by T.C. Coffer
Musicians usually become intrigued with some aspect of music at an early age. They engage with an instrument, make a commitment at some point, and, to one degree or another, they pursue it; they choose music. Not so Dr. Bobby Rodriguez. Music chose him. He’s spent virtually his entire life playing the trumpet, writing and arranging, leading bands and educating. Through a career of almost 60 years he’s become one of the great standard-bearers for jazz and Latin music in Los Angeles.
Appropriately, the California Jazz Foundation is honoring him at the annual Give the Band a Hand Gala fundraiser on Saturday, April 14, at the Los Angeles Hotel Downtown.
Rodriguez will receive the CJF’s Nica award—named for the jazz-minded philanthropist Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. He joins an exclusive roster of past CJF awardees: Catalina’s proprietor Catalina Popescu, Jazz Bakery CEO Ruth Price, songwriter Mike Stoller and pianist/harpist Corky Hale, bassist//bandleader John Clayton, and guitarist and UCLA Jazz Department founder Kenny Burrell.
Those who have attended the Gala in its short but potent history wait expectantly for the annual event. It’s one of the most significant yearly jazz evenings in Southern California: an awards show with a sumptuous dinner, an anticipated live auction and silent auction of valuable jazz-related artifacts and equipment. The Gala routinely draws a large array of jazz personalities and, of course, jazz by some of the very best musicians to be heard in SoCal.
Like most of his Nica predecessors, Dr. Bobby sprang from humble origins; in his case East L.A. Ask him the source of his music passion and he’s not entirely sure. “I don’t know,” he shrugs, from his Yucaipa home. “No one in my family was musical.” But one night as a boy, he was captivated by a trumpeter on television—probably Harry James--whom Dr. Bobby saw as more than just a practitioner. “I loved his sound,” Rodriguez reverentially recalls, “his command, how he spoke musically and personally. He was just a beautiful representation of a professional trumpet player.”
“My parents were hard-working people,” Rodriguez stresses, “and there wasn’t a lot of money for anything but the necessities.” It took two years of persistence before his mother relented and got him a trumpet. At Our Lady of Lourdes Grammar School, Bobby encountered his first trumpet model—fellow student and future El Chicano member Bobby Loya. “He was only a year older,” Rodriguez recalls fondly, “but even back then Bobby had everything: a beautiful sound, range, good control and execution. He still does.”
Rodriguez had a need beyond the trumpet to express himself. “I always came up with my own little tunes and, later, arrangements. But my family didn’t have a lot of extras. I wanted a better life, and to try to help other people. I saw music as a way to help me achieve that.”
Dr. Bobby Rodriguez is the 2018 honoree of the California jazz Foundation’s annual Nica award, and helping others--namely working California jazz musicians--is the CJF mission. It provides financial help and counseling, material support, and an array of medical professionals that operate on a sliding scale basis. For the past twelve years, the CJF, a charitable 501 (C) 3 non-profit, has given money and aid to well over 200 deserving musicians in need.
The Nica award recognizes its recipients and their link to the Jazz Baroness. Pannonica de Koenigswarter (for whom Thelonious Monk titled his touching “Pannonica” composition) was a Rothschild, and she became a quiet benefactor and facilitator to New York jazz musicians, beginning in the early 1950s. Her ‘Weehawken mad pad,” as Art Blakey dubbed it, was a New Jersey refuge for resident Eastern Seaboard musicians and their visiting West Coast brethren. They could jam, grab a meal or a couch--and some money if needed. When Monk stepped out of a Bentley for his Five Spot gig in the Bowery, Nica was on the scene. The CJF honors her legacy as it honors its Nica awardees.
While Nica greased jazz’s wheels in New York, Dr. Bobby began a long apprenticeship, playing in countless East L.A. rock ‘n roll bands—at age 13. “There were teen dances every weekend,” he points out. “I started my first band in the seventh grade: Blue Rhythms. I always had bands—not because I wanted to be a bandleader—but because I didn’t want to wait around to be asked to play.”
“I was a trumpet player,” he continues, “but I could also arrange the tunes. I played for anyone who would call. There was scarcely a weekend I didn’t work and it was common to play two gigs a night.”
As a student at Bishop Mora Salesian High School, where he was Student Body President in the ‘67/’68 school year), the trumpet gave him direction. “Music saved my life,” Rodriguez concedes. “Without it I don’t know where I’d be today.”
He discovered jazz through the records of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard. Young Bobby became conversant enough with jazz that he found his way into a six-night-a-week show on KBCA, the all-jazz FM station. “I wanted to be on the radio,” he explains, “and I took a broadcasting course to enable me to do that. Then I got drafted,” he chuckles.
Though not in the Army Band, Rodriguez was attached to it as a bugler. “I played at all the funerals,” he notes, with a combination of solemnity and reverence. “’Taps’ is a common melody but I had to dig into my soul to give it the deserved respect.”
A civilian again in ‘73, Rodriguez’s fellow Cal State Long Beach student--trombonist Dan Barrett--turned him on to the music of Louis Armstrong, Clifford Brown and the traditional giants. “That’s when I understood why Louis was so great,” Dr. Bobby says. He also realized a tenet of his future teaching: “If we don’t inspire the students with the great work that came before us, that work won’t matter. It takes education and dedication.”
Rodriguez circulated in L.A. jazz circles and met some of the local giants. “I idolized Bobby Bryant,” he freely admits. “He swung harder than any lead trumpeter I ever heard. And Don Ellis ripped me to shreds on his ‘Concerto for Trumpet’!”
Another important influence was trumpeter/ bandleader Gerald Wilson, the CJF’s 2017 Heritage award honoree. “Gerald was top of the list,” Dr. Bobby reveals. “I’d heard him many times on the Local 47 trust fund gigs since I was 14. Then I met him at KBCA and began playing with him at the Ford Theatre.
“When I played with Gerald,” Rodriguez points out, “I realized that music doesn’t have to be difficult to swing.” A dynamic leader, Wilson’s conducting amounted to a stationary dance. “His music was easy to play and easy to swing. It’s all about the groove of the leader and the groove of the music.”
“For me,” Dr. Bobby continues, “Gerald always had the greatest trumpet soloists. So, when I was playing next to Oscar Brashear and Alex Rodriguez, I became part of that legacy and it was a great moment.” Wilson later tapped Rodriguez for his Detroit album (Mack Avenue ’10).
Though he cites Quincy Jones and others as compositional influences, Wilson’s patented eight-part harmony undoubtedly had an impact on Rodriguez’s harmonic stylings. And his Cal State Long Beach studies put Dr. Bobby in close contact with the great composer/arranger Tom Kubis.
A stint with the chart-topping Brothers Johnson band was an eye-opener for Rodriguez, on several counts. “That’s where I began to learn about the business of music,” he says. “I saw those guys buy houses and start families and the band never got a raise in four years.”
Though frustrated, the 30-year old trumpeter went back to school, eventually earning his doctorate. “I got my advanced degree because I’m insecure,” he discloses. “I didn’t want to walk into a room full of titled people and be introduced as Bobby Rodriguez, the jazz musician. I wanted to give jazz a trumpet player who was degreed.”
Don Ferrara, the Lennie Tristano acolyte, gave him rigorous lessons on the horn. “He filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge,” Bobby notes. Trumpet guru Uan Rasey was a very important teacher to Dr. Bobby. “He saved my career,” Rodriguez confesses, “and saved my chops. My brass warmup book (The ABC’s of Brass Warm-Up, ABC ’10) is loaded with Uan’s wisdom.”
With a Willie Bobo tenure under his belt, Dr. Bobby was one of the prime movers in the now-defunct Hispanic Musicians Association. “It came out of a frustration,” he clarifies, “of Latino musicians who couldn’t find work anywhere other than a few east L.A. clubs. We organized but I was the one who said we needed a band. Tony Garcia and I co-led it and we had arrangements from Johnny Martinez, Paul Lopez and Eddie Cano.”
“After Eddie died,” he explains, “I filled the void at the top. We played a lot of private parties and union events but eventually the HMA ran its course. At a certain point, I needed to focus on my own career. I developed the HMA music book and I keep the book. I draw from it for my UCLA and UC Irvine student big bands. Having those charts played by young people who weren’t born when the HMA was active is very emotional for me. The HMA legacy lives on in my big bands.”
He’s quick to credit his wife, singer and former dancer Yvonne de Bourbon, with keeping a high profile in the music community. “She’s smart, accomplished, and a great help to me in every way,” he states. “If I didn’t have her organizational skills to rely on, I might be out in front of a liquor store--waiting for the pay phone to ring.”
Rodriguez has taught for 25 years. Although he’s taken on a formidable teaching schedule—at U.C. Irvine, UCLA and for the Music Center on Tour program—he still puts in his time on the horn. “I practice an hour every day,” he notes with pride. “I have to. You have to be ready to deliver.” After relating how a certain Lincoln Center trumpeter tried to embarrass him years ago at a USC concert, Rodriguez says with gravity: “If you know me at all, you know that’s not going to happen!”
“I look at the music business pragmatically,” Bobby holds. “It’s a competition and you have to protect yourself at all times: financially, spiritually and musically. That’s what I try to teach my students. Yes, learn your instrument and the music, but learn how the business works too.”
“Jazz has been very, very good to me,” Rodriguez states, almost exultantly. “It’s allowed me to become a popular figure—someone who did the work, got the degree, and is able to walk it and talk it. I’ve become an elder statesman for L.A. jazz and I take that responsibility very seriously. I want to make sure I make a lasting mark, and a big part of that is helping students develop their abilities for this music. It’s been a good life, and I want to share that with other people.” In that he shares the CJF credo: Here to help. The yearly Gala is the public’s opportunity to help the CJF and, in turn, our most challenged jazz musicians.
Give the Band a Hand: Saturday, April 14, 6:00 P.M. at the L.A. Hotel Downtown, 333 S. Figueroa Street, Los Angeles
. Info: www.californiajazzfoundation.org
I was running a bit late so when arriving upstairs at Vitello’s showroom I was escorted to the last empty seat in the room. A full house was chatting and finishing their meals. The band settled on stage and leader/drummer Jason Lee Bruns introduced himself and gave a brief snapshot of his life… “I’m a music teacher… I’ve traveled to South America to learn more about the music there and to Africa to learn about their drumming.”
His students and their parents and friends filled Vitello’s showroom and they were more than ready for the show. There was a sense of joyful anticipation. The band consisted of: Daniel Szabo-piano, Luca Alemanno-upright bass, Angelo Metz-guitar, Jacques Voyemant-trombone, Ron Blake-trumpet, and Alex Hahn-saxophone. Brandon Fields was a special guest on tenor sax. This group of musicians gave a stunning performance all evening, one of the best I’ve ever heard. The audience whooped and applauded their appreciation after the first two “warm-up” tunes. Bruns pushes the band to excel with his terrific drumming. I knew this evening was going to be a blast of talent!
Vocalist Kevin Bachelder is totally confident with this group, as he began a superb version of “My Romance.” It was beautiful, poignant as Bruns shaded with brushes. The singer is totally comfortable with the musicians. The faster paced “Autumn Leaves” had a Latin feel and upped the energy for Bachelder, who scatted with ease and changed the tempo to faster, then slower, then back to a quick pace. The horns were in accord for a stirring version. The audience cheered Bachelder’s efforts.
Bruns began “Aguas de Beber” (“Waters of March” ) using a pandiero, a hand drum, enthralling the audience. Bachelder focused on the fast moving lyrics as Metz used his guitar to great effect. What a treat to hear Bachelder’s free style scatting, then he picked up his trumpet for a “gentle blast” as the song moved along. Bruns used a stick in one hand, tapping a bell, while his other hand tapped a drum. Impressions merged with Brazilian rhythms that were hypnotic. Alemanno came back in on his sturdy bass, as Metz and Hahn added fine solos awhile Bruns kept his steady pace. The tune was so fresh so gorgeous.
“Sing a Song of Song” was another wonderful tune and Szabo made magic at the piano. Hahn played his sax with great care, as though reaching for a new place. The energy was upped and the group reached a faster pace with a bit of dissonance. Bruns remains consistent throughout. A feisty sax solo from Hahn added more complexity for an avant garde feel. The crowd enjoyed whatever these musicians were creating on stage. They were cheering and applauding all night.
An original tune by Bruns was “Waltz for Desmond,” which began gently with a stirring piano solo from Szabo, followed by Blake’s bright trumpet solo. All evening, Bruns’ team was with him, capturing what he wanted for each tune. They were outstanding!
Bachelder returned to the stage to sing the classic “Send in the Clowns” which began with a jaunty feel. Bachelder’s voice is a little different. His rendition was short but compelling with strong solos from Blake and Metz. They all created a new version of the tune, with very creative dissonance that I’ve never heard before and want to hear again. Szabo created a lovely piano intro for Bachelder’s version of “I Fall in Love Too Easily.” He sang the lyrics quietly, deliberately as Bruns used brushes to back the singer. Bachelder or Blake played the trumpet, reminding me so much of the late Chet Baker‘s better nights in a jazz club.. It was drums, piano and bass--the basic trio format and it was simply beautiful. There were a lot of young people in the audience and they applauded, whooped and were mesmerized by the music
The Beatle’s tune “Dear Prudence” was an ode to that group. In no time the group on stage was perfectly cohesive. It sounded like a Beatle’s tune done Jason Lee Bruns style, sure enough. “It Didn’t Work Out That Way” was a fine tearjerker, a lament familiar to many. Bachelder’s composition “Title Track” featured Brandon’s Field’s sax was a barn-burner with plenty of sass from the group. Bachelder’s voice became very “Southern” in phrasing. Nice. Field’s tenor saxophone was so fierce. The tune had a great danceable beat. The audience was cheering and applauding like crazy! The singer and saxophone were battling to get to the end of the road, to cheers from the full house. I thought that barn burner was the end of the set but no, there was a little more to savor.
Bachelder sang with so much passion on “Ain’t No Sunshine,” by Bill Withers. Some in the audience sang along in spots. It was quite a brilliant version, straight forward, with a fine trombone solo from Voyemant. The blues reigned for Bobby Troup’s classic “Route 66.” Bachelder was standing strong as Fields played like a tornado coming through the room. His solo was like a blast of dynamite on his rockin’ solo. It was a bit of high drama to end a very exciting night. The room erupted in applause and cheers. What a great night, for the band to bring such an exciting group to Vitello’s! They worked hard but made it look real easy.
Later I thought about the effect that this evening had on the younger audience. It was a great evening they enjoyed in a jazz venue. That will stay with them for a long time, hopefully a lifetime. Jazz is good, jazz is great!
L.A.JAZZ SCENE: Tell me about your family; any musicians in your family? Where did you grow up? Did you get any music instruction at your schools? What inspired you to want to be a musician, as a profession?
JASON LEE BRUNS : I am the only musician in my family though, my late grandfather did play the chromatic harmonica for church, which I got to inherit and it sits in a special place in my home for inspiration. My parents also were big music fans of 70’s classic rock, which influenced me to want to play drums (the drumming parts were epic for that genre!). I grew up in Ohio in a small town near Dayton (birthplace of the Wright Brothers). I bought my first drum set with money I earned from the local news paper ironically called the Vandalia Drummer News. You had to be 12 to be a paperboy and since I was only 11 I lied about my age to get the job and took a double route to earn twice the money so I could buy the drums sooner. During High School I was in the marching band (which is huge in the mid-west) under the direction of Don Donnett whose principal instrument was drum set. So I was lucky to have him as my band director be because his was very good at drum, which inspired me. To supplement the music program that my high school offered I won auditions into the regional youth jazz band Miami Valley Jazz Labs (directed Hal Melia) and the Dayton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. Then when I was about 14 y/o I heard the Roy Haynes trio perform at the Dayton Art Institute (an art museum) and was hooked on jazz ever since. I ended up whining “1’s” (superior ratings) at the OMEA (Ohio Music Educators Association) regional “Solo & Ensemble” competitions for Mallet , Timpani, and Snare solos my senior year of High School. This was a precursor to winning a full-tuition music scholarship to Miami University (OH).
During undergrad at Miami University I was in their Marching Band (Dave Shaffer), Wind Ensemble (Gary Speck), Percussion Ensemble (Bill Albin), World Music Ensemble (Bill Albin), Steel Band (Chris Tanner), and Jazz Big Band (James Olcott). My senior year of college I was elected “President” of the school's 1 O’Clock (top) Jazz Big Band. I was also up runner-up / 2nd place in the school’s “Undergraduate Artist Competition” for performing 30-minutes of memorized classical percussion literature on 4-mallet marimba. During college I played in a poplar ska band “Jack Friday” (we played all collage clubs and frat parties of our little college town), had a weekly Tuesday night gig at a bar with older local jazz musicians, and weekly Sunday night gig at another bar with older local blues musicians, and was also a sub for two local part-time orchestra’s.
Then one day during the last few months of my senior year of college my housemate was playing the track “Cotton Tail” from Herbie Hancock’s 1998 album Gershwin's World. The drumming I heard on that track moved me like nothing I had ever heard before. Hence my introduction to the great drummer Terri Lyne Carrington who happened to teach at USC at the time. So that’s why I auditioned for the Master’s program at USC - to study with her!
Luckily I got accepted as they only let in one new grad drummer per year for the Jazz Studies program (at least at that time when Shelly Berg was chair of the department). Then during my last fews months at USC my other teacher there, Peter Erskine, referred me and two other graduate students to a drum teacher opening at Campbell Hall (a private k-12 school in Studio City). Luckily I won that job so I never had to move back to Ohio and have been teaching there ever since. During my tenure there I founded two steel drum bands, a West African Djembe ensemble, a Brazilian Batucada, a folkloric Cuban drumming group, and three levels of Recording Arts & Production. I never really planned to go into music per say, it’s just I loved music and worked hard at it so I just kept following the opportunities that this combination hard work and passion led me towards.
L.A.JAZZ SCENE: As a teacher of music, what keeps you grounded, able to work with and inspire young people to get excited about music? Jazz is not readily accepted by a lot of people. If it was we might have a lot more clubs here in L.A. I know that running a club, or even restaurant is hard work, but if L.A. is considered a “major city” why has the jazz scene dried up so much? Or is jazz not taught enough or promoted as much in the music instruction field?
BRUNS : Being able to teach topics I am interested in (Brazilian Drumming, African Drumming, Cuba Drumming, Recording Arts) motivates me to be excited about the music, which that naturally inspires the students since their teacher is inspired too! It is also grounding to have this “day job” as a teacher as it enables me to be around music all day long and gives me the financial stability to take risks with my performance career that I would not take otherwise (e.g. booking a Friday night at Catalina Jazz Club, releasing 7 albums, etc…). Many well established musicians teach in addition to perform. I consider this two sides of the same coin and for me I couldn't imagine having a balanced life as a musician or teacher without one or the other. They are NOT mutually exclusive as far as I’m concerned and those who say “those who teach do, and those who can’t teach” don’t know a thing.
It is too bad that there are not more jazz clubs in L.A.. I think part of this is because too many of the bands that played these clubs didn’t draw a crowd to keep the club in business. You have to really promote and have your business chops together if you are going to play a club. Gone are the days when clubs have a built in audience. You have to bring your own people and build your own following. Don’t expect anything if you didn’t create it. One could also argue that jazz is a dying art form attributed to the influences of pop culture and the lack of jazz/music eduction in school’s.
Also, I think too many average consumers have a bad association with the word “jazz” in thinking that it is going to be cheesy/hokey/boring music (often times it is!). This is why I took the name “jazz” our of “Jason Lee Bruns Jazz Collective”. It is up to us jazz musicians to find a way to keep jazz alive and relevant like the groups “The Bad Plus” and Kamasi Washington have done. It’s just too easy to blame society and the club owner. It’s also disempowering to do that. Don’t be a victim, instead be an exception.
L.A.JAZZ SCENE: Are you able to leave this area and find new venues /opportunities elsewhere, for example Orange Country or the Ventura/Santa Barbara area?
BRUNS : We would love to play other areas such as wine events, festivals, and cruises but I am only one person and with a full time teaching gig, 10 private students a week, and an independent record label. I can only do so much as a band leader. It would be nice to have help. It’s already a lot of work just to put dates on the calendar for the L.A. area. We are planning to tour Japan soon and I have many threads already going for other things too! For anyone that has booked my band know I will not give up.
L.A.JAZZ SCENE: Vocalist Kevin Bachelder is so talented, so great with your band. Do you choose material together?
BRUNS : Kevin is an incredible singer and easy to work with. We had a blast touring Japan in April when we did 8 show in Tokyo with the help of the company “JazzCation”. Kevin does half of the arrangement and writing for the band and I do the other half. We always have each other group's style/sound in mind when we arrange and write and I choose from these options whatt to add to the show’s set list based on the direction of the band’s overall sound and needs of the audience. However, we have never co-written anything together [yet!] because he too is very busy as a school teacher plus he lives in the Newport Beach area so that makes collaborating on writing even more difficult. Though we are hoping to have something co-written to premier at our next show [Vibrato on Sunday April 15th, 7pm.
L.A.JAZZ SCENE: How do you make the decision to record, when you have an abundance of material? Or do you have a schedule that you try to follow, for example, one new recording per year?
BRUNS : I try to produce a new album every 3-4 years. Once I decide to make the album the material follows. The power of intention makes things happen! If I were to wait to have material before scheduling my next record nothing would even happen.By Myrna Daniels