Before playing tonight at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval is making a pilgrimage to Hollywood to attend the unveiling of trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
"I'm happy about the star," said Sandoval, a Gillespie protege and longtime member of Gillespie's cross-cultural ensemble, the United Nations Orchestra.
"But at the same time, I'm sad and disappointed. That star should already be there," he said a phone conversation from Los Angeles earlier this week while waiting to board a plane for quick trip to Costa Rica. "[Gillespie] is a very important American musician who gives a lot of prestige to [the country's] cultural position.
"I took a walk [along the boulevard] once and saw a lot of names who can't even compare to Diz, to Charlie Parker," he said. "It's an insult to cultural dignity."
Much like his trumpet playing, Sandoval is passionate when he talks about music and musicians. In conversation, the Cuban-born trumpeter's still-improving English is sprinkled with unique twists and word-pairings and occasionally spiked with profanity. At no time is he more animated than when he's talking about the man he calls "my only hero."
Gillespie was much more than an employer to Sandoval, and the younger man's music, by his own admission, will be forever tied to his mentor's.
"Dizzy made an impression you can't imagine on me," he said. "I had the opportunity to know him well and be with him in different circumstances and in different bands.
"I admire, besides his musical genius, his love of the music. Until the day he died, he had the same mentality as the new kid on the block, the cat who's out there fighting to get the information, to get involved as much as he could. He took the time to talk to everybody, to teach you what he knew, to share ideas, to give advice.
"That's the most important thing about him, the kind of man he was. He was an incredible human being with a big heart in the middle of his chest."
There's no better example of the results of that big-heartedness than Sandoval himself, who first met Gillespie in 1977. The young Cuban trumpeter, however, had been familiar with Gillespie since age 14, when a fellow student at the Cuban National Institute of Music played some be-bop recordings for him.
He was born in the village of Artemisa in 1949 but had little exposure to music during his formative years.
"My parents had no music. I got involved when [the town] put together a marching band and I joined at 10. They gave me several instruments to try until I landed on the trumpet and decided to keep it."
He progressed quickly. Sandoval was tabbed at age 16 to join the Cuban National All Star band, working his way from sixth to second chair in two years.
He spent some time in the military, and once was jailed for listening to jazz on Voice of America broadcasts.
"They accused me of listening to the voice of the enemy," Sandoval recalled. "They called jazz the music of the imperialist."
Once out of the service, Sandoval joined with keyboardist Chucho Valdes and saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, his partners in an earlier ensemble, the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, to form Irakere (meaning "jungle") a band that later gained considerable notice in the United States.
It was as a member of Irakere and a prominent figure on the Cuban music scene that Sandoval met Gillespie. When he learned that Gillespie would be arriving in Havana to check out the local music scene, Sandoval went to the docks to meet his idol. Gillespie, not knowing that Sandoval was a musician, hired him as a chauffeur. It wasn't until later that night when Gillespie arrived at a concert hall for a performance with Irakere that he discovered his chauffeur was a trumpeter.
Thus began a long friendship. Gillespie helped introduce Irakere to U.S. audiences, then hired Sandoval to join him in the United Nations Orchestra, where he stayed until Gillespie died in 1993.
After persuading Cuban authorities to allow his family to travel with him when touring with Gillespie, Sandoval, under Gillespie's guidance, defected to the United States in 1990 while in Rome.
When asked about the status of music in Cuba and his experiences, Sandoval's passions are aroused.
"I didn't get much opportunity to play [classical music] when I was there and studying. The were always bringing in violinists and pianists from Russia to feature with the orchestra [the state orchestra of Cuba]. They never gave me a chance.
"A lot of people believe that the Cuban government supports the arts. They are completely wrong. But Cuba is naturally and forever a musical country. And when you have a talent or a mission on earth to do music, you do it. It doesn't matter how awful the government is, how inconvenient it is or how difficult. You go out and do it. You don't want to be a frustrated person."
Since coming to the United States, Sandoval has released a handful of albums for the GRP label, stretching from his fusion-tainted first release, "Flight to Freedom" in 1991 to the critically acclaimed, straight-ahead "I Remember Clifford," a 1992 tribute to Clifford Brown.
Last year saw simultaneous releases: "Danzon," a collection for GRP Records of various Cuban dance-rhythm treatments (for which he won a best Latin jazz performance Grammy Award), and "The Classical Album," for RCA, featuring music of Mozart, Hummel and Sandoval's own Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra.
Such a range underscores the trumpeter's lack of regard for musical categories.
"I have nothing to do with those people who put you in some corner, put something in your face, and say you are a salsa player or you're a Baroque player. Nobody puts any sticker on me. For me, there is only one music: the good music. What is the difference between Dizzy and Ravel? They are both geniuses, but in different styles.
"I'm a musician and I love all types of music. I come to the stage with no inhibitions, completely free and relaxed. I play as well as I can, and have a good time doing it."
* Arturo Sandoval and his band and the Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band, with guest Eddie Harris, appear tonight at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. $15-$35. (714) 556-2787.