On Passion and Inspiration
The Spring of 1962 in upstate New York was no different than a decade of springs prior. Warming days, cool nights, and the promise of summer around the bend.
As a thirteen year-old eighth-grader at Laurel Junior High School in Rome, New York, before the days of "middle schools" as we know them today, an event of seemingly negligible importance was announced to us by our school band director, Calvin Dening. The local high school band was soon to present two concerts in one day --- an afternoon concert for local students and an evening concert for parents and friends. And there was to be a special added attraction, a trumpet soloist. Someone named Rafael Mendez.
On that late May afternoon as I filed into the auditorium for the concert, like most students I was mainly relishing the chance to skip the last school period of the day. A trumpet player in the junior high band myself, I did bring with me a modest curiosity about this Mendez fellow and his program.
But nothing in my experience or imagination could have prepared me for the magic of that afternoon. To hear for the first time a full symphonic band was impressive enough, but when Mendez began to perform the entire audience was awestruck. The power with which he played, overshadowing the entire ensemble; the emotion and superb control; and most incredible of all, the fantastic, lightning techniques, his trumpet responding with a speed and agility beyond comprehension.
Dressed in the traditional Mexican garb of the brass bands of the bull rings, he was a diminutive man in his fifties, perhaps five feet six inches tall and only one hundred forty pounds in weight. His serious, yet handsome, Hispanic face was graced with a pencil-thin mustache. Wavy, jet-black hair and piercing, concentrated eyes accented a demeanor totally focused on his art.
After several planned pieces, the accompanying standing ovations, and numerous encores, Mr. Mendez apologetically declined further performance, explaining that we "were wearing him out," and that he had to "save something" for the evening's concert. As he bowed and left the stage to more thunderous applause, the band director reminded any trumpet players in the audience of the clinic Mendez would conduct afterward.
As most students left the auditorium, a small group of us timidly made our way to the front of the auditorium, where Mendez joined us momentarily and sat informally on the stage, legs dangling over the edge, while we stood and listened to his every word, and demonstration, of the finer points of playing the trumpet. He continued on, answering our questions for over an hour, when most of the group drifted away. After all, school had been officially "out" for some time.
But two of us remained --- one of my best friends and myself, totally captivated by this warm, engaging man and the artistry we had witnessed that afternoon, totally inspired, and totally enthralled. We continued to talk with Mendez, question him, and hang on his every word as he graciously answered each and every query at length, from the model of his trumpet to the unbelievable coordination of his fingers, tongue, lips, and breath control. Before we knew it, over two more hours had passed, and now a new audience was beginning to trickle back into the auditorium for the evening performance. And there we were, still talking with Mendez, who hadn't even had a chance to break for dinner.
He invited us back to the band director's office, where he sat at the desk and grabbed a quick snack purchased from vending machines in the teachers' lounge, while we continued our discussion. Before long, it was time for us to return to the auditorium; my friend and I to the velvet-covered seats, and Mendez to the stage.
The second concert even surpassed the first, if that was possible, in demonstration of his incredible talent and abilities. He flawlessly dashed off his own arrangement of the traditional "Tico, Tico" from his homeland, a rapid fire interpretation which defied belief in its speed and clarity. And as if that was not enough, he closed with an encore of the classic trumpet virtuoso piece, "Carnival of Venice," where he played the final variation, sounding like two trumpets at once, and beyond the capability of all but the most accomplished players, using only one finger! We knew we had witnessed, through incredible good fortune, one of the true geniuses in musical performance history, and our lives with the trumpet could never again be the same.
By the time the auditorium cleared, Mendez had left as well, and we really didn't have a chance to say good-bye to our new friend.
But we did have a chance to re-dedicate ourselves to the trumpet, and began to practice and play as we'd never played before. We bought every record Mendez released, and learned he had been born in the small town of Jiquilpan, Mexico in 1906. How his father had started him on the cornet at the age of five, how he'd begun his career at virtually the same age, travelling throughout Mexico as a member of a family band, even being "recruited" by Pancho Villa to entertain his troops. How he came to America in 1926, and unable to find an opening in an orchestra, had even given up music for a while and worked in a steel mill. How he eventually made his way to New York City, and ultimately Hollywood, where he established himself as the greatest trumpeter the world had ever known, producing, as one reviewer remarked, "Tones of which Gabriel would be jealous." How he achieved his lifelong goal and ambition of legitimizing the trumpet as a solo virtuoso instrument on the same level as the violin and the piano. He had no equal, and was referred to as the " Heifetz" of the trumpet. Perhaps, had Mendez reached the world stage sooner, Jascha might have been referred to as "the Mendez of the violin."
So prodigious and extraordinary was his technique that normal trumpet solos presented little challenge, so he began to adapt intricate violin pieces for the trumpet, resulting in performances and recordings that stretch the limits of believability of what can be performed on the instrument. His mastery of the circular breathing technique of the snake charmers of India led to an astonishing performance and recording of Paganini's frenetic "Moto Perpetuo," a non-stop, four minute and twenty-three second staccato tour de force, a feat never again equaled ... or even attempted ... by other trumpeters. He was the quintessential musician, comfortable in all musical dimensions, from the classics to pop standards and even an occasional venture into the jazz idiom.
He taught his twin sons to play the trumpet, and they toured Europe and South America with him, as well as joining him on one of his early albums for the Decca record label, for whom he released twelve albums in total.
Beyond his phenomenal abilities as a trumpeter, Mendez distinguished himself as a musical arranger and composer, establishing a legacy unmatched by any other practitioner of his art, not the least of which was a very long line of truly inspired trumpeters, like my friend and me, where he touched a special place in our hearts and souls through his virtuosity and humanity.
Over the years I lost track of Mendez. As the electronic musical monsters of the sixties began to cry out in defiance of all things beautiful and artistic, the market for his albums inevitably deteriorated. His new releases slowed down in issuance, and then finally stopped. Years afterward, I finally learned, almost by happenstance, that he had died in 1981 at the age of 75.
I still have my trumpet today ... in fact, three of them, plus a flugelhorn. My clear favorite is my treasured Olds Mendez model. And now in my forties, miles and decades removed from that spring day in Rome, New York, I still play frequently, if only for myself. And I still treasure my library of Mendez records. Even though I've long since memorized every note and phrase of every song on them, I still listen to them all the time, mesmerized by his passion, emotion, and technique.
In retrospect, I suppose very few individuals have the capability of true inspiration, and fewer still the gift of inspiration that can last a lifetime. I, for one, had the incredible good fortune and blessing of meeting such a rare artist. And the magic and enjoyment remains with me to this day.
"Thank you" is not enough,
Mr. Mendez. But it's all I have. Thank you so very much.