Arturo Sandoval on Icon Dizzy Gillespie, Cuba & New Album

With a new album and tour dedicated to the musician he idolized, legendary trumpeter Arturo Sandoval recalls being 28 years old and meeting the man who would change his life.

The Cuban-born trumpet master heard Dizzy Gillepsie was coming to Cuba as part of a tour in 1977, and he offered to drive Gillespie around while he was on the island.

“When I met him, it was like a gift from God.  He changed my life with his friendship and support,” Sandoval said recently. “He encouraged me to always keep trying, practicing, and learning.”

With Sandoval’s latest album, titled Dear "Diz, (Everyday I Think Of You,)" he wanted to show just how much he was in awe of Gillespie and of HIS art form.

"My hero was Dizzy and he embraced everybody," Sandoval said. "He gave everyone an equal opportunity. The last thing he did was the United Nations Band, and there were players from all over the world in that band.”

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Sandoval’s Start

Born in Artemisa, Cuba, in 1949, Sandoval started his musical career playing the snare drum in his school’s marching band.

"My father was a car mechanic," he said. "We lived with a dirt floor—we were literally dirt poor. But, it was good. It makes me appreciate everything in my life."

When he heard the trumpet the first time, he knew he had to play it.

At 15, he began his classical music training at the prestigious Cuban National School of Arts. A year later, he earned a place in Cuba’s All-Star National Band. The day Sandoval met a young Cuban journalist was the day he says everything came together for him.

“He asked me if I’d heard of Jazz music. I said ‘no’. He played me Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. And that was it. I thought I have to learn that so bad. I taught myself,” says Sandoval.

But listening to foreign music had its costs.

“They put me in jail for three months for listening to the voice of the enemy,” Sandoval says. At the time, Sandoval was serving his military service.

Sandoval ended up defecting Cuba in 1990 from Spain while he was touring with Gillespie, a heart-wrenching decision for him. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1999.

Ironically, it was Gillespie, who he had met decades before on the island, who helped him leave his country. The documentary, “For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story,” which starred Andy Garcia, dramatized Gillespie’s role in helping Sandoval arrive in the U.S.

He lived in Miami for 20 years to be close to his parents, but Sandoval and his family eventually moved to Southern California.

“I can never go back to Cuba," he says. "I’m not allowed to go back.”

The iconic musician says that for him it’s hard to understand and difficult to explain the repression of Cuba.

"No one loves this country more than me--the same maybe, but no one more," he said. "I’ve said it again and again, no freedom no life.”

A Lost Tradition

Sandoval, considered one of the legendary Cuban jazz artists in recent history, now teaches at universities and privately, but worries about losing his beloved music over time.

“We are losing this musical tradition—it’s at risk of disappearing. The greats are mostly gone—Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown. Fewer and fewer media outlets cover jazz," said Sandoval. "I believe it’s the most important art form created in this country."

He said it would be a crime if music is not preserved.

"In the rest of the world, it’s loved, respected,'' he said. “And promoted through the media and in schools."