As a boy of 10 living outside Havana, jazz artist Arturo Sandoval picked up a trumpet because it “has a strong personality,” he recalled. “A trumpet can whisper very soft, very tender — and it can create a huge noise.” Now 64 and world-renowned, with 10 Grammys, an Emmy and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, Sandoval has yet to tire of his instrument.
“I always want to play music,” he said.
His recordings have spanned the generations — from Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis and Barbara Streisand to Justin Timberlake and Alicia Keys. Looking back, it was trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie who changed Sandoval’s life. Sandoval was 26 when he met Gillespie in Cuba and became his protege. He defected from Cuba in 1990 while touring with Gillespie and eventually became an American citizen.
At home in Los Angeles recently, he took a break from his daily practicing to talk about music and aging.
Q: Let’s talk about your music and how it has changed as you’ve aged.
Answer: Just as you have more experience in life, you accumulate feelings and things. You have more ideas and more feelings in your brain to talk, to express.
Q: Do you have the same stamina and energy for your music?
Answer: No. I’ve got a lot more! I put a lot more emphasis on what I am doing. This is my life and my passion. This is my way to communicate, my way to share my feelings with people. To be in front of an audience is a gift from God.
I am 64. I’ve got a lot of energy. I’ve got wonderful health. I never get tired.
I’m still teaching every single day I am home. I practice every day. I write music. I am very busy every single day. I am grateful that I have that passion for music. I always want to play music, always want to learn something new. You can learn at any moment in your life, from anybody. You never know from whom you are going to learn something every single day.
Q: Tell me about starting to play the trumpet.
Answer: When I was a little boy, I got a strong feeling that I wanted to be a musician. But nobody in my family was related to music at all. They laughed in my face: “Are you crazy? What are you talking about?” But I got that first trumpet at 10 years old and started to play somehow. I was self-taught.
Q: Tell me about your day as a musician.
Answer: I get up at 7. I’ve got two granddaughters. The older one is living with me and my wonderful wife. I’ve been married for 40 years. I am very lucky. She is my right hand, my best friend. A wonderful woman. I drive my granddaughter to school. Then I come back and play some piano. That is my daily routine. I try to compose something; I try to put together some bars of music. That is my first encounter with the day. Then I have some breakfast. And then I start practice.
Q: How long will you practice?
Answer: As long as I can. Sometimes I have to write music. Sometimes I’m in the studio making a recording. I also produce some albums for different people. I’ve always got something to do in the studio. I try to start to do that after lunch and save the morning for practice. I got a little studio at home. It’s not very sophisticated, but it’s good enough to do my own productions. I have an engineer who works full time. He comes every day and we work on something different every day.
Q: Do you hear music in your head all day? Has that changed as you’ve aged?
Answer: I’ve got music around my brain 24/7, oh yeah. I’ve always got something going on. Even going to the movie theater, I’ve got a problem because I start humming on top of the soundtrack. People “shhh” to me. (Starts to hum.)
I’m always humming something.
Q: Has your physical ability for playing the trumpet changed as you’ve aged?
Answer: I’ve got better control now because it is normal with age your fingers get a little slower and your reaction and everything. I try my best to fight against that. I practice. I’ve got my hand device to keep my fingers moving and nimble, to keep them as fast as possible.
I do it all the time. When I’m in a plane for eight hours, I practice with that thing. That helped me a lot to avoid that kind of natural slowing down.
Q: Did a doctor give this to you?
Answer: No. It is something I invented. It is like a set of valves, of a trumpet. It is a device. We call that a SandoValves. (To see a video, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUeJC0Pj2qI.)
Q: How did you feel getting the Medal of Freedom last November?
Answer: I feel extremely honored and grateful. It was visit to White House number eight. (His ninth visit occurred shortly after that, when he played at the lighting of the National Christmas Tree.)
It is always a big deal.
I want to tell you something. I love this country. I want you to put that in bold and big letters: I love the United States of America!