Sandoval, while living in his native Cuba, was influenced by jazz musicians Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, and Dizzy Gillespie, finally meeting Gillespie later in 1977. Gillespie became a mentor and colleague, playing with Sandoval in concerts in Europe and Cuba and later featuring him in the United Nations Orchestra. Sandoval defected while touring with Gillespie in 1990, and he became an American naturalized citizen in 1998.
Sandoval was born in Artemisa. As a twelve-year-old boy in Cuba, Sandoval played trumpet with street musicians. He helped establish the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, which became the band Irakere in 1973. He toured worldwide with his own group in 1981. The following year he toured with Dizzy Gillespie, who became his friend and mentor. From 1982 to 1984, Sandoval was voted as Cuba's Best Instrumentalist and was a guest artist at the BBC and Leningrad Symphony Orchestras. In 1989, Gillespie invited Sandoval to be part of the United Nations Orchestra. During a tour with this group, Sandoval visited the American Embassy in Rome to defect from Cuba. He became an American citizen on December 7, 1998.
Sandoval's song "A Mis Abuelos" (To My Grandparents) received Grammy Award nominations for Best Instrumental Composition and Best Arrangement. This composition was featured on his Grammy-winning album, Danzon. Other highlights from Sandoval's discography featuring his compositions include Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You) (2012), Live at the Blue Note (2005), Rumba Palace (Grammy 2007), and Hot House (Grammy 1998).
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Sandoval in the East Room of the White House, celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, October 12, 2001
When HBO Films developed a film based on Sandoval's life, he was asked to score the movie, which earned him his first Emmy award. In 1996, Sandoval was commissioned by the Kennedy Center Ballet to score Pepito's Story, a ballet based on the book by Eugene Fern and choreographed by Debbie Allen. Sandoval also composed a classical trumpet concerto that he performed and recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Sandoval's compositions and performances can be heard in The Mambo Kings, which was nominated for a Grammy in 1992 for Best Instrumental Composition written for a Motion Picture or for Television.
A 2017 television commercial for the Apple iPhone 7 called "Dive" features Sandoval's "La Virgen de la Macarena".
Arturo Sandoval has acted in For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story. He has composed music for the films The Mule, Richard Jewell, A Middleton, The Perez Family, 1000 to 1, For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story, and Underdog Kids.
In 2015, Arturo Sandoval joined the 14th annual Independent Music Awards judging panel to assist independent musicians' careers. He was also a judge for the 10th, 12th and 13th Independent Music Awards.