O Father, Where Art Thou?
Those who fear that jazz is dead or dying or in a weird state of suspended animation need look no further than the Rodriguez family to find the heart of the music beating true. Ignore the bickering over styles and stances that presently keeps musicians and fans spinning their wheels: Longtime Denver saxophonist Freddy Rodriguez and his son, the Bud Powell-inflected pianist Freddy Rodriguez Jr., are living, playing proof that jazz defies time and the tides of fashion.
Father and son have been publicly making music together, on and off, for more than two decades -- since Freddy Jr. was eleven years old. Currently they share the bandstand Wednesday nights at El Chapultepec, the lovable dive at 20th and Market Streets, cooking up thoroughly contemporary, highly individualistic versions of everything from Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso" to Billy Reed's beautiful but overlooked World War II-era ballad "Gypsy." Drummer Tony Black and nimble veteran bassist Dee Minor complete a quartet that's conversant with all of jazz history and keeps the Chapultepec multitudes in thrall -- at least when the patrons aren't shouting at each other or replaying the ninth-inning rally they've just seen across the street at Coors Field. Once in a while, Junior sings a ballad over all the noise in a perfectly pitched tenor warble.
For the Rodriguezes, nothing short of a nuclear detonation in the ladies' room could disturb their concentration -- or their uncanny rapport. "Personally, I feel like we communicate by some kind of karma," Freddy Sr. says. "I feel his sounds and his chords, the way he voices, how he's structuring a song." Freddy Jr. is tuned in just as carefully: "I can tell if Dad's feeling good by the way he's playing -- or if something's bothering him. I can feel where he's going. But that's not just because he's my father. It's because we're musicians."
It has always been thus -- or so it seems. Senior claims (with only a hint of humor) that his son could read music before he could talk. For his part, he's been playing for almost sixty of his seventy years.
A Denver native, Freddy the Elder first took up a silver-plated student clarinet in 1942 at Baker Junior High School and soon came under the spell of Artie Shaw ("a better improviser than Benny Goodman") and tenor-saxophone greats Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. By the time Rodriguez moved on to West High School, the bebop revolution was in full, frantic throat, and he'd switched to alto and tenor. "I used to go to the Rainbow Ballroom, at Fifth and Broadway," he remembers. "The major bands all played there: Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie's big band, Lionel Hampton's big band. I heard Gene Ammons there, and Illinois Jacquet. All that stuff got inside me."
He was at the Rainbow the night Charlie Parker died, March 12, 1955. He broke the bad news to the great rhythm-and-blues saxophonist Tab Smith, who was the headliner that night. "He was devastated," Rodriguez recalls. "We all were."
Three years later, Rodriguez took a shot at New York's superheated jazz scene, but by then, he and his wife, Josephine, were the parents of two small daughters, and even in 1958, living expenses in New York were prohibitive. In 1960, the family moved to Los Angeles. "I didn't have a job or anything," Freddy Sr. recalls. "I just wanted to play music." With Josephine's support -- a lifeline he still values above all others -- he did just that. In 1962 and 1963, he joined star-to-be Charles Lloyd in the reed section of the cutting-edge Gerald Wilson big band. He worked with the brilliant L.A. pianist Horace Tapscott and tenor man Harold Land, backed singers like Nancy Wilson and joined a forward-thinking quintet called the Jazz Corps, which played regularly at the Los Angeles area's best-known club, Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, and recorded on the ultra-hip Pacific Jazz label. A 1966 album cover reveals Freddy Sr. as a pencil-thin hipster with lapels and a necktie to match, jet-black hair, and a cigarette dangling from his hand. The guy seated on the far right is none other than multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk, who remains a jazz legend 24 years after his death.
Alas, fate called a tune. In 1968, a year after Freddy Jr. was born, leader/trumpeter Tommy Peltier developed a hernia that ended his playing career, and the Jazz Corps disbanded. "If we had gone to New York, we probably would have made it," Freddy Sr. says. Instead, he returned with his family to Denver in 1973. He has been a mainstay of the jazz scene here ever since, the kind of solid, generous, hardworking local player that is the heart and soul of the music in every American city. He led the house band at El Chapultepec for eleven years and has played every venue in town, from concert halls to Italian-restaurant lounges.
"I don't regret that we came back from L.A.," he says. "I've always worked. I've played every week of my life." The silver-haired veteran knows more than a thousand tunes, and he's called all of them.
At 34, Freddy Rodriguez Jr. was the product of a musical household. The sounds of John Coltrane and Sarah Vaughan wafted through the Rodriguez's Lakewood living room when he was a kid, and he learned to play Billy Strayhorn's famously difficult "Lush Life," written in five flats, at the age of ten. Meanwhile, his two older sisters bombarded him with Earth, Wind and Fire, Sly Stone and a thousand other rock, pop and soul anthems. "He knew the words to hundreds of songs by the time he was ten," his father says.
At twelve, Freddy Jr. started working weddings and parties with his father, as the piano player, and at thirteen he was sitting in at El Chapultepec -- sometimes thrown straight into the fire with visiting heavyweights such as Bobby Shew, Buddy Collette, Dianne Reeves and Branford Marsalis. He took it all in stride: "For me, being down there with Dad was like college."
But Junior is also a polymath with a restless spirit: He loves playing straightahead jazz with his father, but he also works in Latin variety bands, co-founded a funk group called Chilli Willi (catch them at the Cool River Cafe at the Denver Tech Center), and composes and plays music for services at Mile High Church. "I love jazz," he says, "but I also like Beethoven and Mozart and George Gershwin. On other gigs, I use [synthesizer] keyboards, playing a lot of strings and bells, sometimes voices or horns. I think of my music more from an orchestral point of view."
Still, Wednesday night at El Chapultepec is special, despite the notoriously out of-tune piano, the raucous crowds and the half-filled tip jar on the bandstand. It is the time when Freddy Rodriguez padre e hijo commune, when they rediscover the rhythms in the other's life and renew their own. Says Freddy Jr., "Sometimes he's my dad, and sometimes he's more like my brother, the older brother I never had, on the bandstand."
"Absolutely," says Freddy Sr. "It's something very, very special."
For us, too, gentlemen. It's something special for the listeners, too.
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