Is Arturo Sandoval the best-known jazz artist Whitworth University has ever hosted?
Dan Keberle, the college’s director of jazz, thinks he just may be. He called Sandoval “one of the top three jazz trumpeters alive.”
“For range, speed and ability to improvise, he’s the Michael Jordan of trumpet,” said Keberle, a trumpet player himself.
The competition is stiff. Whitworth has also hosted Joe Lovano, Gene Harris, Phil Woods and Randy Brecker, to name just a few.
Still, the case for Sandoval is impressive:
• How many jazz artists have been the subject of an HBO movie? Andy Garcia played Sandoval in “For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story” in 2000. Sandoval won an Emmy for composing the music.
• How many other jazz artists are synonymous with an entire genre? Sandoval’s music is practically the definition of Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz.
• How many other jazz artists (not named Marsalis) are accomplished classical musicians as well? Sandoval has performed with many orchestras and just finished premiering a new work titled “Concerto de Miami,” by Carlos Rafael Rivera, with the Miami Symphony.
For sheer cultural impact, this Cuban-born musician’s importance goes far beyond average.
He has one of the most compelling life stories in the jazz world. Sandoval learned to play as a youngster in Cuba, studying trumpet at age 12 and picking up the infectious rhythms from the streets of Artemisa, a small town near Havana.
“I grew up a poor kid,” he told Billboard magazine two weeks ago. “I was completely hopeless, and I couldn’t see any horizon for myself.
“There was a dirt floor in my house, and I had to quit school in the fifth grade to work to help my family, which was literally going hungry. But music came to me, like a piece of wood floating out in the middle of the ocean.”
Sandoval helped found the jazz group Irakere in Cuba in the 1970s. When Dizzy Gillespie, one of his heroes, toured Cuba in 1977, Sandoval served as his driver. And at night, Dizzy discovered that his driver could really play.
Irakere knocked out American audiences at the 1978 Newport Jazz Festival and won a Grammy in 1980. Then Sandoval struck out on his own and was voted Cuba’s Best Instrumentalist from 1982 to 1990.
Sandoval sought political asylum while touring with Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra in 1990. He has lived in Miami ever since and earned his U.S. citizenship in 1999.
He has been an influential part of America’s music scene for two decades, having played for artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Rod Stewart to Alicia Keys. He has won four Grammy Awards, and his music was featured on the “Mambo Kings” soundtrack.
His high standing in the Latin music community is symbolized by two recent events. When the Latin Grammy Award nominations were announced in September, Sandoval was one of the presenters (he was also one of the nominees).
Also in September, he and Eva Longoria were presented with the Medallion of Excellence for Leadership and Community Service by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in Washington, D.C.
Still, Sandoval bristles at being pigeonholed.
“When people call me a Latin salsa player, I hate that,” he told Billboard. “In my heart, I’m a jazz musician, and I also play classical. Plus, I’m a pianist.”
He’ll perform Saturday with the Whitworth Jazz Ensemble, giving those students the opportunity to trade licks with a legend. He’ll play a lot of music from his mentor, Gillespie, including “Salt Peanuts” and a number of well-known standards.
Sandoval will also conduct a free jazz clinic tonight at 5:15 p.m. in the Whitworth Music Building’s Recital Hall. The clinic is free to the public and no registration is required; just show up and soak in some wisdom from one of the top trumpet players in the world.
Middle school and high school students who attend the clinic will receive a free ticket to Saturday’s concert.