The video for “Tijuana Taxi” was shot at the Caliente Racetrack, probably when Mr. Johnny S. Alessio ran the place and made it into the biggest legal gambling business in North America. Alessio was also the “A” of Mr. A’s, the famous San Diego restaurant. (Alpert was the “A” of A&M records, a very successful independent record company he created with Jerry Moss in 1962.)
Out on the street today, the old-guard Tijuana musicians still haven’t passed a verdict on Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’s influence and importance in the musical history of the city. Some of the musicians who used to play on Revolution Avenue during the 1950s and ’60s vaguely remember Alpert and his Americachi sound. Some describe him as either a great ambassador of the Tijuana sound or a backstabbing gringo that came and used Tijuana like any other turista comes for a one-night stay of cheap thrills. Other rumors say Alpert honed his chops on the trumpet while playing with a mariachi band at the Foreign Club Café. There is even an image of Alpert with a group of mariachi musicians on the back cover of the Lonely Bull album, yet Alpert himself says that it was shot strictly for the album cover design:
“That was a group that…at this bullfight, there was this place in Tijuana called the Caesar…a hotel. It’s where Caesar salad was invented. [Laughs.] Since you asked for a little bit of trivia, I have some of my own, man! There was a mariachi group playing there. I was a hit in Tijuana at that point, too. So, I went down on a Sunday after we had finished the album and took a picture of these guys and Jerry [Moss] thought it would be a good idea to have them on the album.”
One member of the famous Tijuana Latin jazz group the Travelers, a band that became a sensation in San Diego, mentions that while listening to the TJB he did not feel too much enthusiasm for the gringo-light Latin rhythms.
Gabriel Bravo, a pianist that used to have a jazz trio in the ’60s and is the son of Miguel Bravo (the first bullring bandleader), remembers that his band’s repertoire included “A Taste of Honey” (from the album Whipped Cream and Other Delights) and a few other TJB hits that tourists requested as if they were home-grown Tijuana tunes. Gabriel sits today four days a week at a piano playing jazz standards in an Italian restaurant in the Zona Rio of Tijuana, a one-man legacy of the days of cabarets, bars, bullfights, and the Tijuana sound.
Waiting for Herb
The mixed feeling toward Herb Alpert and his relationship (or lack of) with Tijuana is a never-ending topic with the musician viejos of the city. Undoubtedly, Alpert created a mythical vision of Tijuana with his sound and contributed to the already dynamic musical history of the town. But there is an interesting relationship between the success of the TJB with the image of the city and its dream of the future that was distinct during the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Tijuana was growing up from a rough and bewildering past as the California playground in Old Mexico — or as “America’s bargain-basement of sin,” as Hollywood once dubbed the city. The city was on a journey into adulthood, and the sound of the TJB was the soundtrack created by the idea of being modern — utopia embodied by the sound of a trumpet. Today it doesn’t matter if Herb and his band spent time with their adopted city because all myths regarding this city tend to be larger than Tijuana itself.
From Jelly Roll Morton to the Agua Caliente Casino and the Caesar salad, the Tijuana Brass is part of the legend that Tijuana relies on for a bit of sanity in our current and post 9/11 world of Operation Gatekeeper, NAFTA, drug-cartel violence, and ubiquitous squatter urbanism. The TJB continues to be heard in Tijuana, and in my family it will probably continue to be the soundtrack of Christmas until the younger members make their stand and dedicate the night to Lady Gaga, the Nortec Collective, or Julieta Venegas. Today, I think the city is ready for a good shot of brass-sounding retro-utopia, so if you’re listening, Mr. Alpert, there is still a Tijuana taxi to welcome you into the city one more time.
Rene Peralta is an architect from Tijuana and a Woodbury University professor. He is coauthor of the book Here is Tijuana (2006). He is currently working on a new book titled “Tijuana Moods,” which chronicles the musical history and urban development of Tijuana. His website: generica.com.mx.