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Legendary Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval Delivers Lessons on Music, Life

Montclair music students practice, learn and play with the Cuban jazz artist through Cali’s Immersive Residency Program

Posted in: Arts, Homepage News, University

Arturo Sandoval plays the trumpet with students in the University Wind Symphony seated behind him.
Trumpet master Arturo Sandoval plays with the University Wind Symphony at Alexander Kasser Theater as part of the Cali Immersive Residency Program.

The energy was electric as student trumpeter Ryan Branco stepped center stage at the Alexander Kasser Theater. Accompanied by Adjunct Music Professor Ron Levy on piano, the senior Music Education major played the song he’d been practicing in his room at home, the trumpet solo-heavy “Rustiques” by Eugene Bozza Branco.

While the almost 500-seat theater was packed, he was truly playing for an audience of one: none other than Maestro Arturo Sandoval, one of the greatest trumpet players and composers to ever pick up the instrument. Sandoval’s presence was made possible through the John J. Cali School of Music’s Immersive Residency Program.

When Branco was done, Sandoval who was sitting nearby mouthed, “Wow.” Then he explained that the trumpet is “an extremely unforgiving instrument. It doesn’t matter how comfortable you feel or how much you prepare, it will surprise you, and the trumpet is going to win.”

Sporting a casual navy-blue pullover sweater, jeans and multicolored Dolce & Gabbana sneakers, a jovial Sandoval doled out advice and appreciation in almost equal measure. He suggested to Branco that he focus on the most difficult passages and play slowly to improve his dexterity. “Your fingers have to be a percussion instrument,” he said. “It’s a beautiful piece, very demanding. You did a good job. I like the sound and your interpretation…. You have a future.”

“Never get discouraged,” he told  Branco and other students, sharing how people in his village in Cuba discouraged him from pursuing a career in music, telling him, “You’re never going to make it.” The audience laughed at the irony.

Branco had planned on playing “Arutunian Trumpet Concerto,” which he’s been playing for three years but his professor thought it was too easy and challenged him to step outside his comfort zone, so instead, he performed  “Rustiques” after only two months of practice.

Branco’s mother, Elizabete, took photos of her son on stage, while his grandparents, visiting from Portugal for the holidays, sat smiling in the audience.

Later, Branco would say about Sandoval’s critique: “Everything that he said was spot on. I really appreciated his feedback.”

A student plays trumpet while Arturo Sandoval looks on. The trumpet player is accompanied by a pianist.
Senior Music Education major Ryan Branco, right, was the first Montclair student to play for the legendary Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, far left. He was accompanied on piano by Adjunct Music Professor Ron Levy.

John J. Cali School of Music Director Anthony Mazzocchi said he was pleased Sandoval accepted Montclair’s invitation to work with students. “The goal of our Immersive Residency Program is to give students the opportunity to spend quality time with artists for numerous days in different settings, accompanied by a culminating performance together. They get to know each artist as a human; it opens their minds to possibilities for their future. It’s also been transformative for each artist, as well, as many have never engaged in this way for this duration of time before.”

Jazz Studies Coordinator Oscar Perez, who directed the Jazz Ensemble through their practice and performance with Sandoval, knows this first-hand. He fondly remembers playing piano for the legend when Sandoval visited his alma mater, the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. “I’ll never forget it, and hopefully that’ll be the same for these students.”

Getting to perform with him at Montclair is “amazing,” Perez said. “Arturo, he’s transformative. He’s speaking from years of experiences, speaking about his personal journey and how that affects his music. At the end of the day, he has a story, and he’s encouraging these students to find their own stories in music, and this is going to be one of them.”

At one point, Sandoval played a soulful, melodic solo on the piano to a rapt audience. He also played his closed hand, blowing into it and making it sound like a loud trumpet. Twice he broke into impromptu scat singing, prompting the music students to shake their heads in awe and admiration.

Ultimately, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Grammy Award recipient gave a Master Class in music – and in life. He urged students to listen to singers and to explore and expand their knowledge of different genres of music – everything from bebop and classical to reggaeton. “Every musician, no matter what you play, must pay attention to a good singer,” he said. He shared his joy when someone once self-identified as a “trumpet learner,” and how he now refers to himself as such because there is always more to learn, he said.

Sandoval told the students that there is no room for jealousy or envy of fellow musicians and instead urged them to approach their music with gratitude, something he practices daily, he said. “When you are grateful, whatever you do, it’s going to be better.”

A student plays trumpet for Arturo Sandoval, who smiles in the background.
Sophomore Jazz Studies major John Rivas plays for trumpet great Arturo Sandoval, who looks on approvingly.

One by one, three other student trumpet players took turns playing for Sandoval. John Rivas took deep breaths before launching into the trumpet excerpts – sans accompaniment – of “A Night in Tunisia,” a demanding jazz standard Sandoval has played for decades; it was written by his friend and mentor Dizzy Gillespie.

“You did an incredible job. It’s so hard to play these kinds of things without band accompaniment,” he said, urging Rivas to play a melody, explaining, “When you play lead trumpet, you’re the guy who leads the whole band.”

Sophomore Rivas, who plays both in the Wind Symphony and Jazz Ensemble, agreed with Sandoval’s assessment: “I’m looking forward to improving those skills, especially with Arturo’s critiques about learning melody. It’s inspiring me to lean more into the jazz side of things because I come from a very heavy classical background.”

A student plays a trumpet onstage for Arturo Sandoval. A professor accompanies the student on piano.
Senior Music Performance major Bryce Grier plays a trumpet  for Arturo Sandoval. He’s accompanied on piano by Adjunct Music Professor Ron Levy.

Senior Bryce Grier walked onstage with several instruments – a B-flat trumpet, a piccolo trumpet and a flugelhorn – to play the piano concerto “Rhapsody in Blue.” Sandoval pronounced it “beautiful” and complimented Grier’s desire to challenge himself, noting that it’s “extremely difficult to switch between trumpets but we have to challenge ourselves.”

Grier said Sandoval’s words about gratitude will stay with him. “I don’t take enough time to be appreciative,” Grier said, “so I could maybe be more thankful that I have the opportunity to go out and play and practice, and just do what I love.”

A young man plays a trumpet.
“Beautiful, beautiful,” Arturo Sandoval said of sophomore Jazz Studies major Dorian Wylde’s trumpet playing before advising him to work on fundamentals and playing to the audience.

Student trumpeter Dorian Wylde walked onstage accompanied by several members of the Jazz Ensemble. As they played, Sandoval nodded and swayed to the music. When the song ended, the maestro smiled and clapped.

He did, however, ask for “more cowbell.”

To all of the students in the audience, which included hundreds from 20 New Jersey high schools, Sandoval explained the there are three types of musicians: those who play music as a hobby, those who do it as professionals and those who spend hours practicing, who have passion, commitment, discipline and are dedicated to music. The latter, he said, “play and interpret and deliver a performance that causes people to say, ‘Wow, he’s not fooling around. He knows what he’s doing.’”

They could be in the latter group should they choose to, he said. “You can stand in front. It’s up to you,” he said. “Everybody has some kind of talent but what you do with the talent God gave you, that’s up to you. Practice and practice and practice, then practice a little more.”

Sandoval’s overall assessment of the Cali School’s music education was succinct: “Good program. Good teachers. Good students, and I really had a great time over here,” he said, adding, “When I see people who love music, I’m so grateful.”

A student in a maroon jacket plays a brass vibraphone with mallets.
Arturo Sandoval was complimentary of senior Pierce Sparnroft’s performance and passion on the vibraphone.

Though they didn’t participate in the Master Class, two students earned the maestro’s praise during a rehearsal with the Jazz Ensemble that followed the Master Class. Sandoval praised Jazz Studies senior Pierce Sparnroft’s passion and performance on the vibraphone as “amazing.” He also praised Jazz Studies senior Adrienne Bazile’s trumpet solo, telling her, “You sound good on the trumpet.” Later, Bazile said, “I was in shock. I tend to talk down on myself a lot, so to hear him say that sounds good, it means a lot.”

Sandoval’s ongoing love affair with music was not lost on students. “Like every great musician, Arturo has his own approach. He’s a virtuoso. He can pick up anything and do anything with the same passion that he’s done for 60 years,” Grier said.

Sophomore Jazz Studies major Wylde, who met Sandoval after seeing him perform at the Blue Note in Manhattan in August, said: “It was incredible seeing how strong he still is at his age. I’m so grateful to be in the presence of someone like him at a university where I’m able to express my ideas and be able to share the stage.”

In the evening, Sandoval joined Cali School Director Mazzocchi for a conversation that included an exploration of the musician’s Cuban roots and an unexpected improvisation on the grand piano in Leshowitz Recital Hall.

Arturo Sandoval sits in a chair and speaks into a microphone while on stage with Anthony Mazzocchi.
Master musician and legendary trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, left, discusses his life and career before an audience with Cali School of Music Director Anthony Mazzocchi.

Sandoval praised the Cali School and its musical facilities. “As soon as I walked in here, I could breathe music, and I heard instruments, and I thought, ‘Not everything is lost. We still have hope,’” he said.

 “We need this kind of level all over the country because I think it was a terrible mistake to cut or eliminate the school of music in a lot of places in the United States,” Sandoval said. “Music helps you and the way you think and the way you relate to or treat people.”

On the final day of his five-day residency, Sandoval returned to the Kasser Theater where he was joined by the University Wind Symphony for the Crawford Concert. In a rare collaboration, the orchestra was joined for two songs, including “Weekend in Tunisia,” by the Jazz Ensemble.

And there was, indeed, more cowbell.

Photo Gallery

A conductor conducts a symphony.
Cali’s Oscar Perez conducts the Wind Symphony and Jazz Ensemble through a collaboration as Arturo Sandoval plays keyboard.
A woman wearing a colorful headscarf plays trumpet as Arturo Sandoval smiles behind her.
Student trumpet player Adrienne Bazile plays a solo as Arturo Sandoval looks on favorably in the background.
Arturo Sandoval plays the piano.
Arturo Sandoval’s love of music was on full display during his residency at the Cali School. He told students to familiarize themselves with the piano. “It’s the best musical instrument to help you understand music.”
Audience members in a packed theater enjoy a concert.
The capacity crowd enjoyed the Crawford Concert, which concluded Arturo Sandoval’s residency.
Arturo Sandoval gestures with both hands as he scat sings.
Arturo Sandoval gestures as he entertains the audience with some impromptu scatting.

Story by Staff Writer Sylvia A. Martinez. Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren contributed to this story. Photos by University Photographer Mike Peters and John J. LaRosa. 

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