“There are two kinds of music—good music, and the other kind,” said the great Duke Ellington. It is a credo that Cuban-born trumpeter Arturo Sandoval has subscribed to all of his life, from his childhood in a small, countryside village, where he taught himself how to play the trumpet, to his years as a founding member of the groundbreaking jazz rock group Irakere, to his present-day stature as a composer of sweeping film scores and classical trumpet concertos.
“I’m still on a mission to try and figure out how to make music,” says Sandoval about the immense range of his interests. “We musicians must be eternal students.”
The genuinely humble Sandoval is known worldwide as a virtuoso musician, as he breathes new life into Cuban and American jazz standards, be it the high energy classic “Manteca” (composed in 1947 by Cuban conga maestro Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie), or “I Remember Clifford,” the melancholy ballad dedicated to the late great Clifford Brown. On January 20, his virtuosity will be on full display when Sandoval plays the Wortham Center as part of Da Camera of Houston’s jazz concert series.
Now 67, Sandoval can still recall his feeling of amazement when, while studying classical trumpet at the Cuban National School for the Arts, he first heard the sounds of American jazz.
“A friend of mine played me a recording of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie,” says Sandoval, who grew up hearing only traditional Cuban music. “When I heard that, I said, 'Oh my goodness! What is this? Man, I want to learn this music!’”
But learning to play bebop in Cuba in the early '60s was risky, even dangerous. Sandoval once landed in jail for simply listening to jazz on a Voice of America radio broadcast.
“The government didn’t want us to play jazz,” says Sandoval. “They didn’t even want us to use cymbals, because any music with cymbals was ‘music of the imperialists.’”
In the band Irakere, Sandoval and co-conspirators pianist Chucho Valdés and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera found creative ways to “masquerade” the jazz they loved and so badly wanted to play. When Gillespie visited Cuba in 1977 and heard Irakere for the first time, his famously bearded jaw dropped.
“Dizzy was expecting to hear conga players and dancers,” says Sandoval. “He wasn’t expecting to see a guy playing a saxophone or a trumpet...He didn’t know we had that kind of information about bebop.”
Gillespie became a mentor to Sandoval and helped coordinate Irakere’s first trip to the United States to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall. It was a fateful journey, one that strengthened Sandoval’s resolve to escape Fidel Castro’s Cuba. In 1999, while on tour in Europe, Sandoval, along with his wife and son, defected to the United States. (The award-winning HBO film For Love or Country recounts these events with Andy Garcia starring as Sandoval.)
Now living in California, Sandoval feels blessed to look out the window of his home studio at the sunny weather, enjoy a good cigar and “spend a lot more time at the piano composing and scoring movies, which is my passion.”
“Whatever sounds good, I want to learn and investigate,” says Sandoval, echoing the profundity of Ellington’s statement. “I love funk. I love blues. I love bebop. Onstage, I feel the freedom to express myself without limitation, and share with the people the music I want to play.”
January 20 at 8. $37.50–67.50 Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-524-7601. dacamera.com