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Brass Roots

In a drafty, bare-bones band room around the corner from the Luckman Performing Arts Complex on the Cal State L.A. campus, the 25 members of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts Big Band Ensemble are tuned and ready. Their director, Bobby Rodriguez, has a reputation as a hotshot trumpeter and bandleader. He‘s a product of East L.A. and an ambitious self-starter whose current CD, LatinJazz Explosion, issued on his own label, was nominated this year for a Grammy in the Best Latin Jazz Performance category.

The band has its own reputation as well. Two years ago it won the Monterey Jazz Festival’s nationwide high school competition and appeared onstage with the big-name acts as part of the Monterey gathering that September.

Rodriguez begins drilling the brass through a new tune‘s difficult chord progression, nagging one young saxophonist into following the changes correctly, asking a trumpeter to put more of himself into the sound. He gives encouragement to the drummer. ”Do something there!“ he commands. ”Sometimes what isn’t written is as important as something that is.“

Rodriguez instructs in the classic pattern of error, humiliation and achievement familiar to anyone who‘s played in the school band. He’ll tell you that his methods come from the local mentors to whom he credits his education. His story can be heard on LatinJazz Explosion when he sings ”East L.A. Blues,“ a memoir that takes him back to the family home on Hubbard Street where he was raised by a single mother. The tune‘s message is the same one Rodriguez delivers in the classroom: ”If Bobby Rodriguez of East L.A. can make it, so can you.“

Rodriguez didn’t come from a musical clan. ”I was about 8 when I started wanting to play, but the family didn‘t take me seriously,“ he says. ”Their attitude was, ’We don‘t have the money to waste on this.’“

He was nearing the sixth grade when he made it into the band class at Our Lady of Lourdes School. There, he came under the tutelage of trumpeter Bill Taggert, to whom Rodriguez was attached through his high school days at Bishop Mora Salesian. ”Taggert came from Texas and was a fine, classically oriented trumpet player. Nowadays I think about what he told me as a kid taking it to the next level and what I tell kids today. He always told us we could do anything if we got an education.“

Not all of Rodriguez‘s education came in the classroom. He dropped out of the music program at Cal State Long Beach in 1976 to go on the road with Quincy Jones’ big band. This led to a stint with the Quincy-produced funk band the Brothers Johnson, with whom Rodriguez recorded gold and platinum albums. In the early ‘80s he proceeded to studio work with Lalo Schifrin and spent six months touring the U.S. and Europe with Ray Charles. To make ends meet, he did cruise-ship work.

In 1986, percussionist Paolo Nonnis enlisted Rodriguez for his Jazz Adventure ensemble and program, which took jazz to the city’s schools, and since then he‘s plunged headlong into jazz and music education. He was a participant in Buddy Collette’s Jazz America program and continues as trumpet coach for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, West Coast. In past years he‘s taken the HMA SalsaJazz Orchestra, which he’s directed since 1989, into classrooms. In addition to his classes at the County High School for the Arts, he conducts bands at Pasadena City College and continues to lead a group for Jazz Adventure, which visits eight to 12 schools a month.

”This is about something more than money,“ he says. ”Kids need this badly. They have no idea about jazz, nothing to relate it to. After they‘ve seen [saxophonist] Ray Pizzi and [pianist] Karen Hammack and myself perform, it becomes cool to love this music.“

LatinJazz Explosion, the second album Rodriguez and his wife, Yvonne De Bourbon-- Rodriguez, have put out on their own Latin Jazz Productions label, is a blend of salsa, reggae and blues geared for commercial acceptance with its cha-cha version of Joe Zawinul’s ”Birdland“ and the feel-good anthem ”Follow Your Dreams.“ The label‘s first release, Bobby Rodriguez Plays Duke Ellington, came in 1996. ”Having creative control is very important to me,“ Rodriguez says of his label. ”The industry thinks of Latin jazz as coming from a very traditional Cuban style, with a little improv. But I come from a different way.“

Back in the band room, Rodriguez has called for Dizzy Gillespie’s ”Manteca,“ an easier number that the ensemble has down pat. The baritone huffs a burly riff. The trumpets are bright and assertive on the theme. The drummer is mixing it up. Other students wander in through the wide-open double doors and begin to cheer the soloists. Rodriguez drops his conducting hand and, smiling, lets them play.


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