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The Life And Music Of Trumpet Legend Arturo Sandoval

Jazz trumpet master Arturo Sandoval comes to Charlotte Thursday evening at McGlohan Theater. Sandoval is the winner of nine Grammy awards, but will receive his biggest award next month – the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

It seems that there are very few limits when it comes to Arturo Sandoval’s virtuosity. Whether its burning through a song at lightening fast speeds, demonstrating rich tone on a beautiful ballad, playing classical…or even playing the piano, Sandoval seems very at home in whatever music setting you might find him. He knew growing up in Havana, Cuba that he wanted to be a musician. But selling his family on the idea wasn’t easy.

My father was a car mechanic and nobody in my family was involved in music at all. And everybody said “Uh oh, something is wrong with this boy. Musician? Are you crazy? Something is wrong with this boy.” That was the first reaction.

He practiced…and practiced…and practiced, and his family eventually came around. By age 15, he was enrolled in the Cuban National School of the Arts, and by his early twenties he had become one of Cuba’s most recognizable trumpet players.

But all the while, Sandoval was breaking the law. Sandoval had a great love for the recordings of American jazz musicians, but Fidel Castro had declared American music the “music of the enemy.” In fact, while serving in the Cuban military, Sandoval was thrown in jail for three and a half months after being caught by a sergeant listening to a Voice of America broadcast on shortwave radio. Still, Sandoval kept listening to as much American jazz as he could. And  finally, he got his big break when he heard that his trumpet hero, Dizzy Gillespie would be docking in Havana. Sandoval waited outside the ship just hoping for the opportunity to meet him.

That was May 1977. He stopped there a couple of days (in the) cruise. He was doing a jazz cruise through the Caribbean. We met, I met him there in the harbor. And at that time I didn’t speak any English. Zero English.

Dizzy Gillespie had a huge interest in Cuba’s Afro-Cuban style, and Sandoval ended up driving him around Havana for most of the day.

I never mentioned that I was a musician at all. Then that night we had like a jam session, and when he saw me with a trumpet he said “What is my driver doing with a trumpet?” And someone said “No no no he is a trumpet player!” And he said “No no no, He is my driver!”

After that, Sandoval and Gillespie became great friends. Life however did not get any easier in Cuba, and Sandoval began to look for a way out. While Sandoval was occasionally allowed to travel to perform in shows outside of Cuba, his family was never permitted to go with him…except that one time…

When the Cuban government made a mistake and gave my wife and son special permission to travel and go to Europe and spend some time with me. That was the opportunity I was looking for for so many years.

In 1990, Sandoval and his family sought asylum, and Dizzy Gillespie was there to help.

He helped me all the way. I went with him to the American Embassy for the whole process of political asylum. 

That included Gillespie making a call to a friend -  Vice President Dan Quayle. Quayle intervened directly and secured Arturo Sandoval's asylum. Sandoval took full advantage of his new freedom in the United States, performing to packed houses around the county and recording dozens of albums that earned him multiple Grammy awards. None of those albums are more important to him than one called Trumpet Evolution, where Sandoval pays tribute to 19 different trumpet masters. Sandoval not only plays their music, but performs it in their styles and channels their personalities. It is widely considered by critics as one of the best trumpet recordings of the past twenty years.

For me, that is the best album I am going to make in my life. I’ve got 40-something albums. That was, is, and will be forever my number one on my list, my favorite because it is my kind of statement as a trumpet player. It shows my dedication, my passion, my love and appreciation for other trumpet players who came before me.

With all the awards and honors that Sandoval has received, none is bigger than the one he will receive in November. President Obama will present him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the country. He is only the fourth jazz musician to ever win the award. The other three? Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Ella Fitzgerald.

Arturo Sandoval will be performing tomorrow night in Charlotte at the McGlohan Theater at 7:30 PM, and will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the end of November.