Why Arturo Sandoval Matters

The trumpeter has transcended eras and genres throughout his remarkable career.

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Arturo Sandoval
Arturo Sandoval - Photo: Anthony Pidgeon/Redferns

Cuban-American trumpeter Arturo Sandoval may not be a household name to the casual jazz listener – but he ought to be. For over five decades, Sandoval has been fusing together the Afro-Cuban rhythms and beats of his birthplace with modern jazz compositions. With a discography of more than 30 albums, he’s amassed a bevy of accolades: ten Grammy Awards, six Billboard Awards, an Emmy Award, a Hispanic Heritage Award, an Honorary Doctorate from The University of Notre Dame, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom – awarded by President Obama in 2013.

Sandoval has not only achieved the American dream, he embodies the spirits of those who’ve paved the way for him. From bebopper Dizzy Gillespie to mambo king Tito Puente, Sandoval has been influenced by the greats, and had the privilege of playing with and learning from them, too.

Listen to the best of Arturo Sandoval on Apple Music or Spotify.

Today, Sandoval is one of the most celebrated and decorated figures in jazz, but his story begins humbly. Born November 6, 1949, in Artemisa, Cuba, the son of an auto mechanic, Sandoval began teaching himself the trumpet at age 12, often playing alongside street musicians, before studying with a Russian classical trumpeter at the Cuban National School of the Arts. Unfortunately, his passion was put on hold due to mandatory military service. “We used to listen every single day to ‘Voice of America,’ a short wave radio program, and they played everything in jazz music,” Sandoval recalled to NPR in 2013. “That was the only way we could hear and be connected with the music we love. The sergeant caught me listening and they put me in jail because I was listening to the voice of the enemies.”

By the 1970s, once free from his military obligations, he helped form the Latin Grammy Award-winning Afro-Cuban band Irakere with local musicians. In 1977, a friend informed Arturo about a jazz cruise touring the Caribbean, featuring some of the genre’s greats, including Stan Getz, Earl Hines, and Dizzy Gillespie. (The latter was his musical hero, someone he’d been a fan of since childhood.) While the ship was docked in Havana, Arturo got himself a gig as Dizzy’s driver, taking him on his first trip around the city. “At that time, I couldn’t speak any English at all,” Sandoval explained. “We communicated through a third person who translated for us. But we connected so well since that very first moment…. I never told him that I was a musician myself. When he saw me with the trumpet in my hand, he said: ‘What is my driver doing with a trumpet?’”

A Night In Tunisia (Actually An Entire Weekend!)

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That night, the young, ambitious Cuban played for the iconic bandleader and blew him away. “That was the very beginning of our friendship and collaboration. And he became my mentor and he inspired me so much. He gave me so many opportunities.” In the early 1980s, Arturo found himself touring around the world with Gillespie, as well as performing with the United Nations Orchestra and BBC Symphony, among other ensembles. His opportunities were limited, however, due to a restricted traveling schedule enforced by the Cuban government.

Due to heavy sanctions under Castro’s regime at the time, Sandoval decided to seek asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Rome during a European tour in 1990. Within days, Sandoval and his family were guests of President Bush at the White House and soon granted permanent residency. Once he was settled in Miami, Sandoval signed with GRP Records and released his American debut album, Flight to Freedom, incorporating Dizzy’s bebop influences along with Latin percussion from his Cuban heritage. “I can’t imagine how my life was way back in Cuba, ” said Sandoval, reflecting on his journey with NPR. “I’m so happy to be in this country. Every day is a wonderful day for me in this wonderful nation.”

Flight To Freedom

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Versatility has been the key to Arturo Sandoval’s musical success and longevity. He’s disinterested with categories others may place him in. “As much as I love bebop, for the majority of people, every time they see my face they’re going to relate that to the Latino thing. And that’s such a stupid idea. Not because you were born in Nashville, you’re going to be a hell of a Country musician. Or not because you are Black and from New Orleans, you’re going to be a hell of a Jazz player… That doesn’t work that way. Music belongs to the human race.”

Accordingly, Sandoval has been passionate about collaboration, ever since his days with Irakere in Cuba. Whether performing at major festivals to thousands or at awards shows seen by millions, he’s shared the stage with some of music’s most iconic figures, including Gloria Estefan, Patti LaBelle, Ricky Martin, Michel Legrand, Tito Puente, and countless others. He’s also worked in the studio for a range of artists, from Alicia Keys to Josh Groban, Rod Stewart to Johnny Mathis, as well as both Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett’s Duets sessions.

In 2019, Universal Music Latino gave him the opportunity to create his own wish list of artists to collaborate with on Ultimate Duets. Sandoval showcased his many interests by picking Celia Cruz, Stevie Wonder, Al Jarreau, Plácido Domingo, and Alejandro Sanz, among others. The album also included an original composition by super producer Pharrell Williams, with vocals by global pop star Ariana Grande, bringing Sandoval to the ears of younger listeners.

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The Plácido Domingo collaboration on Ultimate Duets was no accident. Sandoval is an accomplished classical musician, having performed with symphonies around the world. He’s even released his own classical album, including his own original compositions. “Trumpet could be whatever you want or whatever you have the ability to use that instrument,” he once told NPR. “You can whisper it softer than you can imagine or you can make a big noise like no one else… I love music, period. One of my goals as a musician is being able to make a good interpretation of as many styles as I can.”

Film & TV

Even if you haven’t heard any of his records or seen him in concert, you may have heard Arturo Sandoval’s work and not realized it. He’s created original compositions and scores for the big and small screens, including the 2000 HBO movie For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story, starring Andy Garcia. He’s also worked on numerous memorable scores, including Hidden Figures, 2013’s Superman, and The Mambo Kings, based on many of the Latin American musicians who paved the way before him.

Indeed, over the past five decades, Arturo Sandoval has managed to break down barriers, bring unity through art, and make us move our feet – all at once. If we’re fortunate, he won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

Listen to the best of Arturo Sandoval on Apple Music or Spotify.

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