A former president, a media mogul and a Cuban jazz trumpeter are among the 16 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Wednesday. That Cuban jazz trumpeter, Arturo Sandoval, happened to be performing not too far away from NPR West, at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, last Friday. So I went to pay him a visit during rehearsals.
A heads up: This is one of those stories that are truly an aural experience. The best way to take in Sandoval is to hear him: his wonderful accent, his exuberance, his command of his instrument. So if I were you, I'd click on the play link above and enjoy the ride.
At rehearsals before his sold-out show, Sandoval was coughing, blowing his nose and sniffing Afrin like his performance depended on it. "To blow the trumpet like this, I'm telling you, is a pain on the butt," the nine-time Grammy Award winner said in his heavy Cuban accent, laughing and coughing simultaneously. He just finished touring for 22 days straight, celebrating his 64th birthday on the road.
He nodded toward the boom mic I was dangling in front of him and asked what it was for. "It's for NPR," I said. "All Things Considered."
"All Things Considered," he repeated. "Even a crazy Cuban trumpet player? That is part of the 'all things'?"
The self-proclaimed crazy Cuban trumpet player looks more like a jolly Cuban Santa Claus. Tall, big belly, but instead of a red suit, he wears hip red glasses. On this evening, he was frantically flipping through lead sheets for his band, cracking jokes with the musicians and scatting like a pro with boundless energy. Sick as he was, he said there's a reason he can keep going like this. "I'm gonna tell you something, I love good food and I never... look in my eyes," he said, closing in. "I never touch any kind of drugs. Zero. Food is the first priority for me, and then family and then the music."
Jokes aside, this man sweats music, and he's been doing that for more than half a century. He started playing trumpet in Cuba as a 12-year-old and had a successful career there as a musician — most notably in the '70s, with the band Irakere. Their music was funky, jazzy, with strong Afro-Cuban rhythms. But as different and free-form as the music sounded, Sandoval says, he didn't feel free as an artist, constantly having to check with the Cuban government for permission to play what he wanted, when he wanted, the way he wanted. In 1990, he defected. The first solo album he made in the United States he called Flight to Freedom.
"'Freedom' is the most important word in the entire dictionary. You know about it when you lose it and then you have a completely different idea and perspective of the whole thing," says Sandoval. Since Flight to Freedom, he's recorded 30 albums that range from straight-ahead jazz to classical to Latin jazz.
Steve Loza, a jazz trumpeter and Latin jazz expert at UCLA, says Sandoval is a beast of a musician with the ability to play the trumpet in various styles, not just with precision but with passion. He points out that Sandoval is not necessarily an innovator but a jazz ambassador to a new generation, keeping the spirit of greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Sandoval's longtime friend and mentor, alive.
"I think Dizzy admired his passion. The soul," says Loza. "Dizzy Gillespie and Arturo Sandoval play the way that I have always attempted to play, like it's the last time you'll ever play."
"That always for me has been my priority, you know, try to be as good as I can, today, this 24 hours," said Sandoval. "What happened yesterday is history; what's going to happen tomorrow is in the hands of God." And with that, he blew his nose, made himself a hot cup of tea and prepared to blow his trumpet, with all the passion he could muster, like it was the very last time.