Al Mendez – Andress High School Band Director
This Life Builders Series is where I acknowledge the people who have contributed to my success in life. Al Mendez is certainly one of those people. He was my band director in high school. His enthusiasm for my music was a big reason why I majored in music in university and there are many things I learned from him that I use with my own students today.
I remember the time when I was in the band room practicing and Mr. Mendez told me that he knew I was going to go far with my music. I smiled but I didn’t understand. He explained to me what it meant to him that I was practicing the day after we got back from the TMEA All-State convention. I had made the Texas All-State band that year, but when we returned after the trip to San Antonio, I got right back into practicing again right away. He said that this is what it takes to be successful as a player.
I wasn’t really a very good player at that time. Yes, I made All-State, but when I hear the recordings and watch the videos of my playing from my high school years, it is clear that most of my students are better than I was at their age. No, Mr. Mendez wasn’t telling me I would be successful because I was such a great player. He was telling me I would be successful because I had a good work ethic.
That has always stayed with me. My success as a trumpet player, as a professional musician, was never because I was so talented. No, it was the time and effort I invested. It was my attitude. Mr. Mendez encouraged that attitude by recognizing and placing emphasis on what was most important.
First Jazz Band Experience
I had always liked jazz and I was fortunate enough to have come to Texas just in time for the last few years of the school jazz band movement. Texas was a breeding ground for young jazz musicians until “No Pass No Play” was initiated and the number of electives students were allowed to sign up for was reduced. I missed all of that and was blessed with the opportunity to play in the school jazz band as a class.
That’s where I learned how to swing. That’s where I learned about the roles of the different musicians in the band. It was a wonderful experience not unlike what I see happening here at HSPVA today.
The jazz band at Andress High School was always one of the top in the country during the years I was there. Each year we sent audition tapes to the National Association of Jazz Educators and I believe the lowest we ever placed was third place. My senior year Andress High School placed first in the nation. It was a wonderful opportunity to perform with such a band at that high school level.
Raise Your Hand
One memory that sticks out from one of my earliest rehearsals was when Mr. Mendez asked if anyone wanted a solo on a particular tune. No one raised their hands. So he told us that if we really wanted to learn jazz, then we should be raising our hands every time that question was asked. He encouraged us to be more enthusiastic about what we were doing, to jump in there and get our feet wet, so to speak.
I took his advice to heart and for years that was always my response. If someone asked, “who wants a solo on this tune?” I would always raise my hand. I didn’t stop doing it that way until I started working here in Houston with the pros. Ha! Who am I to be so eager to play solos when Dennis Dotson or Barry Lee Hall are in the same section with me. As a pro, I only take solos that are offered to me, but my attitude as a student was one of being eager, even hungry for more opportunities to improvise.
My First Jazz Solo
My first jazz solo was not improvised. I wrote a solo that I played in the second jazz band during my sophomore year. It was a song called Sombrero by Jay Chattaway. I actually have my part (not the written solo but my actual trumpet part – yeah, I know – “Busted!”) pinned to the wall in my studio. This was the first of thousands of solos in the 33 years since that day.
I recently posted an article about the use and effectiveness of writing jazz solos. My history of doing this goes back to Sombrero. I soon matured to the next stage and was improvising every solo I played, but everyone has to start somewhere! If you would like to read that article it’s called Why Write Jazz Etudes?
One of the funniest stories that I tell my students about my time with Mr. Mendez was about the day we first met. I grew up listening to all of my father’s big band albums. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a very wide vibrato, just like you would expect from a trumpet player in the Glenn Miller band or Jackie Gleason’s orchestra. I didn’t know I was doing this because it came so natural to me.
Mr. Mendez probably doesn’t remember this, but when I first auditioned for the band, that would have been right before school started in 1978, my vibrato was very wide and fast. Mr. Mendez’s immediate response was, “I’ve never seen a white mariachi player!” LOL!!!!
I spent my first six months at Andress trying to tame a vibrato I didn’t even know I had. Really, it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do on the trumpet.
Appreciation for Classical Music
Another wonderful thing about having Al Mendez as our band director was that he didn’t neglect the classical music (symphonic band stuff) for the sake of the jazz. He wasn’t one of those band directors who only knew about one or the other. He was excellent at teaching both.
I remember when we won some big award at the Greater South West Music Festival. When we got back home to El Paso, Mr. Mendez made it a point to congratulate the band for being the best symphonic band at the festival. I remember he said something about how winning the jazz stuff has always come easy to us, but winning this award for being the best symphonic band was something to be very proud of.
You know, that pretty much sums up my entire career. The jazz stuff has always been a lot easier for me. I have struggled with the classical music professionally but the fact that I’m still doing it and remain active on that scene, that’s something that I am proud of. Now that I’m sitting here thinking about it, writing about it, I realize that I can trace my attitude back to Mr. Mendez’ influence.
Paris Jazz Festival
At the end of my senior year, the Andress jazz band toured Europe. We performed in the Paris Jazz Festival and gave concerts in various locations, as far away as Montreaux, Switzerland. That was my first of three trips to Europe with school jazz ensembles.
One thing I remember being very different about that first trip was that we had enough sponsors and did enough fundraising that none of us students had to pay anything to get there. And what was super cool about the fundraising we did that year is that a lot of it was performances. It was a long time ago (1982) but I seem to remember that we played for a Lions’ Club breakfast and things like that. It was wonderful to have so many performances in preparation for the actual tour.
I don’t remember much about the trip itself. I do remember a performance at a night club in Paris where a local big band opened for us! That was cool! I also remember that there was at least one other high school band from the states, on a similar tour, and that they knocked my flugelhorn over when they were setting up. That is why I usualy put my horns away on the breaks for almost every gig.
If you were on this trip and you have any memories you’d like to share, please feel free to do so in the comment section!
Yeah, Mr. Mendez played a huge role in my musical development. It wasn’t just his encouraging words. It was his wealth of knowledge and his wonderful ability to communicate that knowledge to us students. Thank you Mr. Mendez! You made a big difference in my life.