingering and phrasing, to the point where some musicians were asking me if he really played. He’s a great actor, and we’ve become friends since then.”

Garcia, a native Cuban and a percussionist, even performed with Sandoval’s band at the Deauville in mid-July. So many tickets sold immediately after the show was announced that it had to be moved to the adjacent Le Jardin room, which seats 500.

***

As if owning a nightclub isn’t enough to keep him occupied, Sandoval also has busy touring, recording and teaching schedules. His band plays monthly sold-out shows at his own venue, and tours as far away as Seattle in October. November and December involve both U.S. and European dates, plus the Jazz Cruise 2007, which sails from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Sandoval has become a favorite artist for such events. He’s the host for the 2008 Latin Music Cruise, which sails from Fort Lauderdale next Jan. 27 to Feb. 3. You can bet that Sandoval will sit in with a few of the legends and young lions scheduled to appear at his club in the coming months; in the past he’s joined Roy Haynes, Branford Marsalis, John Scofield and Kenny Garrett onstage.

Sandoval’s additional soundtrack credits include The Mambo Kings and Havana, and his playing has graced recordings by singers from Sinatra and Estefan to Rod Stewart, Paul Anka and Alicia Keys.

The trumpeter is also a tenured professor at Florida International University in Miami, has instructional books published by Hal Leonard, and released Rumba Palace, his Telarc label debut, in May. Featuring his touring band and guest horn players, the disc showcases Sandoval’s compositions and incredible facility on the instrument within creative arrangements and airtight ensemble performance. Rumba Palace is also the name of Sandoval’s second nightclub, which he opened across town in Miami Beach in March.

“We feature great food and live bands at Rumba Palace, just like here,” Sandoval says, “but the music is more geared toward dancing.” Just don’t call it “salsa,” which Sandoval considers a generic, homogenized term to group different Afro-Cuban styles like mambo, danzon, son, cha-cha and guaracha.

A listening room, the Arturo Sandoval Jazz Club is a very different experience from Rumba Palace. As you walk toward the club from the lobby of the Deauville, you’re greeted at the glass ticket stand, which also displays merchandise by the evening’s featured artist. A sign reminds patrons about the club’s two-drink minimum and “$15 consumption policy” per person for drinks, appetizers, entrees and desserts. Most tickets range between $15 for regional acts and $35 for well-known internationals (such as Sandoval).

For a summer show by drummer Steve Smith and his fusion band, Vital Information, tickets cost $30. The audience wasn’t cheated—even those who indicated they weren’t familiar with the band, and showed up for either the cuisine or just live music in general, indicated their satisfaction. Smith and company tore through two sets of tunes from throughout the band’s 25-year recording career, focusing on the freshly released Vitalization.

“I had the idea of a club in the back of my mind for a long time,” Sandoval says. “But it settled in after my wife and I became friends with the owners of the Deauville. I knew the musical history here, but this place was nothing but dirt and cucarachas when I came in. At first, all we did was clean it up and put some carpet on the floor and stage. Then I came in with my trumpet and played for a few minutes. And,” he adds with a smile, “I looked up and thanked God. The acoustics were already great here naturally before we improved them, and my wife is the one who’s responsible for most of the decor, the photos and the beautiful bar.”

That onyx bar and a few round couches are to your left as you walk in; the raised photo room with high-top tables is to your right. Down the center are high-tops and rectangular tables with seating for four to 16 people each. The large tables are angled vertically so patrons can see the stage by looking to one side. For the few obscured seats, there are mirrors and plasma screens. The club also features a house Tannoy sound system, Shure stage monitors, a Yamaha drum kit and a Bosendorfer piano (Sandoval is also a fluent pianist).

“At places like the Blue Note in Manhattan, artists like these play for an entire week,” Sandoval says. “Here, we have different performers six nights a week.”

The venue’s dinner plates feature a caricature logo of the trumpeter blowing his horn in the air, plus piano keys around the rim. They’re also for sale, along with the CDs and other memorabilia.

“Hey, it’s hard making money the way the recording business is going,” Sandoval says. “Kids all want to download songs for 99 cents now. I remember when people wanted to open up recordings and see who played the trumpet, who played drums and what the lyrics said. Now my seven-year-old granddaughter, who I love dearly, listens to rap music and knows all the lyrics! I have to tell her that some of those words aren’t appropriate for her to know.”

Sandoval’s eyes narrow again.

“All of America—its educational system, the media and the musicians themselves—needs to stress this country’s own greatest cultural invention. Most of the music made today has no melody. I remember when you could walk along the street in New York City and go into places to hear Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, Artie Shaw, Harry James or Tommy Dorsey, many of them on the same night!”

Sandoval is passionate about music and politics, but reverent about the late trumpeter he called a father (and who called him a son).

“Dizzy,” Sandoval says with a faraway look in his eyes. “To call him a great person isn’t enough. Or the great musician who helped create bebop, which I love. He ate, drank and breathed music. He never stopped talking about it. And when he performed, he made every note count. Audiences are smart, you know? They can tell when a musician is just going through the motions to collect their pay. Music was what Dizzy lived for. He never even took one note that he played for granted. What an inspiration.”

Gearbox

Flip Oakes Wild Thing trumpet

Bösendorfer grand piano

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