Bobby Rodriguez: The Best Version of Himself

The trumpet riff at the beginning of Gerald Wilson’s “Before Motown” is a triumphant and blast, possessed of what Jelly Roll Morton called “the Spanish tinge.” It is delivered in its elegant audacity by Bobby Rodriguez, the Grammy-nominated musician, composer, and educator known to his fans, students, and colleagues as “Dr. Bobby.”

Drawing from his Mexican American roots in East Los Angeles, Rodriguez composed the score for the musical, “Paquito’s Christmas,” working with the show’s lyricist Luis Avalos. The musical, which is set in multicultural Los Angeles, has been presented in cities across the country since 1994.

Bobby Rodriguez – known to his fans, colleagues, and students as “Dr. Bobby,” honors his Mexican American roots by creating “jazz with a Latin feel.” Photo by Bob Barry Jazzography

A professor of music at the University of California, Irvine and at the University of Redlands, Rodriguez brings consummate musicianship and professional expertise to his students, as well as his flair for adding that sabor to jazz. During his 18-year career at UCLA, Rodriguez created the Latin Jazz Big Band in 2000 with strong support from Kenny Burrell, legendary guitarist and a Distinguished Professor and founding director of Jazz Studies at UCLA. Rodriguez, who taught at UCLA until earlier this year, also co-directed Burrell’s Los Angeles Jazz Unlimited Orchestra.

Rodriguez is currently working on a new recording of his music and is writing a book on the “ABCs of Jazz Improvisation.” He performs regularly throughout Los Angeles and on September 27, 2018, will be a featured soloist with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra at Catalina’s Bar and Grill in Hollywood. Rodriguez, who works to motivate the youth of Los Angeles in their pursuit of music education, is also a sought-after clinician and soloist at numerous high schools.

How does your heritage as a Latino from Los Angeles inspire your music?

My music has always been jazz with a Latin feel. There’s always been an East Coast/West Coast rivalry. The music is different, first of all, because of the warmth of Southern California, and certainly because of the environment of Los Angeles.

For example, salsa music that’s written in New York has a strong [influence] from the Cuban tradition. Here on this coast, I think we’re much more able to free ourselves from the confinement of the clave– a two-bar rhythmic concept (snaps fingers) that comes from the New Orleans tradition – dukka-dukka-dukka-du-du-du. That element is built into the Cuban soul. Cuban music [is] music based on clave. We can alter it here on the West Coast; we’re not as strict about it, and I think that’s an advantage.

For example, salsa music that’s written in New York has an extremely strong [influence] from the Cuban tradition. Here on the West Coast, I think we’re much more able to free ourselves from the confinement of the clave– a two-bar rhythmic concept (snaps fingers) that comes from the New Orleans tradition – dukka-dukka-dukka-du-du. That element is built into the Cuban soul. Cuban music [is] built with clave. We can alter it here on the West Coast; we’re not as strict about it, and I think that’s an advantage.

Jazz is a hard sell because it’s very intellectual music and there usually no dancing. That’s basically why I’ve made my music “LatinJazz,” so it would be more attractive to a larger audience.

Gerald Wilson’s compositions embody that California warmth…

Gerald is one of my heroes. Of course, he wrote straight jazz charts for many years. But when it came to playing his own stuff, his wife, Josefina, a Mexican American woman from Los Angeles, also had a big influence on him. She took him down to Tijuana and they experienced a bullfight, and when he saw that bullfight, his whole world changed.

Gerald used more harmonic information, not so much rhythmic information. His flat-9 chords, which of course, is what he’s famous for, give his music an immediate and absolute Spanish feeling. For example, his “Carlos” is magnificent.

How have you been able to further Latin jazz – or jazz with a Latin feel – in Los Angeles?

We – Eddie Cano, Lionel “Chico” Sesma, Paul Lopez, Tony Garcia, Mike Pacheco, Johnny Martinez, Rudy Macias, me and many more – started this organization called the Hispanic Musicians Association in 1986. This organization afforded me the opportunity to form a Latin Jazz big band in L.A. Some of the music we created then, I’m still using with my students today. I haven’t heard some of the songs in 30 years and when I hear the kids play them, it amazes me because they still sound good and are still high-quality. In my music I use the songs as vehicles for improvisation. Good and correct music lives for a long time.

The actor Luis Avalos wrote the book for “Paquito’s Christmas.” We had met through Elizabeth Peña when we both worked on the project ,“Celebrando la Differencia” in 1989. He liked what I had done with the music and contacted me and said, “I have an idea for a play.” It had a beautiful Christmas theme, [with] the story of this boy, Paquito, who goes away and finds all these strange and funny things and eventually gets back into his own bed where he is safe and secure.

I introduced Luis to the head of the LA Cultural Affairs at the time, and I introduced him to the idea of getting sponsors to finance school age students to come and see the play for free, with sponsorship by a company, a corporation, LAUSD, or L.A. Cultural Affairs.

What did you think of the depiction of jazz musicians in L.A. in “La La Land”?

I’ve actually lived that experience. People have come to me and tried to [lure] me with different enticements [to fame] and I’ve never taken to that path. I always felt that I just wanted to be true to what I have inside me. If it takes me to the top, great. If it takes me four steps up, that’s okay too. As I’ve always said, “If it’s honest, it’s real and that’s what I am.”

Have you done much studio work for film or television?

Not on a regular basis. Some of my music has been picked up by independent music supervisors and has been placed in different movies for ambience and background. I’m still looking for that major hit. But if 22 seconds of my music is used, yes, there is a payment.

 Do you get writer’s credit for this music?

I think you have to have a minute or some perimeter of how much time is used, or if it’s a featured theme. But if it’s background, they pay you by the second. It just depends on if a music supervisor says, “I want a fill right there.” And off it goes. Sometimes the temp music becomes the [actual] music because the director enjoys it so much.

Dr. Bobby visited Los Angeles schools this February, leading one of three bands that performed for students during Black History Month. Courtesy of Bobby Rodriguez

What got you started on the trumpet?

I wanted to play since I was eight years old. I saw a trumpet player on TV, I think it was Harry James and I fell in love with the whole thing – his sound, the image, the beauty of the notes. But my mother was newly divorced at that time so money was very tight, we didn’t have extra. She thought it was just a passing fancy of mine and that she would pay and lose out on the money and I would go and do something else.

Well, I wore her down, I would not give up. I kept asking to play and two years later I finally got her to let me try. It was ten dollars a month: five dollars for rental of a trumpet and five dollars for the music lessons. And as soon as I tried, it was magic, and I loved it. I started out [while] at Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary School, on 3rdand Rowland. Then I went to Salesian High School, a Catholic boys’ school. I worked hard at it and practiced a lot.

What made you decide this was what you wanted for a career?

As soon as I got to high school, I was standing on the corner [one day], and a guy came up to me and offered me a job playing music with his band he was managing. He was a senior and I was a freshman. But already, I was advanced. There were no jazz bands at that point, just concert band work. I also played in pop and rock and roll bands and then I realized I could make money. I never thought about making money [before]. “You want to play in this band?” I said, “Okay.” “Here’s ten dollars.” “Wow – ten bucks – great!” And I’ve never looked back.

I was student body president at my high school and I kept playing. At that time, KBCA had a jazz station here in Los Angeles and I got a job as a broadcaster. I did that for a year, then I got drafted. I went away to the service for three years. I played my trumpet at Ft. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, and Fulda, Germany for two years. This was right at the height of Vietnam, 1969 to 1972. I thought I was going to Vietnam and I’m so happy I didn’t – the gods were with me on that. I did not enjoy the service but do think now that it’s in my past, it’s a good growing-up place. It does teach you discipline and awareness of other things, other than just yourself.

Coming back, my one dream was to make a record. In 1973, I came back and immediately went into production to make my first record, which I did. It was called, “Simply Macramé.” The cover of it shows a macramé [piece], because I was in love with a girl who made macramé, and it was fascinating to me. I was just contacted three months ago by someone in England, who has just re-released that record on vinyl. I haven’t heard it in 40 years. He sent me a copy of it and I was stunned to hear myself as a 24-year-old, it was amazing.

It’s amazing how things work. Looking back now, it’s pretty understandable. But when you’re in the middle of it, crawling forward, there’s a lot of unknowns and sheer belief in your life moving forward. Being the greatest in your neighborhood is certainly not the way to keep a career going. I now know that you have to be schooled so you can understand how a musician works after the pop years, which of course are your 20s. I went through [those years] with Quincy Jones and the Brothers Johnson school of pop and then finished that at 30, being married and having my first child. It’s a reality check and you wonder how you’re going to pay for this new [life].

I realized my abilities were not as good as I assumed they were to compete on a world scale. So, I started taking lessons and it helped a lot. I went back to school at 33 and finished my bachelor’s degree because when I got out of the service I went to school though the G.I. Bill but never finished. I got my doctorate in music performance in 2006 from UCLA. I did it partially because of the respect I have for jazz music. There aren’t a lot of Doctors of Music who can really play. Well, I wanted to be that extraordinary one, the different one who can play, who can teach, and who has the paperwork – the big three, so to speak.

You are working on multiple writing projects, including your own autobiographical children’s book, “An East L. A. Story,” and a book on jazz improvisation. What is the importance of chronicling the history of jazz, particularly from a musician’s viewpoint?

Being part of the industry, I know some of the heights, the lows, the downfalls, and the creative spurts. I understand the practice routine, the dedication, the commitment, and the luck of having a body that will allow you to progress forward over ten, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years. These are the types of things a writer outside of the industry wouldn’t really touch upon because it’s “just the facts, ma’am, just the facts”: he was born, he played, he recorded. But there is so much more. We don’t play music for money, we play music for love. Then we must figure out how to make money with it.

There’s a lot of personal and emotional information on why artists do what they do. It’s taken me a long time to understand the value of history because now I’m part of it.

I happen to know LaRue Brown [Watson], Clifford Brown’s widow, and I knew her at a time when I wasn’t asking about Clifford Brown. I met Freddie Hubbard about a year before he passed and became very good friends with his wife Brigitte. And then a year later, she died too.

Ndugu Chancler was my very good friend. He played drums on “Simply Macramé.” He died this year in 2018. And there are other friends who will go and with them will go the stories and history of jazz. It’s Hollywood, but it’s also an amazingly artsy town [with] a lot of people who want to express themselves.

How is jazz education unique from teaching about other types of music?

First of all, jazz education is important. There’s a lot of individualism involved. A lot of other music is very programmed. You’ve got to play it how Beethoven said to play it, or Mozart, or whoever. Jazz is very individual. There are rules, of course, that guide the basic sensibilities of jazz. But jazz musicians have a lot of freedom within those rules [in order] to bend them or break them. If you understand the larger picture of how jazz is to be presented, which is of course, honestly, personally, and respectfully, with the sensibilities of jazz as the core [with] the basics of the instrument – intonation, time, rhythm, knowledge, all those things. Then, your individuality can shine through.

Jazz is a very beautiful music. Many people say it can only have started in America, because of the freedoms we have here to express ourselves. And I certainly agree with that. I will forever be grateful for what jazz has allowed me to become. Jazz is freedom; jazz is America.

As an educator, what do you learn from your students?

To listen to [them]. That they are me, 40 or 50 years removed. I’m 67. I never imagined that number would be attached to me. I didn’t think it was a negative, I just never thought of it.

I see myself in them. They’re wisecracking, they’re wanting to be one of the guys of stature. They don’t know how to do it. They’re far too aggressive and they’re not talented enough – yet.

First, I try and make them understand that listening is where they must start, dedicated is what they must be, and determination is what they must forever have. I learn from my students that they are me, 40 or 50 years removed. I’m 67 and I never imagined that number would be attached to me. I didn’t think it was a negative, I just never thought of it. I see myself in them. They’re wisecracking, they’re wanting to be one of the guys of stature. They don’t know how to do it. They’re far too aggressive and they’re not talented enough – yet.

It makes me see how much I should have learned at an earlier age. I needed mentors; I was lucky to have some later. Bill Taggert was my first bandleader; Paul Lopez was my salsa guru. Don Ferrara, my first real trumpet teacher, and then the man who saved my career – Uan Rasey. These people are great individuals who were really helpful to me. Uan gave me not only great trumpet advice, but also personal advice. He said to me, you’ve got the goods now you have to use them correctly. And when someone on the outside can affirm those hidden feelings … he said all you have to do is put the pieces together. And that’s what I’m still trying to do.

I’m very lucky to be living right here right now with an ability to help myself and to help others. I’m not an inventor or re-inventor of the greatest thing in the world. But nobody can be a better me than me. That’s what motivates me to keep practicing and keep trying to get just a little bit better every day. That’s what I tell my students all the time: don’t compete with me … compete with yourself. Because no one can be a better you than you.


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