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Chico Mendoza: New Jersey's favorite "Latin Sun".

The musical heritage of Ira Roberts Jr. (better known as Chico Mendoza) was inevitable, as he grew up in a very musical family. What his family never expected was that he would become such an ardent lover of Latin music. He was born on July 20th, 1939 in Jacksonville, Florida. His father, Ira J. Roberts, was part Cuban and his mother Evelyn was half Afro-American and half Native American (Cherokee).

Raised in Montclair, New Jersey, he graduated from the local high school in 1957, at a time when the area was mostly black, with some enclaves of Italian and Irish families in close proximity. Not many Hispanics resided there during this period, but somehow Chico managed to make friends with the few that he met. "I guess it was in my genes," he so often says.

An only child, Mendoza was surrounded by music, and he actually began his music studies (percussion) at the tender age of eight. That early training was crucial, and it continued throughout his high school years. By the time he was 12, he had taught himself to play both the piano and the vibraphone. Instrumental in his development as a musician was his uncle Charles Singleton, who penned, among other pop tunes, Spanish Eyes and Strangers In the Night. In fact, it was Singleton who bought Chico his first set of vibes (actually, it was a xylophone). However well they bonded, their musical paths would eventually take them into different realms. Radio was still the thing back then, so that his musical influences were as varied as the shows that emanated from the tiny box, and although he grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood, he was instinctively drawn to what was then referred to as "Spanish" music. This was long before he knew that his paternal grandfather was Cuban.

Chico fondly recalls those early years when he first came under the magic spell of music: "When I was around four or five, I used to stay at my grandmother's house, and every Friday and Saturday evening, my mom, my aunts and my uncles would have a record jam in grandma's front room. There were so many records that they had to stack them vertically like pillars or columns in her hallway. We all knew exactly where each record was located. Pile #1 was for Count Basie, Billy Eckstine was in Pile #4, Ella in Pile #8, etc. Routinely, I would watch all my relatives and their friends dance until the wee hours of the morning, eventually falling asleep on the couch, never realizing that this music would be embedded in my mind for life. Concurrently, my father was a merchant marine and sailed quite often to South America, Cuba, Panama and other exotic Caribbean regions, always bringing back records and other goodies from whatever places he visited."

Chico Mendoza officially entered the entertainment world at the age of sixteen, when he joined The Cubaneers, a local band that specialized in playing calypso, mambo and straight-ahead jazz. In the Montclair area, this was the band to be associated with. At first, Mendoza alternated on a few tunes with the bandleader, who was also a pianist. Before long he was playing most of the repertoire, and doing some arranging as well. The bandleader eventually switched to the trombone, and Chico became the regular pianist.

Because most of the band members refused to play charts, Chico decided to form his own band, so he teamed up with some excellent Newark-based percussionists, bringing into the new group a couple of the Cubaneer's trumpet players as well. At the suggestion of one of the percussionists, the group was named The Chico Mendoza Band. He was sixteen years old at the time, circa 1955. It wasn't long afterwards that he fell deeply under the influence of Machito, Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente. The Big Three, as they would later be known.

Recently, Chico filled me in on this particular period in his life: "It all began at a local dance, when I got my first real taste of Afro-Cuban dance music. The tune that caught my ear was Mambo Diablo, by Tito Puente. I remember that I kept going back to the deejay and asking him to play it again and again. After I got my first job, I began to buy records for myself. Every Friday, when I got paid, I would rush down to the local record store and spend most of my money on R&B, blues, jazz and especially Latin records. The first pianists that I really listened to were jazzmen such as Errol Garner, Earl 'Fatha' Hines, Nat King Cole, Tiny Bradshaw, and of course, Count Basie. But there was also something about the Latin piano style that just mesmerized me. I wanted to play mambo the way Perez Prado did, but most of those great Cuban bands were not about to come and play at the local VFW record hops in Montclair. I had to settle for hearing them via their records and on the radio."

Fascinated by Prado's pulsating and syncopated sound, Mendoza sought out various teachers who could give him some guidance and help him to improve his technique. And like every good student of this genre, he discovered clave. By the time he came of age, Mendoza had mastered all manner of Cuban percussion, as well as the piano, marimba, vibraharp, and xylophone. He realized, early on, that these very same dance rhythms, which had been imported from Cuba at the turn of the century, were now an integral part of North American music as well. And he delighted in sprinkling their tasty sauce onto his own musical foundation. He heard the Cuban influence everywhere, in gospel and spiritual songs, folk and blues tunes, and in rock 'n' roll, but nowhere was it more evident than in the music of Ellington, Kenton and Gillespie. He also noticed how the music of these jazz masters had influenced the work of Prado, Machito, Miguelito Valdes and other basically Afro-Cuban groups. The wild and uninhibited excitement that these rhythms generated, coupled with the richness, mood and coloring of jazz, fascinated him to the point that he couldn't wait to start experimenting on his own.

The term "Latin jazz" did not really exist at this time, and even if it did, it was not used commercially. Nonetheless, the two styles of music seemed to have been made for each other, and Chico sensed that this was his calling. He remembers when it all finally came to fruition: "I was listening to a lot of records, mostly by pianists, but it wasn't until 1958 that I finally got to see and hear a real live montunero. It was in Asbury Park, and the pianist's name was Charlie Palmieri. I somehow landed a gig at one of the hotels where Charlie was playing with his band, on another floor. During my breaks I would sneak down and listen to the master at work. What a treat it was to watch him stroke the ivories! He reminded me of Errol Garner by his aggressive and two-handed approach. I learned more about playing Latin-style piano that night then I have ever learned at any other time in my career."

And so Chico Mendoza trekked on, building his record library and expanding his knowledge of Afro-Cuban music. During his formative years, he was like a sponge, absorbing everything that he heard, adapting it to his own style and personality. Whether improvising on a solo of just montuneando (vamping), Mendoza would invariably give free reign to his impulses without ever turning away from that element which he had learned to rely on, the clave patterns. Today, he is an accomplished composer, arranger and performer who has been nominated for the prestigious Grammy award. He has shared the stage with such luminaries as Paquito D'Rivera, Tito Puente, George Benson, Ray Barretto, Jon Faddis, Arturo Sandoval, Hilton Ruiz, Aretha Franklin, Billy Taylor, Michel Camilo, Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and Al Hibbler.

But it was surely during his early trial and error experiences, with lesser known artists and musicians, that he set the pattern for the rest of his life. Invariably, it is the learning process which ultimately gives the artist his of her impetus. It they make it through this period, then they are assured of gaining at least a nominal amount of success. After many years of paying his dues, Mendoza was ready for the big-time. In fact, he was ready for anything they threw at him, and he sensed that something big was about to happen. Success was just around the corner for the mild-mannered vibraharpist from Montclair.

In the late sixties, Mendoza formed one of the first African-American groups that played exclusively Latin dance music. My first encounter with him took place at the Kenya Club, a night spot in Bayonne, New Jersey. He was playing vibes that night, a la Cal Tjader. I once asked him if the quiet San Francisco-based musician was a major influence on his playing style. His reply was a resounding "yes," and then he added, "Cal Tjader was my main influence when it came to playing Latin, but my very first influence and the reason that I took up the instrument in the first place was Hamp, and of course, later on, Milt, who by the way, also influenced Tjader."

Chico elaborated some more on their respective styles: "Both Milt and Tjader were extremely melodic in their approach, and the way that they interpreted a ballad was just beautiful. Although they had both swung with the best of the hard boppers, Tjader was more rhythmically in tune to the clave. Much like myself, Tjader must have been drawn to the polyrhythmic structure of Cuban dance music. Then there was Hamp, who was in a class by himself. No wonder Benny Goodman hired him. He was a percussionist, and that was his trademark. With Hamp in the band, the King of Swing didn't need any other horn players. It was the perfect combination of rhythm and melody, harmoniously woven together. They complemented each other beautifully." I couldn't help but notice a great big smile on his face as he mentioned these giants of jazz.

It wasn't until a couple of years later that I would discover Chico Mendoza was also a gifted pianist, whose approach to the piano was like that of a percussionist. His style on that instrument can only be described as "two-fisted," and his enthusiasm while playing is comparable to that of a young child who takes delight at smacking the ivories just to see and hear what happens next. Surely, this gentle giant must have possessed a photographic memory, storing in it an abundance of melodies and rhythms. To this day, you name the tune and Chico sits down and plays it. We played together quite often during that period, and it was always obvious to me that Charlie Palmieri was a major influence on him. On the surface, their playing styles seem to have very little in common, as Charlie's style was rooted in the classic Cuban forms of an earlier era, straight out of the Peruchin school. In contrast, Chico's approach was wedded to the newer, more sophisticated style that sprang from Afro-Cuban jazz. Still, their virtuosity and showmanship were on the same plane, and both pianists made technically demanding music that excited both the listener and the dancer.

Charlie Palmieri favored a steady left-hand beat which underscored his complex right-hand syncopation, and this became the template for Chico's methodology as well. Physically, the two were very different, and Chico often took advantage of his large well-built frame, moving back and forth much like Ray Charles did, intimidating anyone who stood within a few feet of him. Of course, whenever Charlie got going, he would also do this, quite naturally, and in that sense they were almost identical. Although the classically-tinged style that Charlie and others from that era had employed was beginning to wane when Chico came on the scene, it was still quite pervasive when he began playing, and that may account for the duality in his pianistic vocabulary.

Many of those tactics which Mendoza picked up from those early recordings would later become his very own. Abrupt key changes and certain passages lifted from classical European music during the solos, flashy fingerings and the mixing of "hot" and "cool" notes, evident during the early part of the music's development, were utilized by Mendoza, as well as more modernistic strains. Occasionally, one could hear Chico playing the traditional and modern styles simultaneously. At the core of his playing was his love and understanding for the intricately woven clave-based rhythms. I listen to the mature Chico Mendoza play and I hear the culmination of everything that has been laid down since the son emerged from Cuba during the early twentieth century, with all its guitaristic tendencies and its obvious North American influences. Both Count Basie and Errol Garner are present in this equation, as are Milt Jackson and John Coltrane. I remember someone (whom obviously was not a musician) remarking on the "weird" major keys that Chico would sometimes play in, tonalities that may have been odd for jazz music, but not for blues and other rural folksy music. And that's because these forms tan parallel to the son. In a very percussive way, Chico would sneak up on the melody, vamping certain chords from a half step below that were not normally used. Those chords were not, by the way, dissonant, as in the avant-garde school, just rather difficult and unorthodox.

He didn't paraphrase melodies, as Latin musicians often did, but he would easily borrow certain attitudes from those earlier styles, adapting them to the new circumstances. This may sound a bit abstract, but if you ever get to hear him play, you'll know exactly what I am referring to. Whenever I hear him take a solo, I'm amazed at how unpredictable he can be. During the hypnotic groove (or hook) that takes place in the montuno section, the piano solo is paramount. It breaks the monotony, in a somewhat subtle way, and it is always interesting to see just how the soloist handles the melodic aspect of the solo. The main function of the soloist, as I see it, is to feed the melody to the listeners, repeating it over and over, again and again. Mendoza would offer them only a slight a taste of the melody, then go off on some tangent, inventing new melodies to fit the chords of the montuno, just like beboppers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie often did with standards, which by the way, is okay with me, as this will only enhance the solo.

But Chico is also an ardent lover of the song form, and he values the beauty of a standard. Therefore, he never totally discards the melody, the way that Thelonious Monk, George Shearing and other jazz players of that era did when they played jazz. To be perfectly fair to Shearing, he didn't do this either, at least not when he played in a Latin vein.

Chico Mendoza would probably have been a hit as a solo act, sans a rhythm section, as he was rhythmically and harmonically self-sufficient. He chose instead to work with an array of percussionists from the Newark area, in order to bring authenticity to his music. Some of those percussionists were Elwood "Chicky" Johnson, Avelino "Ace" Acevedo, Don "Bandele" Howard, Charlie Jones and "Butch" Johnson. The exuberance of these players and their dedication to clave are what always made Chico's sextet so popular with the general public, but he was also a master in the art of taking a solo, whether it was at the piano or on the vibes. This was his forte, and the rhythm section usually stayed out of his way during the solo, as no one knew what he was going to do next. Popularity notwithstanding, there were problems on the horizon. The fact that authentic Afro-Cuban music had not significantly extended itself beyond the inner circle of devotees in New York, Newark, Los Angeles, San Francisco and a few lesser known strongholds did not not stop him from broadening his scope. Still, he decided instead to concentrate on the style that by this time was widely known as 'Latin jazz.' During the early part of the decade, Mendoza and the sextet had done much locally to broaden its appeal to countless people via their sold-out performances in concert halls, college campuses, night clubs and jazz festivals. They performed throughout the New York metropolitan area until around 1970, when instrumental dance music began to fade from the public's consciousness.

By this time vocalists were becoming the main attraction, and Chico's group was faced with a younger and more ethnic-oriented audience, a generation which was just beginning to discover its African roots. The old mambo and chachacha dance tunes were now being replaced with a fresh new sound, spearheaded by such musicians as Eddie Palmieri and Louie Ramirez. Around the corner was the impending salsa explosion, and even those bandleaders whom Mendoza admired the most were gearing up for a radical change. As in the heyday of the mambo and the pachanga, the music business was once again highly commercialized, and many a great musician would inevitably fall through the cracks. In retrospect, it seems to me that Chico and his merry band of rhythm makers were gearing up for the good fight. The Main Event? You guessed it: "Salsa vs Latin Jazz."

Having grown up in both these musical worlds, Mendoza had an acute awareness of the inherent beauty of both styles. Cautiously, the group moved into this new territory, without losing sight of their own identity, assembling pretty melodies and crossing over into the field of pop music. They continued playing the local circuit in New Jersey and somehow managed to keep their jazz-oriented sound intact, adding a vocalist in late 1974. Their horn line-up was also expanded, bringing the amount of members to eight, and they were also given a new name, "Ocho." They found themselves in the middle of a renaissance in dance music, and they realized that the trend was moving away from jazz, into a more ethnic environment. Seeing the writing on the wall, Chico brought together a group of excellent reedmen, all of whom were specialists in the musical ecology of dance music, players whom he thought could work well within both idioms. It was not an easy task, the best of the lot had already defected to the more commercial sounds. Writing much of the material himself, he also tapped into the existing repertoire of pre-Castro Cuba, via the Morro Music Publishing catalog. A Tito Rodriguez sound-alike was recruited for the recording session and the group had its first and only big hit, !Ay, Que Frio!, written by Jose Fajardo.

With the skillful A&R work of Bobby Marin, and with Mendoza at the helm, not to mention a major label backing them, the stage was set. The chemistry was awesome and their first album was received with a great deal of enthusiasm.

With San Francisco based latin rock bands like Santana and Malo riding high on the pop charts, Chico decided to try his luck in that field. He came up with the bluesy tune titled Undress My Mind. Producer Bobby Marin added some catchy lyrics, and surprisingly enough, the number managed to crossover into the North American market. Altogether, the group known as Ocho produced three masterpieces, all for the United Artists label. Unfortunately, only their initial release sold well, and they were suddenly cut from the label.

Right around the same time in 1974, Chico Mendoza began his tenure at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, as instructor and later as director of its Latin Jazz Studies. Thirty two years have passed and he is still conducting the William Paterson University Latin Jazz Ensemble. It is the longest running musical ensemble in that university's history. Within that time frame, Chico continued to write and perform great music, with other groups as well, both as a sideman and as an arranger. In 1979, he was asked to host a Latin jazz show on Newark's WBGO, a station that now holds the distinction of being the premiere jazz station on the east coast. Through his association with that non-profit entity, he would go on to host and emcee the popular series, "Salsa Meets Jazz," which took place every Monday night at the world renowned Village Gate, in New York City.

A fourth album by Ocho later materialized, on an independent label, but by this time the original group had been replaced with new blood and the singers had been dropped. Blaring trumpets, slick breaks and the old call and response of the montuno was what the public clamored for. Vocalists and bandleaders had suddenly become icons. Ocho's album Tornado was released during the heyday of Fania Records and needless to say, it was not received very well by the market's ever-changing consumers. Ocho disbanded shortly afterwards.

During the mid eighties, Chico met a rising entrepreneur by the name of Henry Montalvo. They had many things in common, and among these was their love for the bygone big band sound. They decided that for his proverbial comeback, Chico would arrange and direct his Latin Jazz Dream Band, thus producing a formidable fifth album for Tropical Buddha Records. This time he featured the popular jazz vocalist Rashema on a couple of tunes. In the following decade, he would again collaborate with another established artist, namely the legendary African singer CK Mann, from Ghana. Together they came up with an obscure and unknown CD, titled Salsa Con Gana. This is one of those rare productions that has somehow managed to fall through the cracks, but which is nonetheless worthy of mention. It received virtually no air-play, despite the fact that it featured latin jazz greats Ray Barretto and Dave Valentin as invited guests.

Throughout his illustrious career Chico Mendoza has managed to keep a low profile, while maintaining a high degree of professionalism. To this day, he maintains that he never really wanted to be a musician, and that his real love has always been writing. At a recent concert that we did together, he told me: "I sort of got into playing Latin piano back in the old days because I could not find any other musician within my immediate circle who understood the concept of clave. I tried to unlock the mystery for them, but to no avail. Years later, when I started teaching at William Paterson University, I found that the new generation of students were more open-minded, and they were willing to learn more than just the basics. During this time I have tried to concentrate more on composing, arranging and conducting. This is not to say that in my youth I did not meet and play with gifted musicians who were capable of playing jazz in clave, I'm just saying that there weren't many around back then, at least not in my area. You basically had to go to New York to hear guys of the caliber of a Charlie Palmieri or a Lalo Schiffrin. The musicians I came up with never fully committed to learning about the genre (Latin jazz), and in many cases rejected the idea of reading charts or playing the montunos correctly, h was much different back then, but I did get a chance to meet some wonderfully talented writers, especially when I worked at ASCAP (1965-71) as a music analyst. I got to pick the brains of folks like Henry Mancini, Leroy Holmes, Cy Coleman, Richard Rogers and Mike Longo. I am now in my thirty-second year as head of the music department at WPU, and I can honestly say that I wouldn't trade it for anything in the word."

For years, Chico Mendoza led a double life, a teacher by day and a musician by night, performing at such venues as Club Birdland, Madison Square Garden, The Village Gate, NJPC, William Paterson University, Essex County College, Princeton University and Seton Hall Law School. We are now into the first decade of the new millennium, and we find Chico still burning the midnight oil with many new assignments such as staff writer for the "Latin Jazz Legends Series" at NJPAC, musical editor for "Resource Guide," musical director and arranger for the "Big Splash" Gospel Series on WWDJ and entertainment manager at Cafe Bianco Jazz Club in NYC. He has been commissioned to teach at Princeton University, as part of the Connections Arts Program, under the title of "Latin Jazz Percussion and Rhythms of the Caribbean" and has hosted various music workshops, such as NJPAC's Reflections of Latin Jazz with percussionist Ray Barretto, Jazz and Afro-Cuban Music (for Arts Horizons in Paterson, N.J.), and Understanding Latin Jazz in Passaic, NJ. He is the musical director for Black Voices In Concert in Jackson, N.J. and has recently been elected to the New Jersey Hall of Fame, where he also serves as a board member.

Chico has appeared with his sextet at the Langston Hughes Centennial Celebration in Vailsburg, N.J. and is the producer and musical director of the annual East Orange Concert Series and the annual Summer Latin Jazz Series in Westfield, N.J. Other activities in the Garden State include the annual convention for Soroptomist Charity Organization in Tom's River, the Indian Trail Country Club's Annual Caribbean Festival in Franklin Lakes, the Colony House Summer Series in New Brunswick, Irvington Township Summer Park Series and the Bloomfield Summer Series.

Chico Mendoza is also an ordained Christian minister who contends that everything that he has achieved in this life he owes to the grace of God. His number one dream before he meets his maker is to record with an all-star aggregation, highlighting his original material and his charts, reuniting all his old friends, not only performing with them but also having them contribute to the liner notes as well. No one can say that this man hasn't paid his dues. He is a humble and compassionate man who has never said no to a fellow musician when called upon. Given how absent-minded most institutions and publications are these days, let's hope that when the first Encyclopedia of Latin Music is finally released, the contributions of one Ira J. Roberts, Jr., a.k.a. "Chico" Mendoza are not relegated to a mere footnote. In my opinion, this man deserves a whole chapter.
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Title Annotation:musician
Author:Alvarez Peraza, Chico
Publication:Latin Beat Magazine
Article Type:Entrevista
Date:Feb 1, 2007
Words:4453
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