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As I wait to connect with Arturo over the phone, I hear a deep laugh on the other end. A voice that sounds like pure bass tries to quickly slide up and down the Hindustani sargam, but the enthusiasm makes it a jumbled blur. I’m put a little at ease.
Surely, if a seminal figure in Afro-Cuban jazz—one that’s known for his technical brilliance—doesn’t care about mistakes in front of strangers, he won’t mind my nervousness when we talk. I try to put aside his win-count—ten Grammys, six Billboards, one Emmy and a little thing called the US Presidential Medal of Freedom—to make use of this rare opportunity.
Arturo’s in town for the golden jubilee celebrations at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai. Born in Havana, he’s proficient in the flugelhorn, timbales, piano and vocals, but is best known for his irreverence, magnetic stage presence and astonishing range, reaching highs and lows on the trumpet that don’t sound humanly possible. A friend and protege of jazz icon Dizzy Gillespie, he’s supremely excited to have finally made it to India. No matter that he just hit 70.
I begin by wondering out loud whether there’s any question about jazz left to ask, after over 50 years of performing—and after countless rounds of interviews post landing in India. Is there anything he wishes he was asked more?
“I don’t think I’ve heard every question yet! It’s my first time in India, and I’m very excited to play for the people here and see how they react to our music. I’m curious to know whether they will like or even accept it. I believe the trumpet is not a very popular instrument here, so let’s see if they embrace it.”
I don’t have much doubt about this—his debut concert on November 29 has already sold out. But is there anything he’d like to pick up from his jam session with desi musicians the following day?
“Of course. You know what I’m learning right now? I’m going to study this on the flight back too.”
Arturo breaks into the sa-re-ga-ma, sliding up and down the notes in easy vocal runs. He’s resolute that the interview cannot go on until I hear it.
“Oh my goodness, the things Indian musicians do with this style, the runs, especially in percussion...I would love to jam with someone playing the tabla on stage. It’s so amazing, so different from the Western fraternity, I sometimes get stressed out!”
When it comes to the opposite, though, many Indians find jazz to be a pastime of the elite. Haven’t we all heard the ‘elevator music’ jibe? I ask Arturo about any potential trigger point for the masses; whether there’s something that could best translate the happy mischief in the genre into the mainstream.
“Y’know, I won’t say it’s easy. When we improvise, it’s complicated, but we’re still sending indirect messages to the audience. We’re telling a story, and people have to be open to receive that story and interpret it. In other kinds of music, you might not need that level of concentration, but in jazz, the stray communication between the audience and the performer is most important. When that connect is established, it’s a great feeling. Afro-Cuban jazz may have more in common with Indian music, so sharing that might work better than traditional jazz.”
I want to hear from the teacher in him a bit on this—the man’s been a lecturer at Florida International University for a while—and ask the next question. One that I hope won’t end up in ritual millennial bashing.
“Do you notice a difference in how students approach jazz in 2019, compared to earlier years?”
“It’s always differed from case to case, I don’t think the generations can be generalised. (phew) Some have always been very passionate, committed, studying jazz all day, while the others don’t enjoy it, or care for practising. To succeed, it’s something you need to love doing all day, you know, that you can’t wait to get practising. Those are always my favourite students, the ones who are always smiling and ready to go.”
Arturo’s not kidding about the uncompromising love you need for a career. While on military service in Castro’s Cuba, he was actually thrown in jail for listening to the Voice of America, a jazz show that used to be broadcast on shortwave radio. It’s an inspiring anecdote, but not one he wishes on others. He later sought asylum in the US, and became a citizen in 1998. It's a well-known fact that jazz as a genre has faced much persecution—from racism against the greats (many of whom were African-American), to being seen as American propaganda, to being ‘too difficult’ for everyday audiences.
Commitment aside, does Arturo feel budding artists ought to have a mentor like Dizzy pushing them on? Not exactly.
“Communication among musicians nowadays is a lot easier than before. There’s all kinds of pages you can search for and find information, something not possible before. There is also more unity. Meeting Dizzy in 1977 and starting to play with him was just me getting very lucky.”
Arturo’s gone on to play with many, many others since then. And not just the jazz greats. I was surprised to learn about a song with Pharrell and Ariana, as well as compositions with the likes of Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder, Frida (ABBA) and Alejandro Sanz. But does he have a new favourite?
“Haha, no, I’m 70 years old. I will keep going back to the old-timers like Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker. They’re my heroes. Of course, you can’t ignore current music, but older jazz was a different time, a different flow. I’m still open to collaborating with any good artist, I don’t care how old they are, or what kind of music they play.”
Our last query: does swagger come naturally to jazz musicians? That seems to be the common belief.
“Well, it’s not something you learn at school.”
Arturo will be performing live in concert at the NCPA on November 29. That show is sold out, but you can still grab tickets for his All-Star Jam on November 30, or the instrument masterclass on December 1. For more information, visit ncpamumbai.com.
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