In Conversation with Jazz Legend Arturo Sandoval

A chat with the trumpet virtuoso and ten-time Grammy winner before his debut concert in Mumbai
Arturo Sandoval
Arturo Sandoval

As I wait to connect with Arturo over the phone, I hear a deep laugh on the other end. A voice that sounds like pure bass tries to quickly slide up and down the Hindustani sargam, but the enthusiasm makes it a jumbled blur. I&rsquom put a little at ease.

Surely, if a seminal figure in Afro-Cuban jazz&mdashone that&rsquos known for his technical brilliance&mdashdoesn&rsquot care about mistakes in front of strangers, he won&rsquot mind my nervousness when we talk. I try to put aside his win-count&mdashten Grammys, six Billboards, one Emmy and a little thing called the US Presidential Medal of Freedom&mdashto make use of this rare opportunity.

Arturo&rsquos in town for the golden jubilee celebrations at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai. Born in Havana, he&rsquos proficient in the flugelhorn, timbales, piano and vocals, but is best known for his irreverence, magnetic stage presence and astonishing range, reaching highs and lows on the trumpet that don&rsquot sound humanly possible. A friend and protege of jazz icon Dizzy Gillespie, he&rsquos supremely excited to have finally made it to India. No matter that he just hit 70. 

I begin by wondering out loud whether there&rsquos any question about jazz left to ask, after over 50 years of performing&mdashand after countless rounds of interviews post landing in India. Is there anything he wishes he was asked more

&ldquoI don&rsquot think I&rsquove heard every question yet It&rsquos my first time in India, and I&rsquom very excited to play for the people here and see how they react to our music. I&rsquom curious to know whether they will like or even accept it. I believe the trumpet is not a very popular instrument here, so let&rsquos see if they embrace it.&rdquo

I don&rsquot have much doubt about this&mdashhis debut concert on November 29 has already sold out. But is there anything he&rsquod like to pick up from his jam session with desi musicians the following day

&ldquoOf course. You know what I&rsquom learning right now I&rsquom going to study this on the flight back too.&rdquo

Arturo breaks into the sa-re-ga-ma, sliding up and down the notes in easy vocal runs. He&rsquos resolute that the interview cannot go on until I hear it. 

&ldquoOh my goodness, the things Indian musicians do with this style, the runs, especially in percussion...I would love to jam with someone playing the tabla on stage. It&rsquos so amazing, so different from the Western fraternity, I sometimes get stressed out&rdquo

When it comes to the opposite, though, many Indians find jazz to be a pastime of the elite. Haven&rsquot we all heard the &lsquoelevator music&rsquo jibe I ask Arturo about any potential trigger point for the masses whether there&rsquos something that could best translate the happy mischief in the genre into the mainstream. 

&ldquoY&rsquoknow, I won&rsquot say it&rsquos easy. When we improvise, it&rsquos complicated, but we&rsquore still sending indirect messages to the audience. We&rsquore telling a story, and people have to be open to receive that story and interpret it. In other kinds of music, you might not need that level of concentration, but in jazz, the stray communication between the audience and the performer is most important. When that connect is established, it&rsquos a great feeling. Afro-Cuban jazz may have more in common with Indian music, so sharing that might work better than traditional jazz.&rdquo

I want to hear from the teacher in him a bit on this&mdashthe man&rsquos been a lecturer at Florida International University for a while&mdashand ask the next question. One that I hope won&rsquot end up in ritual millennial bashing. 

&ldquoDo you notice a difference in how students approach jazz in 2019, compared to earlier years&rdquo 

&ldquoIt&rsquos always differed from case to case, I don&rsquot think the generations can be generalised. (phew) Some have always been very passionate, committed, studying jazz all day, while the others don&rsquot enjoy it, or care for practising. To succeed, it&rsquos something you need to love doing all day, you know, that you can&rsquot wait to get practising. Those are always my favourite students, the ones who are always smiling and ready to go.&rdquo 

Arturo&rsquos not kidding about the uncompromising love you need for a career. While on military service in Castro&rsquos Cuba, he was actually thrown in jail for listening to the Voice of America, a jazz show that used to be broadcast on shortwave radio. It&rsquos an inspiring anecdote, but not one he wishes on others. He later sought asylum in the US, and became a citizen in 1998. It's a well-known fact that jazz as a genre has faced much persecution&mdashfrom racism against the greats (many of whom were African-American), to being seen as American propaganda, to being &lsquotoo difficult&rsquo for everyday audiences. 

Commitment aside, does Arturo feel budding artists ought to have a mentor like Dizzy pushing them on Not exactly. 

&ldquoCommunication among musicians nowadays is a lot easier than before. There&rsquos all kinds of pages you can search for and find information, something not possible before. There is also more unity. Meeting Dizzy in 1977 and starting to play with him was just me getting very lucky.&rdquo 

Arturo&rsquos gone on to play with many, many others since then. And not just the jazz greats. I was surprised to learn about a song with Pharrell and Ariana, as well as compositions with the likes of Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder, Frida (ABBA) and Alejandro Sanz. But does he have a new favourite

&ldquoHaha, no, I&rsquom 70 years old. I will keep going back to the old-timers like Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker. They&rsquore my heroes. Of course, you can&rsquot ignore current music, but older jazz was a different time, a different flow. I&rsquom still open to collaborating with any good artist, I don&rsquot care how old they are, or what kind of music they play.&rdquo

Our last query does swagger come naturally to jazz musicians That seems to be the common belief. 

&ldquoWell, it&rsquos not something you learn at school.&rdquo

Arturo will be performing live in concert at the NCPA on November 29. That show is sold out, but you can still grab tickets for his All-Star Jam on November 30, or the instrument masterclass on December 1. For more information, visit

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