Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Cuban-American jazz trumpet maestro Arturo Sandoval about the importance of sincere playing, growing up in the Cuban countryside and what to expect from his Riverbend performance.
CP: You grew up in Cuba during a fairly tumultuous time, politically. What was it like trying to find an outlet for artistic expression in that kind of environment?
AS: The first thing I would like to tell you is that I grew up in the middle of the countryside in the island, the middle of nowhere. Nobody in my family was involved in any form of art or music. When I said I wanted to be a musician, oh goodness, I got all kinds of funny faces around me from family, friends, relatives, neighbors. Everyone said, “Are you crazy? Musician? What's wrong with you? Forget about it. Are you crazy?” That was the response I got from everybody around me. (Laughs.) Besides that, my family was so poor, you wouldn't believe it - extremely poor. I had to quit school when I was in fifth grade. I never got more school than that.
At some point, when I was a kid, I said, “Wow, I love music.” I don't know why I made that decision. I was absolutely positive and sure that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Until this day, I'm not sure why I had such a strong conviction, but I really did. (Laughs.) My family, later on, they really found out that I was strong about my decision. Then, I got all kinds of support from them, which wasn't much, but they helped me as much as they could.
Related to the country, the music is in the air. It doesn't matter where you grew up. If you've got a couple of holes in your nose and are able to smell and breathe, you're going to be able to smell the music. It's in the air. It's everywhere. Everywhere can be music and every sound could be musical. It's up to you. It's really how much in love you are with the music. That really, in the end, will make a big difference - how much in love you are with the music. If you have a big passion for that, believe me, you'll try anything, anything, to achieve your goal and your desire.
CP: When did you start playing trumpet?
AS: I started playing trumpet when I was 10 years old. The first thing I did was a little marching band in my village. Then, when I was 12 or 13, I started to play gigs. I started to play gigs with a local band in my village but very traditional Cuban music called son. That's what I was playing.
When I was 14, I got a scholarship to get classical training, to learn how to play classical training. I went to school for a couple of years, and I didn't take it too seriously. (Laughs.) Later on, when I got out of the school, that's when I started to recognize the importance of discipline and practicing. I became conscious of how important it was, and still is, to have that discipline if you want to do something with music.
CP: How many hours did you practice every day once you realized the importance of doing so?
AS: Oh my goodness, I used to practice 25 hours a day. (Laughs.) I invented an extra hour. But you know, it really doesn't matter how many hours or how long you practice, it's the passion and intensity you put into what you're doing. That's what makes the difference. It's really important, when you're practicing, to be body and soul together in one piece, to concentrate and focus on what you're doing.
CP: Listening to your music, intensity and passion are both words that spring immediately to mind as descriptors. It seems like you're really putting so much of yourself into the music. How exhausted do you tend to be at the end of the night?
AS: No, don't think of it so physically. It's my way of communicating. I don't play all the time in the same way. It's not like I have one way to communicate or one way to express myself. It's not like that. It's just go with the flow and the intention of the piece I'm playing, whether it's a ballad or a song or this and that. It's different when I'm playing be-bop or Cuban music. They are all their own thing, and you have to be flexible.
The most important word to me is freedom. Freedom is something you can apply to anything and everything you do.
That's my only priority when I'm on stage, to feel free to communicate and express my feelings and ideas and share that with the audience. That's the bottom line. That's what I'm doing on stage -communicating and sharing my feelings.
That kind of communication is a unique experience. It's great, when you're saying something and people are paying attention to that. That's such a great feeling, man - a unique feeling. They don't necessarily have to be paying attention. When everyone turns around when you start talking and starts paying attention to what you're saying, you feel important in that moment. I say, “Wow. Whatever I'm saying seems to make sense because people are paying attention and are listening very carefully.” That's the feeling I'm talking about.
CP: Can you make that happen every night?
AS: I'm very lucky. Almost. (Laughs.) The message is from my heart. It's not something premeditated. It can't be something you've been thinking about doing in a certain way. No, no. I'm speaking freely. I'm a free spirit when I'm on stage. That's what I enjoy more than anything else.
By the way, my latest record, “Time for Love,” which came out a couple of weeks ago, is my answer to the people who say I'm always playing high and brassy and fast and aggressive. That's just one side. It doesn't necessarily mean that's the only way I can play. That's my reply to those people who said that. If you listen to that, you'll understand perfectly what I'm talking about.
CP: How did you meet Dizzy Gillespie, and what relationship did you have with him?
AS: I was 26 when I met him. He came in a cruise that was doing a jazz cruise through the Caribbean. It was him and Stan Getz and a lot of great, great jazz musicians on that cruise. That was great.
They stopped in Havana for a couple of days, and I was lucky enough to see him. There's a movie on HBO about the whole thing called “For Love or Country.” It's about when I met him, how I started playing with him and how he helped me with political asylum to come here and spend the rest of my life here. He was instrumental with that.
He really helped me a lot. I owe him so many things; you wouldn't believe it. It's a very well done movie. I wrote the music for it, the score and everything.
CP: Reading various descriptions of your playing, you've had very high praise directed your way, including “technically flawless,” “a virtuoso” and Dizzy Gillespie even said you had “bull chops.” Is it hard to live up to that kind of praise?
AS: Absolutely not. I don't think about those things. You know what I do? I keep loving music. I love the music. Music helps me. It really saved my life. That's the main thing. I love music, and I put all my passion and time into learning and studying and practicing. I'm around music all the time. Music is the balm for my soul.
CP: Could you ever have conceived of doing anything else with your life?
AS: No. Definitely, no. (Laughs.) I couldn't even think about it.
CP: During all the turmoil of leaving your country to come to America, did you ever second guess your decision to leave to play music?
AS: Here, I enjoyed the freedom to do whatever I want. One of the most important things was belief in a free country. That's an inspiration. I feel motivated and fortunate and happy and blessed to live in a country, which respects human rights and freedom.
CP: Do you feel like you could have achieved the success you have had you remained in Cuba?
AS: There was nothing to do there. Here, I have a bunch of opportunities; in Cuba, I had zero. (Laughs.) There was nothing goes through there, no record labels or anything. You can't even compare the two.
CP: What can people expect to hear when you play in Chattanooga?
AS: The best thing is to not even think about it. Come with your mind open and your heart open to receive some musical message. Close your eyes, open your ears and open your soul and let the music transport you and drive you to the universal sound.
CP: What, in your mind, is most important to achieve when you're playing in front of an audience?
AS: The first thing is that you really must be in love with music, and you really have to show that passion and share that passion with the audience. Your message has to be sincere and from the heart. The people in the audience is smart. We can not underestimate their perception and the way the crowd sees and hears things. They really feel those things when it's coming from the bottom of your heart. That's what I really try and do, just to communicate, say what I want to say and share my emotion with the audience. But also be sincere. No matter what you say, it has to be sincere.
CP: Given the obvious life-long passion you have for music, does achieving that come naturally to you at this point?
AS: You know what? The other way doesn't exist; it's out of the picture, in my mind. It's not part of my mentality. It doesn't belong to my way of thinking, and I can't even consider being a different way.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...