Arturo Sandoval, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, on jazz helping him escape from Cuba


(CBS News) Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy created the Presidential Medal of Freedom. On Wednesday, 16 people will earn the nation's highest civilian honor at the White House, among them former President Bill Clinton, country singer Loretta Lynn, the late civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin, feminist Gloria Steinem and Oprah Winfrey.

Another recipient is jazz trumpeter, pianist and composer Arturo Sandoval. He's won nine Grammys. The artist told CBS News' Bill Whitaker that he started playing music in 1961 and "never stopped."

His Afro-Cuban infused jazz has won him fame, fans and shelves full of awards, but none, he said, greater than the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

"What I like the most is the last part of the medal - freedom," he said, "because I always say that 'no freedom, no life.'"

For Sandoval, music is freedom. He was born dirt poor in Cuba and grew up under the communist regime of Fidel Castro.

A trumpet, a gift from his aunt, changed his world. After studying classical music at Cuba's prestigious National School of Art, a chance encounter with a journalist would change his whole concept of music.

"That guy came to me and say, 'You ever hear any jazz?' I say, 'What's that?'" he said.

The man played a record of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Sandoval told Whitaker that he "went crazy." He said there was "zero" jazz on the island of Cuba at the time because they called jazz the "music of the imperialists."

Sandoval listened to jazz clandestinely, on a radio station broadcast by the U.S. government. He said music changed his life, but it was a musician actually. Gillespie visited Havana for the first time in 1977, and Sandoval finagled his way into being his idol's driver. When Sandoval showed up at Gillespie's performance with his trumpet, the jazz legend was blown away. As he told "CBS Sunday Morning" in 1993, his driver could play.

"This guy, he got bull chops," said Gillespie.

Sandoval didn't speak English; Gillespie didn't speak Spanish. They shared the language of music.

"I always believed that was a kind of a gift from God," said Sandoval.

A relationship that started as teacher and student became like father and son. Gillespie recognized Sandoval's talent and so did the communist government of Cuba. It allowed him to travel with Gillespie as a sort of goodwill ambassador.

Sandoval had been traveling the world for more than a decade, always looking for a chance to escape Castro's Cuba with his family. He finally got it while playing with Gillespie in Europe in 1990.

"I was on tour with him when the Cuban government make a mistake and gave my wife and son - younger son - a special permission to go to Europe," said Sandoval. "That was the opportunity I was looking for."

He was in Italy; his wife and son had gotten to London, but Cuban agents were coming to take them back.

"I went to Dizzy Gillespie's room at 1:30 in the morning. He was sleeping," said Sandoval. "I said, 'Dizzy, I have to move now,' and Dizzy said, 'Get my wallet there. I got a card there. I'm going to call the White House.'"

With the help of then-Vice President Dan Quayle, Sandoval and his family were spirited away to New York.

Eight years after that harrowing escape, Sandoval was granted U.S. citizenship, yet Gillespie didn't live to see the dream he'd helped come true.

Sandoval told Whitaker that America is "much better" than what he had hoped and imagined.

At 64 years old, his tempo hasn't slowed. He and his family live in Los Angeles, where he makes music all the time.