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By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
April 1, 2021
Sitting in front of the television set one evening, a small boy named Bobby Rodriguez found himself fascinated by the sound of a trumpet. Harry James and his band were appearing on some variety show, and while watching that performance, young Rodriguez fell in love with the horn. While attending Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary School, he discovered the band. At that time, Mr. Bill Taggert was the band master. Rodriguez was ten years old when he signed up to play the trumpet.
“I have four brothers and sisters. Three of them were already gone by the time I was ten years old. They were older, married and on their way. So, it was really just my older sister and myself and my mom. My parents divorced when I was seven years old. So, it was just the three of us. Fortunately, my elementary school had a thriving concert band and I just went in and said I wanted to play trumpet. It took a long time for my mother to embrace my decision, because it cost $5 a month for the lessons and $5 a month to rent the instrument. So, that was $10/month. After a year, it was adding up. We finally bought the trumpet, once I showed my mom I was practicing and serious about it. My first instrument cost a hundred dollars. At that point, it was a major commitment. When I discovered jazz radio, that really opened the door. My first musical influence was Dizzy Gillespie, then Miles Davis, and everybody else followed,” Bobby Rodriguez recalled.
Dr. Bobby Rodriguez is a native Californian and grew up at 4133 Hubbard Street in East L.A., a block away from Calvary Cemetery. It was a tough, no nonsense neighborhood.
“Yeah, it was tough, but you learn the rule of the streets right away. Stay away from this. Don’t look at that. Just go about your business. If you see something coming, you cross the street. There I was, carrying my little trumpet case, ten years old and no one messed with me. Plus, I didn’t have any desire to hang out at night, hangout in alleys; start fires or steal stuff. Both of my parents were very good and they kept me straight and thinking about good things. The trumpet occupied my time. I always say, if any child is in a practice room, it keeps them out of the street,” Rodriguez shared good advice.
By the time Bobby Rodriguez was a teenager, he had turned professional, working gigs around the Los Angeles area with various groups. Then he landed a job with Quincy Jones, as part of his band, and ultimately that led him to work with the popular Brother’s Johnson. They had hit records on the A&M Record label and Bobby played trumpet on all three of their Platinum best-selling records.
“I toured with Quincy for six weeks. When that tour was over, I was invited to join that Brother’s Johnson band, ‘cause I was part of Q’s big band and The Brothers Johnson and I knew each other. They invited me to replace their trumpet player who was leaving the band to return to school. In those days, you might not have recognized me. I was wearing spandex and platform heels on my shoes. I looked a lot taller,” Bobby chuckled.
“So, I joined the Brothers Johnson band. In four years, I saw those two Brothers Johnson, (George and Louis), get rich. They were buying homes and cars and stuff. I think the most I made was $700 a week. It’s funny how in two, three, or four years, folks can explode and then are never heard from again. It’s the publishing that counts. I learned, you have to hold on to that publishing money. Being on the road was a learning experience, but it was sickening after a while. Some of the people just get so involved in ‘where’s the connect’ to keep the party going; party, party, party! I wanted to practice and keep growing and improving. When I came off that tour, I went right to a trumpet teacher and tried to put all the pieces back together and move forward. The teacher I went to was Don Ferrara. I studied with him for about a year and he helped me a lot. Then, I went to Uan Rasey for about five years. He really put me on the track I’m still on. Every time I open my case, I think of Uan Rasey.”
Bobby recalled leaning more towards jazz after he left the Brother’s Johnson. But He stayed busy in the studio, playing on the Maurice White produced project called, “Emotions Album” and Lalo Schifrin’s “Boulevard Nights.” He played on a Warner Brother’s movie sound track featuring Gerard McMann that became the “Defiance” album. Around that same time, he cut and produced albums on himself. One was called “Simply macrame” released in 1973 on the Jazzmen Record label and the other was titled “Tell an Amigo” on the Sea Breeze label. Happily, his own career was blossoming. He was embracing a Latin jazz format.
Around this same time, Rodriguez began producing other artists. For the Southern California based label, Discovery, he co-produced Ed Jones & Familia.
Next, he produced the HMA Salsa Jazz Orchestra for Sea Breeze Records. He was productive and busy.
In 1990, Rodriguez produced jazz vocalist, Maxine Weldon. The album was titled, “The Singer,” which was quite appropriate for the dynamic Ms. Weldon.
“Well, John Bolivar hooked me up with Maxine, because he was in her band. She was going to Bern, Switzerland every year. She would do a six-week concert at Jaylene’s. Jaylene’s was a club there in Bern. Washington Rucker was the drummer in the band. he and I were very good friends. And then someone said, we should make a record. Why are we just going there and don’t have product? So, we made a record. I produced the record and organized it. It came out real nice! Then, after four-years or so, I don’t know, she just stopped singing. I think she went into acting. But I did see her at some event. I forgot where it was, maybe an award’s show honoring Maxine. I was there to introduce her and I played a song for her. She would always sing, “But Beautiful”. It was very nice to see her again. As always, she looked beautiful and she was always very kind,” Bobby shared wistful memories of Maxine Weldon, a former bandmate and terrific jazz vocalist.
Dr. Bobby Rodriguez is not only a trumpet master, producer, educator and arranger, he’s also a proficient composer. His latest effort, titled “Freedom” was recently released.
“My latest CD, is something I began to record before my two operations,” Bobby told me. “I’m slowly rehabbing. I feel that I’m not completely there, but my first conversation with the doctor, after the operation, was can I drive and when can I play my horn? I had open heart surgery; you know. But I started playing right away. I’d say three weeks later. At first, I was blowing very gently into the instrument; very gently! Just trying to get a tone and just trying to recoup and see what was available. I didn’t know if this would be the end of my trumpet career. I see now, I did the right thing by going very slowly; playing three, four, five days a week. But I started this record before all that. We pored over the title for the record, because it was so important. Finally, we came up with the name “Freedom.” It represents the American freedom, of course, but also jazz freedom. Jazz is a music that was once hated because of the revolutionary freedom it expresses.
“I composed five of the songs with family members in mind. One little song, I created for my newest grandson and it’s called “Little Henry.” It’s got a little African, rhythmic jazz content. On this project, I’m writing music that I feel is reflective of who I am today. I wrote another song that I think is a classic. It’s called “Mia’s Lullaby,” and it’s written for my oldest grandchild. She’s thirteen now and I wrote it about five years ago. It was revived in the recording process and I think I’ve got something that’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s a ballad, a lullaby, but not in the traditional sense. After that, there’s a couple of little bouncy tunes and then I wrote one for my wife which is called “Yvonne.” We created a video for that one that’s a representation of her life. The song is gorgeous. Another one, I originally wrote about seven years ago, is called “Robin Star” and that’s for my daughter; the daughter that’s giving me all these grandchildren,” he chuckles.
The man with the trumpet has two children, Robin and Robert. When he’s not parenting or being a proud grandpa, Bobby Rodriguez is a gifted author and educator who has dedicated his life to promoting music and inspiring youth. His “ABC’s of Latin Jazz” was his first textbook. The latest textbook is titled, “ABC’s of Brass Warm-Up.” As a jazz musician and trumpeter, Rodriguez stays very active in the community. His expertise has been invaluable as a member of the Board of Governors of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) and he acted as president of the Hispanic Musicians Association for twenty-two years. We talked briefly about his love of teaching.
“In 1990, I was teaching at Cal State L.A. County High School for the Arts which is inside Cal State L.A. I did ten years there and then I went to UCLA in 2000 and did eighteen years teaching there. At the same time, in 2003 I was teaching at UC Irvine, which I’m still there one day a week taking care of the big band and the combo, which is really good. It’s contributing to my pension. Little did I think about that when I was wearing spandex.” (laughter)
For a while Dr. Bobby Rodriguez was Director of the LatinJazz Ensemble at Pasadena City College and leader of the Jazz Adventure group, as part of the Music Center’s Los Angeles outreach to public schools and music students. He was a member of the City of Los Angeles Jazz Mentorship Program and a performing member of “Jazz Goes to School” for several years. Bobby also was a teaching member of Buddy Collette’s Jazz America program.
Exemplary in all his music, Bobby Rodriguez has a way of making music fun. His accomplishments as a recording artist extend from the early seventies to present day. He has released ten albums as a bandleader, including his Grammy nominated “LatinJazz Explosion” CD. He was a part of Gerald Wilson’s historic “Detroit” album on the Mack Avenue Record label and co-produced Cuban vocalist, Candi Sosa (“Cuba … Me Corazon Te Llama”) and Bill Laster’s “Shades of Jade IV” album. He recorded with Billy Mitchell and John Bolivar on their USA Record, “Live” and has worked with a plethora of legendary musicians like Kenny Burrell and Alex Acuña, who were featured on his “Trumpet Talk” album.
In spite of his recent health challenges, Bobby Rodriguez continues to compose and is busy promoting his latest album of music, “Freedom,” that reflects the freedom he has found over the years. With each performance, he displays a freedom that flows profusely from the bell of his horn, along with a dedication to educating, inspiring and entertaining young and old alike. Bobby Rodriguez is a Doctor of Music, who served our country in the U.S. Army and returned to gain a college education. After twenty-one years, he set an example by returning to school and completing his Bachelor’s degree at Cal State University, Long Beach; his Master’s at California State University, Los Angeles and his Doctorate, in 2006, at the University of California, Los Angeles. Not only does Dr. Bobby Rodriguez talk the talk, he walks the walk!
“If Dr. Bobby can do it, so can you,” he tells his students.
“So, jazz it up,” he proclaims his mantra to me. As we end our phone call, I’m smiling and feeling inspired.