I met Rafael Méndez  - Jim Kenward


In 1949, when I was 17 years old, I was recruited by the Lloyd Steinhof Post American Legion Band in San Diego, California, to play Principal French Horn for an upcoming band competition finals which was to be held in San Francisco, California. About a month later, after many rehearsals, we traveled to San Francisco to play in the band shell at Golden Gate Park on a sunny Sunday afternoon. All the bands were to play the same music, mainly the old wonderful war-horse transcriptions of Classical pieces, overtures and the like, which I still prefer to the newer mostly (it seems) movie pieces. The program began with von Weber's "Oberon Overture", with the Horn starting the piece with a long singing solo note on concert D. The overture was devilishly difficult, more so for band than for orchestra, for the clarinets had to play the violin parts, but it played well. After a couple of other pieces (also classical arrangements), we finished and the next band began to set up. I noticed immediately that it was about twice the size of ours, and that there was a Trumpet player sitting first chair clarinet! (Somebody told me that it was Rafael Méndez, but that meant nothing to me at the time.) It was not long coming that the audience (easily half a thousand or more) were gasping and exclaiming at this man playing the clarinet (violin) part, and at his sweet yet powerful sound surging over the grounds. As they played, more and more people kept coming in from the surrounding buildings and meadows. And it just kept getting better and better! By the end of the concert the people were on their feet cheering, and the prize for the competition was inevitable! I learned later that this was the Los Angeles Police Band, composed mainly of professional musicians from the studios and the Los Angeles area. I went up to the band, wanting to meet this hero of the Trumpet. Mr. Méndez was most kind in taking a few minutes to talk with me, complemented me on my playing, and asked me how much I practiced. I answered that I did so every day, to which he countered with a new question, "How do you practice when you travel?". I answered him by pulling my mouthpiece out of my pocket, and told him that it went with me wherever I  went, even going camping. He smiled and asked me why I played. I told him that the Horn was a part of me, and will be so forever. He then said to me, "Then never stop practicing, and never stop playing." He simply radiated a gentle strength and concern which drew you to him. And I have never stopped practicing, and I have never stopped playing. And I never will. And my mouthpiece is still with me all the time. I still think of him, especially when I am reading his book.
   
About 1960 or so, Mr. Méndez came to Sacramento, California, to do an evening concert and clinic at McClatchy Senior High School. The auditorium was packed, with standing room only. And, of course, he sounded as good as ever. After the concert I went up through the crowd to try to speak to him. I got fairly close to him, when our eyes met. He smiled, and motioned me to come forward. When I was close to him, he greeted me and said that he had met me before, but was not sure where. I told him about the San Francisco band competition, but laughing he interrupted me and said, "Oh yes, you were the young French Horn player. So—do you still play the Horn, and do you still practice?" I laughed, and said that yes, I practice more than ever. He said that it was good to see me again, and also that I should never stop playing, that it would give me a good long life, and much pleasure to both me and to others. I think that I owe much of what I have accomplished in music and life in general to those meetings, to that Man. He was truly a marvel in many ways.

Jim Kenward
Sacramento, CA

 

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