No one taught a young Arturo Sandoval more about the mysteries of bebop and how to approach a life in music than Dizzy Gillespie. At times during their long friendship, the jazz trumpeters referred to each other as father and son. “He was more than a teacher,” Sandoval says of the bop originator. “He was my hero first, and then he became my mentor. He helped me so much, man. Since the first day.”
That first day came in May 1977, when Sandoval volunteered to drive the visiting American musician around Havana and the Cuban countryside, before revealing to Gillespie that he also played trumpet in an inspired young Latin fusion band called Irakere. They performed onstage together that same night and many nights after, and remained close friends until Gillespie's death in 1993 at age 75.
The lasting impact of their 17-year relationship can be heard on Sandoval's newest album, “Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You),” a tribute to the old master that reinterprets 10 Gillespie compositions, including several the duo occasionally performed together over the years (“Bebop,” “And Then She Stopped” and “Birk's Works”). Sandoval and his Big Band will perform songs from the album Jan. 19 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.
The album has been nominated for three jazz Grammys (the awards will be handed out at Staples Center on Feb. 10), and begins with an old recording of Gillespie's voice introducing Sandoval from stage as “one of the younger grand masters of the trumpet.” Later, “Dear Diz” closes with an emotional title song, a new ballad Sandoval composed for the album and sings himself over strings and his own delicate trumpet lines: “You saved my life / Diz, you set me free.”
Gillespie wasn't just a musical mentor but was directly involved in the defection of Sandoval and his family from Cuba in 1990 — the younger trumpeter was on tour abroad with Gillespie's United Nations Orchestra that year. But Sandoval never considered an album tribute for him until now.
“Every recording I did in my life has had a strong influence of his mentality, even a little bit of his showmanship and sense of humor,” says Sandoval, 63, his hair and mustache streaked with black and gray. “Everything I ever did is a direct tribute to him. My passion for his style of music and the combination that he invented — which was Afro-Cuban jazz — and to be one of the exponents of his ideas and his style is my daily tribute to him.”
On a recent morning at his home in the hills of Tarzana, Sandoval was eating a quick bowl of cereal in his dining room. Christmas decorations were still up around the house, and the wall beside him was stacked with shelves of awards and photos from his career. One row displayed five of his eight Grammys, and the Emmy he won for scoring the 2000 HBO film “For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story,” which dramatized his early life and escape from Cuba.
“My dream is the other one,” he says with a smile, alluding to the Oscar without saying its name. Sandoval continues to compose music for film and television. “It's just a dream. A dream is free. But if you don't dream, you won't have a vision or purpose to follow. You have to dream first.”
He frequently gives music lessons in this same room, continuing to work as an educator following his 19 years teaching at Florida International University in Miami, where he first settled after leaving Cuba. After moving to Los Angeles three years ago, he taught for one semester at USC, but now prefers private sessions.
“When people really love the music, we are going to get along really well,” he says of the visiting musicians from a wide range of ages and abilities. A small amplifier rested on the floor behind him. “I appreciate the time we spend together. I pass on 50 years of experience in one hour. It should mean something for you. If you don't get it, I'm going to lose my enthusiasm.”
His concert next week at the Alex will benefit his Arturo Sandoval Institute, launched last year to support music education, and which he hopes will provide lessons, scholarships and instruments to children. The 90-minute show will begin with a short presentation by the nonprofit foundation's All Star Youth Jazz Band, drawn from the Glendale Unified School District.
“I grew up in the middle of nowhere — the countryside of Cuba. A very poor family,” says Sandoval. “We didn't even have a floor in the house. We had dirt. I didn't have this kind of opportunity. God has been so good to me and my family. I feel an obligation to give back and help kids.”
It was an aunt who saved up to buy him a cornet, and he soon joined other kids in his village in an informal marching band, playing traditional Cuban music, then spent three years in the mid-1960s studying classical music at Havana's National School of Art. Sandoval was a young musician playing in an orchestra when a local journalist asked if he had ever heard jazz.
“He played me a Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker record,” he says, recalling the intricate collision of harmony and wild improvisation. “That turned my brain upside down. Oh my goodness, what are those people playing? After so many years, I'm still trying to figure it out — how to play bebop correctly.”
Sandoval looks up at a wall-sized photograph of himself blowing his instrument backstage at a show while Gillespie watches intently from a chair, dressed in vivid African robes and holding his famous bent trumpet. It's a memory that stays with him.
“When you feel that kind of music inside of you, it doesn't matter where you grew up or the situation around you,” he says. “You're going to make music no matter what — with a Steinway or a piece of wood, you're going to make music.”
What: Arturo Sandoval brings his Big Band, “Save the Music”
When: Jan. 19, 8 p.m.
Where: Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale
Cost: $20 to $125
More Info: (818)-243-2539, www.alextheatre.org