Arturo Sandoval is a trumpeter, pianist, vocalist, percussionist and composer — and an overall unbelievably talented person.
Born into poverty in Cuba, Sandoval emigrated to the United States to pursue a music career and became a protégé of Dizzy Gillespie. He is equally fluent in jazz, classical and Cuban music. Not only is he now a Grammy Award winner, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from U.S. President Barack Obama in 2013.
Ahead of his performance at Toronto’s Meridian Arts Centre on April 29, Sandoval joined us on Café Latino for a conversation.
Most people know you as a trumpet master, but you also have a love of piano, singing and percussion. How did you decide on the trumpet as your main instrument?
I joined a little marching band in my village where I grew up, and they gave me several instruments to try. The trumpet called my attention. I said, “Wow, that’s what I want to play.” I talked to the teacher, [who] was a clarinet player. I said, “Maestro, I’ve made my decision. I want to go to the trumpet.” He said, “I’m very sorry, but there’s no trumpet left. We gave them away to other students.” I said, “If I find a trumpet, will you let me play in the band?” He said yes. My aunt bought me a trumpet and I started by myself. The trumpet is a hard instrument, very hard.
What instrument do you use to compose?
In the beginning, I couldn’t buy a piano. I bought my first piano when I was in the U.S. when I was 40 years old. But in the beginning, I started writing music without thinking about any instrument specifically. Later on, everything I did after I was 40 has been made on the piano.
On your current tour, will you be focusing on songs from your most recent album Rhythm & Soul?
We’re gonna play some tunes from the new album, of course, but also I’ve been playing some tunes that I cannot take out of my repertoire. I want to share and communicate with the people, and some tunes I always include. The good thing about jazz is that it doesn’t matter what you play — every night is going to be different. The meat and potatoes of jazz is improvisation. It doesn’t matter if you play the same thing, it’s always going to come out different. I’m always on the stage improvising; we’ll come out with something that we’ve never played before. We’re always experimenting and I’m always incorporating new things into the same tunes.
You’ve collaborated with so many people, and you’re very versatile — you’re playing with not just jazz musicians, but classical orchestras, pop icons like Ariana Grande and Pharell Williams. What is it about collaborating that excites you? How does that add to your personal growth at this point in your career?
You know, I’m always open to collaboration. It’s such a pleasure and honour when somebody wants me to play on their project or do something together. It’s always a reason for me to be grateful happy. Sometimes I pinch myself and say, “My goodness, I played on the last recording of Frank Sinatra.” Did I dream that? But nothing comes down out of the sky. You have to work hard to earn recognition and get those kinds of opportunities, and you have to be prepared for that. All my life, I’ve been very consistent to practise, take care of the instrument, and be responsible. I never go on stage without being prepared.
You have probably received every accolade that a musician could ever hope to receive. After all of this music that you’ve made, what is it that draws you to keep creating?
Because I owe everything to the music. Music saved my life, and the life of my family, as well. I was a completely hopeless kid in Cuba when I was a boy. My life was difficult. My family was really poor. I couldn’t see the horizon in front of me. And then music opened up a lot of things. I owe everything to music.
This interview has been edited and condensed.