Samohi musicians get schooled by legendary jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval

By Gary Walker

Ten-time Grammy winner Arturo Sandoval shares some wisdom at Samohi
Photo by Maria Martin

Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz standard-bearer Arturo Sandoval set a playful tone from the get-go when he dropped by Santa Monica High School’s Barnum Hall on March 22 to give student musicians a master class in the art of jazz.

When Santa Monica Jazz Bands Director Tom Whaley introduced the Cuban-born trumpeter and pianist as a nine-time Grammy winner, Sandoval interjected, arms outstretched, in mock anger: “Hey, it’s 10!”

It was a welcome icebreaker. Sandoval, who defected from Cuba 27 years ago while touring with idol and mentor Dizzy Gillespie, is as a living legend. And for the next 90 minutes, the avuncular 67-year-old entertained an audience of about 200 students while working hands-on with dozens of student musicians to impart what it means to be professional jazz musician and how a master executes his craft.

Samohi’s advanced Big Band group opened the event with the upbeat tune “Garaje Gato,” with Sandoval joining them on trumpet. Afterwards, he spent about 20 minutes on constructive
criticism about the need to play as a finely tuned unit.

Balancing charm and biting wit, Sandoval alternately praised and chastised the young band members, at times stepping in to show how it’s done on the piano or trumpet. Other times he played band leader, clapping, bouncing and stamping his feet.

“The drums sound OK, but the rhythm section sucks, in general,” he teased the band, intonations of his homeland still in his voice. “You’re missing the rhythm. You have to feel the beat.”

Among the pearls of wisdom that he offered the band: “Don’t take any note for granted — every note is important”; and “A good band is when all of the sections sound the same.”

Senior trumpeter Jane Wicklund stood next to Sandoval during his session with the band.

“It was terrifying and amazing at the same time,” said Wicklund, who at almost six feet tall stood several inches above Sandoval. “He teased me about my height a lot, but later he gave me a lot of pointers with the trumpet.”

Whaley had made sure his pupils knew exactly who they were dealing with before Sandoval’s arrival.

“The students were overwhelmed with excitement because they understand the immensity of his musicianship, skill and humanity,” Whaley said.

During a Q&A session that followed, Sandoval told the audience about his upbringing in Cuba and how music shaped his life.

“I grew up very poor. I had to leave school in the fifth grade to work to help my family. Then I found music,” he recalled. “Music saved my life. I always say that music is like a balm for the soul. It has the power to heal.”

Sandoval also recounted his time with Gillespie, saying “Dizzy was like a father to me.”

Responding to an audience question about playing two trumpets at the same time, Sandoval scoffed at what he called “a circus trick” — and then proceeded
to play the piano and the trumpet simultaneously, drawing a sustained ovation.

The advice coming from the master wasn’t limited to the band. Sandoval said there were two approaches for those who aspire to be musicians: to view music as
a hobby, or, for those who plan to be professionals, to completely immerse themselves in it.

“If you want to play professionally, be ready to bring a lot of passion and desire for music, because otherwise you’re going to be a loser. And we have enough losers — we need more winners,” he said as the audience chuckled. “Be ready to give your heart and soul to it.”

He chastised younger musicians who don’t bother to learn from those he called the masters: trumpeters Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Chet Baker, pianists
Oscar Peterson and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Arturo Sandoval Institute Executive Director Myka Miller said she wasn’t surprised that Sandoval encouraged studying those he did while coming up.

“Arturo started the foundation with that in mind: How do we connect the future to the past?” she said.

Sandoval owns a piano that once belonged to Peterson, considered one of the best jazz pianists ever.

“It’s a gift from God to be able to get up every day and play that piano, knowing that his hands touched that piano,” Sandoval said with reverence in his voice.

Wicklund considers herself fortunate to have been a part of Sandoval’s master class.

“It was so inspiring, and we’re so lucky that he came to our school. So few people get the chance to experience playing with a great artist like him,” she said.