NEW YORK — It's only 90 miles from Cuba to Florida, but it's taken Cuban jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval thousands of miles--and many years--to make that short trip between two different worlds.
Considered Cuba's foremost jazz artist, Sandoval defected while on tour in Italy with Dizzy Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra. He turned up at the U.S. Embassy in Rome on July 22 with a small suitcase and trumpet, requesting political asylum.
At the same time, his wife, Marianela, and 14-year-old son, Arturo Jr., who had been allowed to join him in Europe, sought asylum at the U.S. Embassy in London. Within days, they were settled in Miami, with its large Cuban population.
"I didn't want my son to grow up there with all the problems," Sandoval said. "The principal thing is to feel free. . . . That's No. 1.
"One of my dreams in life has been to come here to the United States--the land of jazz, the music that I love."
As a jazz artist, Sandoval suffered for playing America's indigenous music in a country whose Communist government is staunchly anti-Yankee. While performing his compulsory military service almost 20 years ago, he was imprisoned for four months after he was caught listening to a U.S. jazz broadcast.
Since coming to the United States, the 41-year-old Sandoval is furiously making up for lost time.
He has formed his own sextet with Cuban-American musicians in Miami and is touring Europe again with Gillespie's multinational big band. He recorded a trumpet solo for Dave Grusin's soundtrack for "Havana," the soon-to-be released film about 1950s Cuba starring Robert Redford.
What distinguishes him is his Latin-style jazz trumpet, blending blazing Afro-Cuban and salsa rhythms with bebop influences, spiced with ear-bursting high notes.
On a recent Monday night in New York, Sandoval's cheeks puffed out and turned bright red as he hit stratospheric notes in guest appearances with two fellow Cuban expatriates, veteran conga player Mongo Santamaria and saxophonist Paquito d' Rivera, at the Village Gate.
Standing backstage enjoying the proceedings was Gillespie, 73, who befriended Sandoval during a visit to Cuba in the 1970s and later introduced him to American audiences.
"He's one of the real phenomenons of these times. . . . He's unbelievable; it's a pleasure to work with the guy," Gillespie said of his younger protege.
"He's the definitive Cuban trumpeter of the 1990s. He has that real Cuban soul . . . and he has the knowledge of the work of all the major trumpet players of the last 40 or 50 years."
Sandoval planned his escape for years, stashing some of his possessions with friends in Europe whenever he had the opportunity to tour. But he waited for the opportunity to get his wife and son out of Cuba before defecting.
Before he began a six-month European tour in May, he told the Ministry of Culture he wouldn't go--and the ministry would lose its share of his earnings--unless his family could join him for a vacation.
The Cuban government reacted to his defection by issuing a statement: "In times of danger, rats abandon the ship to drown themselves in a sea of infinite shame."
Sandoval is trumpeting his freedom, vowing to blow harder than ever now that he has the chance to play his music anywhere he wants.
"I play with all my head and my heart," Sandoval said. "I put all my life into the hole of the mouthpiece. I explore my life through my trumpet.
"When I play, I always think I'm going to die the next day, so I put out everything I've got."