Friday, August 5, 2016

Rafael Mendez: Passion, Variety, Technical Skill

Rafael Mendez was my first musical hero. I don’t know when I first learned about him, probably when I was 11, maybe 12. In the next half dozen years or so I bought eight or nine of his albums and the sheet music for perhaps 40 of his trumpet solos. Over the years I’ve spent hours and hours working out on those solos. Many of them I can play quite well. And many of them are just beyond my technical reach, though I can hack my way through them. If I devoted a year or so to working up my technique, mostly double and triple tonguing, I might be able to play them all. But that’s not likely to happen.

As his name suggests, Mendez was from Mexico. When he was 11 he spent half a year as cornetist for Pancho Villa. He later immigrated to the United States where he ended up playing in the Hollywood studios. When he wasn’t playing in the studios he would tour the country giving concerts and clinics. He was billed as “The Heifetz of the Trumpet,” and he was. This video gives you a short rundown of his history:

The soundtrack music is one of Mendez’s own compositions, the “Tre-Mendez Polka,” performed with his two sons, hence “Tre-Mendez.”

Here’s Mendez’s performance of Brahms’s “Hungarian Dance No. 5.”

This performance has it all, passion, variety, and technical skill. Without the passion nothing else much matters. Mendez obviously loved music and loved to perform.

The variety is there in the music itself and what Mendez did with it. It was composed by a 19th century German, Johannes Brahms, and it was based on a csárdás by the Hungarian composer Béla Kéler. The csárdás,  in turn, is a Romani (aka Gypsy) dance. So far we’ve got German, Hungarian/Romani, and Mexican American, Mendez himself. At about 1:54 it becomes all American. Brahms never heard or played anything like that, nor did  the 19th century Hungarian Romani. That’s 20th century American swing, marked “Tempo di blues” in the sheet music, whatever the heck that is. It lasts until about 2:26, at which point we return to the 19th century for a few seconds (except for the brass figures in the accompaniment) and then, at 2:44, back to tempo di blues until 2:56, when we return to those 19th century fiddle parts.
And Mendez! His tone is clean and pure. It glows in the bottom register, which is difficult to do, and sparkles up high. The technical stuff is crisp and light; the blues licks are fluid and supple. They aren’t quite idiomatic jazz, Mendez wasn’t a jazz man, but they’re wonderful in this context.

All in four minutes. It set my middle school imagination on fire. My heart soared. Oh to play like that!

Here’s a Mendez original, “Samba Gitana.” The samba, of course, is Brazilian, with heavy West African influence in the rhythm.


 Listen to the accompaniment; you’ll hear figures that could have been heard in any number of the Latin bands playing swanky nightclubs.

The overall form is one Mendez used often. It opens with a cadenza in free time. There’s a quick run to a high note to get your attention, and then some technical flash to drop your jaw down around your ankles. As Mendez holds his last note a series of harp arpeggios leads us into the first section, which is slow and lyrical. What Mendez plays on the recording is a bit different from what’s in the sheet music; I listened and figured out what he played. Then we have the samba section to close. It’s wicked quick; Mendez plays it with ease. If you listen closely you’ll realize that the samba melody has pretty much the same line as the lyrical section, but much faster.

So, three-part form: opening cadenza, lyrical section, up-tempo close. When I first heard this tune I figured I would be able to play it in two years. Dream on.

Now we have a popular ballad, “Laura,” theme song from a movie of the same name:

This is pretty much a straight ballad performance, with relatively little technical flash. It all depends on Mendez’s tone and delivery.

Finally, another lyrical performance, “Musetta’s Waltz” from Puccini’s La Boheme:

This performance, too, mostly depends on Mendez’s tone, fluidity and passion. But also his breath control, though you wouldn't notice unless you listen with trumpet player's lungs. Those long slurred phrases are difficult to pull of smoothly. You’ll notice swing inflections in the accompaniment and in much of Mendez’s phrasing.

That’s pretty much the range of material in Mendez’s repertoire: light classic instrumentals, original compositions (many of them in a Hispanic idiom), popular ballads, and operatic arias. It’s a range that was typical of the brass bands that became popular in the middle and late 19th century and continued well into the 20th century. And it’s the range of music that showed up on the soundtracks of Hollywood movies.

So my musical education through Mendez was pretty broad and various. And it fed directly into my growing interest in jazz, not so much through the swing-inflected arrangements on many of the tunes, but through the strong Hispanic repertoire. Jazz has always been partial to what Jelly Roll Morton called that “Spanish tinge.” When I went looking for records that seemed likely to exhibit a Spanish tinge I found Si Si MF, big band jazz (MF=Maynard Ferguson) and Miles Ahead, with “Maids of Cadiz,” “Blues for Pablo,” and “New Rhumba.” But that’s another story.



  1. Nice Bill!, I remember Rafael well, was knocked out by the chops, always thought of him as the Mexican Harry James. Gitana as in Samba Gitana, another word for "Gypsy" and I wonder how deep is roots are and where they are in terms of flamenco and other "gitana" specialties.

  2. Yes on the Mexican Harry James. And he played songs that James did, e.g. “Sleepy Lagoon.” “Stranger in Paradise” (derived from Borodin & Mendez did a Borodin medley), and “Hora Staccato.” For that matter, a lot of what he did was on the James pattern. If you listen, for example, to James’ “Concerto for Trumpet.” It opens with a cadenza and then goes into up-tempo virtuosos alternating with throbbing ‘jungle drum’ stuff. It’s the same kind of 3-minute variety tour that Mendez did.

    And yes to Gitana = Gypsy. To be sure I looked it up and it seems that “Gitana” is specifically female.

    As for his roots, I wonder what he played in his father’s band and what he played for Pancho Villa. He has a wicked set of variations on “Mexican Hat Dance.” He also did a number of polkas, which gives us that German-Mex thing. & he did a number of Spanish tunes that seem more flamenco than East European. He also recorded an album with Laurindo Almeida.

    When he got older asthma took away his lungpower and he ended up playing third trumpet in community bands. And I’m sure he did it very well.

    1. I guess what struck me listening to this stuff today and last night was simply the variety of music sources that passed through Mendez. I didn’t think much about it when I was growing because, what did I know? It was just there. But now, the fact that it really WAS just there, for anyone, that’s worth thinking about. That’s what music does.