Music News & Reviews

Arturo Sandoval's dizzying trek: from Cuba to the White House

Arturo Sandoval grew up on Afro-Cuban music, but he said his life changed when he heard a song by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
Arturo Sandoval grew up on Afro-Cuban music, but he said his life changed when he heard a song by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Courtesy of Arturo Sandoval

Distill the multicultural, multi-stylistic and multi- Grammy-winning career of Arturo Sandoval down to essentials and everything seems so simple. It is a trek that began with Dizzy Gillespie and has taken him twice this fall to the White House.

But the details between the two ultimately define the jazz and classical journeys of this celebrated trumpeter and bandleader, who returns to Lexington on Saturday for a performance with the University of Kentucky Wind Symphony at the Singletary Center for the Arts.

Sandoval's remarkable journey started with Gillespie, a jazz legend as enamored of Afro-Cuban music as the Cuba-born Sandoval was of American-bred bebop.

"Dizzy was my hero before I met him," Sandoval, 64, said last week in a phone interview from Washington, D.C. "He was the very first jazz musician I ever heard when I was young. Some journalists in Cuba played for me a number by Dizzy and Charlie Parker. That changed my mind about music. That changed my life. After that, I became crazy about bebop. I wanted to learn that so bad. Later on, I was so blessed that I met him and started to play with him. It's such a privilege when you can become a good friend of your hero."

It was in 1977 that Gillespie, in turn, became aware of Sandoval through the Cuban ensemble Irakere. Columbia Records, then riding the crest of jazz popularity thanks to the fusion movement, released two albums by Irakere in the United States. Collectively, this set the stage for an unfathomable American debut by Sandoval.

"Everything got its start because of Dizzy. He came to Cuba in 1977 and stopped there for two days. When Dizzy came back to New York, he started to talk a lot about the musicians and the bands he heard in Cuba. A few months later, the president of Columbia Records, Bruce Lundvall, came to Havana to hear a band Dizzy Gillespie was talking about. That was the beginning of everything. Right after that, he signed Irakere to Columbia Records in June of 1978. Less than one year after that, he brought us to New York to play Carnegie Hall. The very first day I came to the U.S., we played that night in Carnegie Hall. Oh, my goodness."

Gillespie had one final but life-changing gift for Sandoval. While the two were touring together in Europe, Sandoval defected.

"The thing is, I think the Cuban government made a mistake," Sandoval said. "They let my wife and eldest son go to Europe with me. That was the opportunity I was looking for. So as soon as we landed in Europe, I went with Dizzy to the American Embassy in Athens, Greece."

Sandoval's first album in his new homeland was titled Flight to Freedom. In the ensuing years, his career has touched on traditional and contemporary jazz, classical, mambo, film scores and collaborations with artists as varied as Frank Sinatra, Woody Herman and Alicia Keys. He even scored an HBO movie about his own life, For Love or Country, with Andy Garcia portraying Sandoval.

Earlier this year, the trumpeter won his 10th Grammy. But the ultimate accolade came last month, when Sandoval was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. The trumpeter returned the favor by performing at the lighting of the White House Christmas tree last weekend.

"Every day brings a good surprise," Sandoval said. "Still, I go day by day. I concentrate every 24 hours to do my best. The past is history. We have no control. The future is in the hands of God. We also don't have control. But this day, this 24 hours, that's what I try to concentrate on."


University of Kentucky Wind Symphony with Arturo Sandoval

When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14

Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.

Tickets: $28, $35, $40. Available at (859) 257-4929 and

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