“Speaking Freely” show recorded May 20, 2003, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is Arturo Sandoval, four-time Grammy- and Emmy-award-winning musician. Great to have you here.
Arturo Sandoval: Thank you very much.
Paulson: And, you know, I introduced you as a musician because there, there was a time I might have said “world-renowned trumpet player.” But you’re a man of many instruments now, as evidenced by the keyboard in front of you here today.
Sandoval: I’m a music lover, you know. That’s my, my first priority in life, you know, to love music. And I play a little bit of percussion, too. And I compose, too. You know, everything around music — I have a great time.
Paulson: You have a remarkable story. And this show, of course, is about freedom and the arts. And, you know, you have been fueled by freedom. Your career has been fueled by a thirst for freedom. I think many Americans now know your story from a film about your life, “For Love or Country.” And that starred Andy Garcia in your role. Well, that has to be a strange feeling to see your life story on screen.
Sandoval: We’re not prepared for that. We’re not used to that kind of thing, you know? But I should say that I’m very grateful to HBO, because I believe everybody have a story to tell. You know, if they decide to tell, in a movie, my story, I should be very grateful, you know?
Paulson: And is it pretty accurate?
Sandoval: It is. Actually, they talked to me several times. They hired me as a consultant as well. I wrote a score of the movie, too. And I was very close the whole production, even I worked very close to, to the scriptwriter, too, you know, all the time. He moved to Miami for a while to interview my family, my friends, everybody. He’d go on the road with me. And they, they always asked me to be where, you know, anything is not accurate, is not exactly the way it was, you know, let them know. And that was my mission there during the shooting of the movie.
Paulson: Well, for those who have not seen the movie and may not have read about your story, it’s truly extraordinary. You, you begin studying the trumpet at age 12 and become one of Cuba’s foremost musicians. And in 1990, you defected to the United States —
Paulson: — with the help of some great musicians and some people in high places and went on to become a United States citizen, which is a shorthand way of telling a dramatic and powerful story. You began early with the trumpet and apparently had a gift from the very beginning.
Sandoval: To be honest, you know, I, I grew up in the middle of nowhere of the countryside of the isle of Cuba, from a non-musician family, you know? Nobody was, you know — no musical family. My dad was a car mechanic, you know? And when I mentioned, “I want to be a musician,” everybody turned around and said, “What are you talking about? No way. Are you crazy? No, no, no. That’s not a good profession. You have to do something good, you know?” And that was in the very beginning, you know? But I didn’t start right away with the trumpet. I joined a little brass band they put together in my home village. They get me to try several things. They get me to try the clarinet, and they give me the trombone. And later on, they give me the flute. And the flute makes me feel a little dizzy. So, “No, no, no, that’s no good.” And then the bass drum was too heavy. Finally, I started to look to the trumpet with the corner of the eyes. And I talked to the teacher, you know? He, he was a clarinet player, by the way. And I said, “Maestro, I would love to try the trumpet.” He said, “I’m so sorry, but, you know, but we don’t have any trumpet left.” I said, “What about if I find one, you let me play in the band?” “Yeah.” And then my aunt bought me a pocket cornet, horrible one, you know, it was too old and full of holes in a lot of places. And, you know, somehow I figured it out and blew some notes there. And they recommend me a teacher, a guy who was an old man, a cranky old man in my village. He was supposed to be a good trumpet player. And I went there and said, “Maestro, please, I want you to teach me how to play this. I love this instrument.” He said, “OK, play something then.” I said, “I don’t know how to play anything.” He said, “Play something.” Whatever came out of the hole, I blew a couple notes. It sound horrible. And he said, “You know what? I’m going to give you a recommendation. Don’t try. Don’t even try. You don’t have any talent for this. Try something else. Put that little thing in the case and, you know, get out of here because you never going to make it.” And then I come back to my home and cry, you know, the way up, crying and crying and crying. And God was so good to me. When I get there, I stopped crying. I get the horn out of the case. And I start to blow. That was exactly 42 years ago. And I never stopped.
Paulson: In choosing a path as a musician, to what extent do you have the freedom to choose in Cuba? You know, are the jobs available to you as a musician when you begin? How does that work?
Sandoval: You know, that’s a kind of bad [remembrance] for me, because there, everything belongs to the government.
Sandoval: You have to work for the government. You don’t have another option. And the government tell you even what to play and where. You have to do this and that, a certain amount of this. And you have to, you know — and that was until I was able to defect or leave the country. I have to be — I have to follow what the government asked me to do and play with who and what kind of music. And especially when I discovered the world of jazz, that was big trouble for me, because they, they called jazz music “the music of the Imperialism.” And they put me, already the forehead, saying, like I said, I was a pro-Yankee and I liked that kind of things, you know?
Paulson: Well, what is it about jazz, for example, that would trouble the Cuban government?
Sandoval: You know, the principal thing of the basic sense of jazz music is freedom. And whatever smell freedom to them is dangerous, because that’s not a good example for the rest of the people. And the government there is very happy when they deal with people which don’t have opinion, or people who don’t have, you know, the courage to, to, to say something they no agree. And when you have, you know, some opinion or some ideas of what freedom is, that’s very problematic for them.
Paulson: So, do you recall the first time you heard jazz?
Sandoval: I was playing music for a while, for a few years. I started playing, in my home village, traditional Cuban music. And then I got a scholarship to get a classical training in the National School of Art for three years. When I come out of the school, I started playing in a big band. And some of the musicians, they knew a little bit about jazz. And they mentioned that to me. And some of them play for me the very first jazz record I ever heard. And I was so lucky because they play for me Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
Sandoval: When I hear that, I say, “Oh, my goodness, what is that?” And till today, I’m still trying to figure it out, what was playing, you know? And I was so lucky, because later on, I met Dizzy Gillespie exactly ten years later when his first visit to Cuba, 1977. I met him there.
Paulson: You made special efforts to meet Dizzy Gillespie, didn’t you?
Sandoval: That’s true. That’s true, because I can’t remember exactly who called me and said, “Arturo, I know you like Dizzy Gillespie very much. You’re always talking about him,” and so on and so on. “He’s coming to Havana today.” I said, “What? No, no, no, no, you’re kidding.” Because for 17 years – yeah, about 17 years — none American people visit the island. Dizzy Gillespie was on a boat. It was a cruise that was doing a jazz cruise through the Caribbean. And Stan Getz was on that boat, too, Earl “Fatha” Hines. It was a group of great, great jazz musicians. And we play with them. But to get to the boat that day and meet him, oh, my goodness, that was painful. That was difficult, difficult. And at that time, you know, even as my English is funny now, at that time, it was zero, nothing, nothing. I tried to improve my English since I am in America, but you know, I live in the wrong city. I live in Miami, where nobody speak English. I try, but you ask some people there something in English, they reply to you in Spanish no matter what. Finally, I met Dizzy.
Paulson: And is it true that you drove him around?
Sandoval: That’s true. I couldn’t talk to him because I couldn’t speak the language at all. But I was so lucky. Some guy was behind him and talk to me in perfect Spanish. He said, “Can I help you?” I said, “Yes, you can.” And Dizzy asked me, “You got a car?” I said, “Yes, I got a little car.” At that time, I got a Plymouth 1951, which it was my very first car. And I just painted it with a brush, with tar and gasoline, you know? I diluted tar and gasoline. It smelled so funny. And it looked horrible. Passenger door doesn’t open. He have to get through the driver door. That was — and then he asked, he asked me, he said, “Hey, this is a Russian car?” I said, “No, no, no, this is American car. This is a Plymouth 1951.” He said, “I’ve never been here in Havana. You going to show me the city?” I said, “Sure.” So far, I, I never told him that I was a musician. And I drove him all over the city, all day long. That evening, somebody from there organize kind of a get-together with the visitors and the local musicians. And that was fine, because I drove him back to boat late afternoon, and then we meet again at night in the theater. And when he come back, I was warming up with my trumpet backstage. And he looked at me like this and said, “Oh, my goodness, what the heck my driver’s doing with the trumpet?” [Laughs] And somebody said, “No, he’s a trumpet player. He said, “No, he’s my driver.”
Paulson: That’s great.
Sandoval: And from there on, you know, I was so fortunate and lucky because we became good, good, good friends.
Paulson: We all know the story of people who have fled Cuba in many different ways, many to avoid political oppression. And the story told in the film is you really are, are seeking freedom of expression in music. In fact — I don’t know if it’s accurate or not, but — when you’re being interviewed at the embassy, there’s skepticism, that you actually have lived a pretty good life in Cuba. You’ve been treated as a celebrity.
Sandoval: Partly, but that wasn’t true.
Paulson: OK. But the reality is that you, you did look for musical freedom. And could you talk a little bit about that, as a musician, what it means to you to be able to play what you want?
Sandoval: Yeah, I strongly believe you appreciate or you understand 100% what freedom mean is when you lose it, or when you never knew freedom and you discover what it is. And that’s what happened to me. And I believe I was born when I was 40 years old, when I get here. Because I remember all my time in Cuba, I have to be extremely careful what to say and how and what kind of interpretation the government could made out of my words. Without freedom, there’s no life. That’s, that’s my bottom, bottom line, you know? Freedom is the first line of priorities in any life, and especially if you are an artist. If you’ve got something to say, if you’ve got something to express, of course, without that freedom, how, how can you open your heart and, and give what you have to, you know? And not only as a musician, as a regular person, you feel completely oppressed, you know? You feel, like, trapped. And you, you don’t have any kind of liberty to, you know, to do anything as a human being. They get in, you know, they also, even in your private life, you know? And that’s horrible. That’s horrible when you feel that oppression. Somebody’s telling you what to do. And you have to be very careful how you look, how you talk. And that way, it’s impossible to live. It’s impossible.
Paulson: Your frustration, in time, leads to a decision to leave Cuba. And you develop a plan that would allow you, while you’re abroad with Dizzy Gillespie to be able to come to, to the United States. And again, I mean, it’s your very good friend Dizzy who makes the connections you need to have made. He apparently had close ties to the White House?
Sandoval: You feel very uncomfortable when you have to escape from your own land and you know you are not allowed to come back. Like me, I didn’t come back there in 13 years, and I still have a lot of relatives there. But that plan was just so simple. The Cuban government make a mistake. And that was the kind of mistake that I was waiting for many years, you know? They make a mistake, giving my wife and younger son permission to go and spend a vacation with me in Europe. That was the — you know, I said, “Wow,” and coincidentally, I was with Dizzy in Europe doing the tour. When they get to London — actually, when I arrived there, I talked to my wife. They was safe already. And then I talked to Dizzy for the first time about that. I said, “Diz, I don’t go back to Cuba.” He said, “What?” I said, “Yes, my wife and son, they are out of Cuba. And I, I don’t want to go back.” He said, “Wow, that’s a big decision.” I said, “Yes.” “Are you sure?” I said, “Yeah, I’m absolutely sure.” Next morning, we went to the American Embassy, Dizzy and me.
Sandoval: We asked for political asylum, you know, to get all the paperwork and everything. You know, he helped me a lot with that. Because, you know, when we get there, the ambassador turn to him and say, “Mr. Gillespie? Oh, yeah, and then, you know — ” But later on, of course, the papers start to, you know, a little bit of bureaucracy, a little bit of problems. And I couldn’t get the asylum that day. I continued that tour. The ambassador said, “We’re going to work on it. And we’ll let you know. You keep on tour.” And I was in the middle of the tour. I was in Italy later on when my wife called me and said, “We are in big trouble over here. The people from the Cuban Embassy, they’re looking after us. They, they know what we’re trying to do. And they’re trying to send me back to Cuba.” When I hear that, I started shaking and say, “Wow, if they got them, you know, everything is lost,” you know? And then I went to Dizzy in the middle of the night and said, “Diz, I need your help. I cannot wait to finish the tour. This is the situation. This is what is going on.” Thank God, my wife was in a safe place and a friend of mine out of London nobody knew. But they was really desperate looking for her and my son. And I explained to him and said — he said, “Let me call the White House.” I said, “What?” He said, “Yes, I’ve got to call the White House. Give me my wallet.” And then I saw him look for the card. The vice president at that time was Dan Quayle. And he say, “He just give me this card.” Because he just come back from Namibia, actually. Dizzy was in the Air Force One on the way back and forth to Namibia for the liberation of the country or something. He was one of the guests of the White House. And he met a lot of people, you know, from the White House. And all of them give him, you know, business cards and say, “If you ever need anything, please call us.” And when he said that, “I’ve got the vice president’s card over here. I’m going to call him.” I said, “Oh, my goodness.” You know, I was so, you know, nervous because there’s a lot of tension in that kind of situation. But he did. He called the White House. And somebody talked to me on the phone. He handed me the phone, and they asked me a few questions. And I talked to them and said, “My biggest concern is my wife and son in London.” “Don’t worry. We’re going to call London right away now. And they’re going to try to get them.” And that was, you know — and at the same time, he said, “Don’t move where you are. The ambassador there in Rome is going to call you.” I was in a little city in Italy. And a few minutes later, the ambassador, the American ambassador, called me. He said, “I got instructions from the White House to help you to go to America.” I said, “Wow,” and then I asked for my wife and son. He said, “Don’t worry. They are on their way to the American Embassy already, in London. They picked them up, and they’re on their way to the embassy. They’re safe.” Whew. And from there on, you know, we flew to New York. And we met in New York. She didn’t know where we were. And I didn’t know exactly. But finally, we get together in New York. And that was the happiest moment in my life, you know?
Paulson: Let me ask you a tough question. And I’m sure you’ve given this quite a bit of thought. When you traveled around the world, you were traveling as a representative of Castro’s government.
Sandoval: I used to.
Paulson: Right, exactly.
Sandoval: Way back.
Paulson: Way back, right. But that’s — and there were opportunities for you because you were representing Castro’s government. And you played in Dizzy’s U.N. Orchestra.
Paulson: And today, there are many who — especially in the Miami area — who say we shouldn’t attend performances by musicians who represent Castro’s government or people who are too friendly to Castro’s government, and call for boycotts of those musicians.
Sandoval: I agree with that 100 percent.
Paulson: And yet, at one point, you would have been — you would have been hurt by that.
Sandoval: Yes, of course, but that’s the price we have to pay, you know, to represent the wrong government. And you have to understand there’s a lot of pain there. Those people in South Florida, you know, every immigrant from Cuba, we have been suffering a lot. You know how many people die in that little stretch of Florida? A lot, a lot of people die. Just recently, they just executed three young people because they were trying to steal a boat to escape. You know, and if you — for example, a few artists in Cuba now, after that incident, they signed a letter supporting that they executed those young people. Can you imagine you would go to attend one of those concerts of people who just did that? How would you feel about that? How we should react about that? Of course, we have to, you know, keep those people where they belong. But don’t come — especially don’t come to Miami. It’s like, you know, a band who, a favorite band from Hitler go to Israel, the Middle East, Israel. “Yeah, yeah, we represent the Nazis. We are here to play for you.” It’s exactly the same thing.
Paulson: You have used your freedom, in the, in the past decade, to produce a number of remarkable albums. I think the greatest surprise, though, was when you sat down the trumpet and released an album called My Passion for the Piano. Very few people knew of your talent on the piano. Had you been hiding this?
Sandoval: [Laughs] No, to be honest, what happened is, I wasn’t able to get a piano in Cuba, because the government provided instruments. It’s not a music store where you can go there and buy an instrument. And I was in the paper as a trumpet player when I went there and said, “I need a piano.” Because Dizzy Gillespie actually told me, “You should learn some piano. Piano is the best tool to learn music in general, to be an arranger, to be a composer, to even to understand the language of jazz, you know, to, to really be able to improvise. Piano can help you a lot.” And from that moment on, I was desperate trying to find a piano. And the government say, “No, you’re a trumpet player. You’re not allowed — ” I said, “Oh, my goodness.” And then, I bought my first piano when I was 40 years old when I get to Miami. That was my first, very first piano. [Plays up-tempo jazz music]
Paulson: What I found very impressive is that, once you came to this country and you had your freedom, it was still very important to you to become a U.S. citizen.
Sandoval: That is correct.
Paulson: And it took longer than it should have. And people had to speak up for you to make it happen. But why was it important to you to be a citizen of this country?
Sandoval: You know, I moved to this country, body and soul together, you know? I don’t want to be my body here and my soul and my brain somewhere else. I move here, and I going to die here. And my family’s very happy to be here. My sons are growing here. They make a beautiful career, you know? And I feel much better when I feel I belong to this country. And this country — I represent America, and America going to represent me. And especially when you travel a lot, this horrible feeling you don’t have any country. If you have any problem, what embassy you going to go?
Sandoval: You don’t have any embassy. You don’t have any — you know? And not only that, it’s inside, you need that kind of support, you know? I say, “I belong to here. I work for this.” And everywhere I play, I represent America.
Paulson: The man who had played and been honored at the White House deserved to be a U.S. citizen. And — and in fact, that occurred. It’s been a pleasure visiting with you. And it’s inspiring to hear your story.
Sandoval: Thank you.
Paulson: Thank you for joining us today.
Sandoval: Keep this program, because freedom is the most beautiful thing on earth.
Paulson: Arturo Sandoval. Could you do us a favor of closing the show with a bit more of your music?
Sandoval: Yeah, I’m going to play a little blues. What about that?
Sandoval: [Plays slow blues melody]
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