Looking for Herb
Every Christmas Eve, my family gets together at my mother’s house in a Tijuana middle-class suburb near the old Caliente Racetrack to have tamales, turkey, and liters of calientitos (Mexican Christmas punch). We wait for the midnight hour to open presents. This traditional ceremony has a soundtrack, and in Tijuana it is not the sound of Villancicos Navideños, but more in tune with the sounds of Christmas with the Rat Pack, Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song,” and Elvis’s It’s Christmas Time. It is not Navidad until we play Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’s Christmas Album.
Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (TJB) released Christmas Album in 1968, around the same time my mother’s home and the community of Las Palmas were built by Don Raymundo Muzquiz, a developer who practically owned most of Tijuana. To this day, we still carry the TJB Christmas Album on our iPods and play it during the posada season at our house (a nine-day celebration from December 16 through 24).
The TJB was not only a band that borrowed the city’s name: their sound became synonymous with a desire for a metropolitan Tijuana, a city that might be similar to San Diego, yet one that maintained its Latin roots with south-of-the-border charm. During the ’70s, the band’s music became the soundtrack for a couple of local TV shows, including Tijuana Window to the South.
During this time, Tijuana was growing at an accelerated rate due to the maquiladora program that began in 1965 and lured migrants from the southern states of Mexico and Central and South America. Tijuana grew from 165,690 in 1960 to 340,383 in 1970. The image and collective urban memory of the city morphed from utopia to dystopia…or from modern metropolis to the poster child of informal development.
The Tijuana sound climaxed with the TJB and gave way to other musical manifestations such as norteño, influenced by the musical tastes of migrants from southern Mexico who were more in tune with the realities of low-wage labor, haphazard planning, and squatter communities. A prominent local rock-and-roll scene was in the making and gave way to Tijuana groups such as the Tijuana Five, Dugs Dugs, and Javier Bátiz, longtime friend of Carlos Santana. Later came the narco corridos, musical tales that depicted the lives and misdeeds of drug cartels that began to set up shop in the ’80s.
The TJ Sound
The Tijuana sound had been in the making way before Herb Alpert set foot in Tijuana for the first time in 1962 to experience the sound and atmosphere of la fiesta brava (bullfights) in the bullring known as El Toreo de Tijuana. During the 1920s, many bars and cabarets that catered to visitors from California during Prohibition had musical acts. Musicians came to the city from the north and south, looking for work in American-owned establishments.
Jelly Roll Morton wrote his famous “Kansas City Stomp” while working at the Kansas City bar in Tijuana and was probably lured by TJ not only by the work but also because of gambling, horse racing, boxing matches, cockfighting, and bullfighting, the same blood-fest attraction that caught the attention of Herb Alpert 40 years later.
As the temptation of vice and inebriated recreation became part of the image of Tijuana, many musicians came down to work in the casinos and bars along Avenida Revolución. By the 1960s, Tijuana’s musical bandwagon was full force, and other famous jazz musicians began to show up and create their version of the Tijuana sound.
In 1962, Charles Mingus recorded Tijuana Moods, an album that he described as his best work. He was followed by Clark Terry and Gary McFarland with their Tijuana Jazz album, recorded in 1965, the same year Alpert released Whipped Cream and Other Delights (with model Dolores Erickson wearing nothing but whipped cream on the cover).
Alpert continued to write hit after hit; he won seven Grammys and sold more than 72 million records worldwide with Tijuana Brass, a band that did not include Mexicans or musicians from Tijuana. The band’s inspiration from Tijuana was more atmospheric than physical. Alpert remembered in a 1979 interview that one day in 1962 he came down to Tijuana from Los Angeles to watch the Mexican bullfighter Carlos Arruza and was inspired by the sounds of Mexico and not so much by the music. The bullring band of the time was led by Miguel Bravo, a well-known local musician who was good friends with Rafael Mendez, one of Mexico’s most famous trumpet players and an inspiration to Alpert. Mendez would show up for the bullfights and sometimes play with the band. Mendez’s virtuoso sound might have been in the air when Alpert made that trip to see the great Arruza swing his cape.
The TJB broke up in 1969; their last record together was The Brass Are Coming. But the Brass never came back to Tijuana. So began the legend of Alpert and his muchachos that circulates to this day. Some of the stories relate that Alpert was Brazilian or that the Tijuana Brass was all mariachi players from Plaza Santa Celia, where — on the corner of Revolution Avenue and First Street — mariachi bands eagerly await to be hired for a gig. One still-prominent rumor is that Herb Alpert is a tijuanense.
The Brass reunited in 1974 with new musicians, but the band played only for a year and a half before calling it quits. The traces that we have of the TJB in Tijuana are their promotional images, album covers, and music videos shot among the city’s most emblematic architecture. The music video for Alpert’s first hit (“The Lonely Bull”) was shot in 1962 with an empty Toreo de Tijuana as stage and ghostly recordings of large crowds. He returned to shoot a few more videos for the songs “Spanish Flea” and “Mexican Shuffle,” with large Tijuana crowds and bullfights and great shots of the city, which in those days was expanding toward the east.
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.