Feature: Wednesday February 13, 2003
Saenz of the Times Part 1

In this Northside family, music is just one of the legacies being passed on to new generations.

By Ken Shimamoto

It was Nicho and Rosa Saenz’s 50th wedding anniversary, and the Catholic Men’s Club was bursting at the seams with food and music and 600 people. Two rows of candles and an anniversary arch stood in front of the stage, and strings of balloons hung over the celebrants. A table in the back was stacked high with hundreds of gifts from well-wishers. Music blared from the PA. Temperatures outside were frosty, but the throng of people inside warmed the hall.

Plenty of musicians and singers — Nicho and Rosa probably know everybody on the North Side who can hit a note — had offered their services for the recent party, and a few would take the stage for a song or two as the night wore on. But Rosa was adamant when it came to the evening’s main entertainment. “I want everything on that stage to be mine,” she had said. So the band onstage was Latin Express, led by her sons Carlos and Leo and filled with five of her and Nicho’s grandchildren, moving the crowd with syncopated sounds.

This was no last-minute family group thrown together in the backyard. Latin Express is Fort Worth’s leading Tejano band, and they’ve played everywhere from neighborhood weddings and quinceañeras to the White House. Over the years, Carlos and Leo Saenz have built on the foundation of music and activism that their dad gave them, teaching music to Northside youngsters who have gone on to successful careers as musicians and educators.

On stage, they segued from Tejano classics to old-school R&B to ’40s swing. Off the stage, the Saenzes are doing the same thing, expanding the repertoire of their family legacy by opening the Saenz Center for the Performing Arts to provide a formal venue for the educational efforts they’ve been doing informally for years.

Between sets, Carlos Saenz worked the room, exchanging hugs and greetings with friends from the neighborhood and family members from all over Texas. The individual conversations may have been unimportant, but, like a fanfare from the band’s horn section, this was another announcement of the Saenz presence. His legacy in the music arena secure, Carlos, 46, is now taking his first tentative steps onto the city’s political stage. Recently appointed to Fort Worth’s Community Development Corporation, he hopes to parlay the experience he gains there into a seat on the city council or school board — or perhaps even the mayor’s office.

Carlos sat behind the board at the Latin Express band’s Brown Line Studios, located in a small house off White Settlement Road, near the Trinity River. On a Saturday afternoon, his nephew Leo was overdubbing some bass parts for the band’s new c.d. “You are who you hang out with,” said Carlos. He was talking about a band member who hadn’t been keeping up with his practice regimen and was spending more time than the leader was happy with listening to “bad music.” But you could tell that Carlos also meant it in a larger sense — drugs, crime, gangs.

Nicho started both of his sons playing with his band from very early ages — Carlos at age 13, Leo at age nine — as a way of protecting them from the more dangerous aspects of Northside street life. That tradition continues today. The current Latin Express lineup includes two of Carlos’ daughters and two of Leo’s sons. “They’re the future,” said Carlos. His eldest daughter Mariza, 21, plays keyboards in the band and works as a legal assistant while studying to be a teacher. Carlos remembers showing her exercises on the piano while she was in diapers. Now she works with her uncle handling the band’s business. Her sister Meliza, a.k.a. “Little Magic,” sings and plays percussion. She started playing the drums at age eight. Now 19, she plans to pursue a career in journalism. Little Magic excels on R&B material, and her version of Bloodstone’s ’70s classic “Natural High” is a highlight of the show. “I used to play at school carnivals with my daughters,” said Carlos. “Now they see music as a way to make money for college.”

Besides playing bass in the band, 20-year-old Leo Saenz III is also an able trumpeter and guitarist who occasionally sits in on jazz nights at the Moon and the Black Dog and dreams of going to New York to attend college and work as a musician there. He’s inherited his father’s sense of humor and can often be seen cutting up in the background onstage while continuing to lay down a solid groove. His younger brother Steven started playing congas when he was four. He’s now 11 and has added trumpet and trombone to his array of instruments. Their cousin Mauricio Saenz Jaurigui started on drums at age 12. At 19, he’s developed into a powerful, versatile player. The group is rounded out by a couple of non-family members, saxophonists Charles Mercado and Eli Molina.

The members of Latin Express modestly call themselves “Fort Worth’s best-kept secret,” but they’re really the city’s highest-profile Latin band. Repeatedly voted “best Tejano band” by Fort Worth Weekly readers and staff, they’re working hard to preserve the Chicano style of greats like Sunny and the Sunliners (who had a nationwide No. 1 hit with “Talk To Me”), Little Joe y La Familia, and Ruben “El Gato Negro” Ramos.

“We’re talking about a style that’s going to be dead in 15 years,” said Carlos, “because all of the legends are now in their 60s and they didn’t teach their kids how to sing, so there’s no one else to pick up the torch.” Their Chicano sound incorporates elements of jazz, swing, R&B, funk, rock, and country, ranging from traditional Tejano polkas to hot salsa, old-school R&B, or cookin’ Latin jazz.

“We’ve been going since 1975 because we have a good product,” he continued. “People appreciate the values of music and singing without compromise that we represent. People said we were crazy booking a show at the Bass Hall on a Monday night, when the Denver Broncos were playing the Miami Dolphins, and charging $49 a ticket. But people came; it was a sell-out. We made it like a revue — people who came got to hear Little Joe, Ruben Ramos, Alfonso Ramos, and Augustin Ramirez singing with the band without having to sit through set changes.”

In late January, the band brought 500 people out to a benefit for a family who’d lost their house to a fire and had no homeowner’s insurance. The streets surrounding St. Mary’s Hall on Lipscomb Street were lined with cars. Inside, the primarily Hispanic crowd covered the whole spectrum of ages, from senior citizens to infants. They ate bowls of menudo and drank sodas, with a few partygoers bringing their own supplies of beer and liquor. They bid on items in a silent auction under a banner that read “Friends Helping Friends.” They listened to music by the Celebrity Band, a group of veterans from ’70s bands who sounded like they’d had more than the three rehearsals they actually managed in preparation for the gig. When Latin Express hit the stage, the dance floor was filled with couples moving to the percolating rhythms and buoyant horns. The Saenz brothers are consummate showmen, always working the crowd, giving shout-outs to friends and the alumni of area high schools in the audience. The other bandmembers form a tight, professional unit, laying down an irresistible groove to keep the crowd on its feet.

“We always like to help out people who have fallen on hard times when we can,” Leo said later. “And it helps the band, too.”

In 1999, D.J. Bob Bonilla of the nonprofit organization Tejanos for Onda Music approached Leo Saenz for help in organizing a benefit for his group’s scholarship fund. “We were trying to cut our production budget,” he explained. “The city wanted a $3,000 fee, plus a percentage of the take, to use a city park for our event.” Instead, he said, “Working with Leo, we got permits to close down North Main Street, the way they do for Pioneer Days.” Latin Express also performed at the successful event. A few months later, Bonilla and the band came together again to present a benefit show for families displaced by the March 2000 tornado. Musicians Buddy Miles and Little Joe performed along with Latin Express, and the event raised over $10,000 for disaster relief. Latin Express is currently organizing a fundraiser for a Fort Worth police officer wounded in the line of duty. On Feb. 28, they’ll return to St. Mary’s Hall to play a benefit for Alyssa Gonzalez, a 10-year-old cancer patient.

The band has sold 12,000 copies of its 1998 debut c.d., Chicano Power, mostly to audiences at shows — an impressive feat for an independently distributed record that got no radio play. Designating their music as “Chicano” rather than “Tejano” has incurred the wrath of many players in the Hispanic record industry. “All the Tejano labels are run by people from Mexico,” said Carlos, “but we’re playing for people who grew up on apple pie, hot dogs, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln — people who root for the Rangers and the Cowboys.” Unlike that of a traditional Tejano band, Latin Express’ music isn’t accordion-based. Besides connecting the band with their fans of Mexican heritage from outside Texas, the “Chicano” label also evokes images of Cesar Chavez and the Hispanic power movements of the ’70s.

Release of a new c.d., Cruzin’ Chicano Boulevard, is imminent. The disc will feature guest appearances by Chicano greats like Ruben and Alfonso Ramos; Sunny Ozuna of Sunny and the Sunliners; Little Joe Hernandez of Little Joe y La Familia; and Rene Ornelas, who had a late-’60s hit as a member of Rene y Rene with “Lo Mucho Que Te Quiero” (which he sang with Latin Express at Nicho and Rosa’s anniversary party). The band passed up offers from several South Texas record labels that wanted the rights to the band’s arrangements as part of any deal. “Why sign with somebody who wants the rights to your music and might wind up shelving you?” said Carlos. “We’ve budgeted $20,000 to promote the record. We plan media blitzes and c.d. release parties in all of our major markets.” Being the pragmatic businessman he is, Carlos realizes that receiving ad revenue from Latin Express might make radio stations more apt to play the band’s c.d. The band is already planning to record a third c.d. that will feature some of the group’s original compositions.

The tinkly notes drifted down the hall and into the ears of the two boys. The sounds of the “12th Street Rag” coming from the piano meant Pop was home from another all-night honkytonk gig. Nicho Saenz let the ragtime piece serve as reveille, waking his boys Carlos and Leo and their sister Dino. Then he cooked them a breakfast of his “crazy pancakes” in all different shapes, filled with raisins and other goodies. Nowadays, the piano is part of what’s jokingly referred to as “the shrine” for all the photos, clippings, and awards that line every flat surface in Nicho and Rosa’s living room.

Meeting the couple for the first time, it’s easy to see where their children’s work ethic and the powerful bonds among them originated. “I love my children more than I love my own soul,” said Nicho. Rosa welcomes Carlos and Leo’s friends into her home as if they were her own children. Both parents are visibly proud of their sons’ and grandchildren’s achievements, and music is still part of their daily life. A visitor might be treated to an impromptu performance, as Nicho picks up his accordion and Leo grabs a bajo sexto, a Mexican 12-string guitar, dipping into a repertoire that includes material as diverse as a traditional Mexican tune, Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya,” and Bob Wills’ “San Antonio Rose.” “We learned to play anything that people would pay to hear,” Nicho said.

“Our [paternal] grandmother looked like a pure Indian,” said Leo, “but our grandfather almost looked like an Irish guy — like Spencer Tracy! On our mom’s side, you can tell the Spanish blood is strong.” Both parents moved as teen-agers to Fort Worth from the Rio Grande Valley in the ’40s, the children of migrant workers seeking better wages and living conditions. Leo gives credit for bringing the families north to “Grandpa” Joe Lazo, a heating and air conditioning technician who had moved from South Texas years earlier and served as Tarrant County’s first Hispanic precinct chairman in the ’60s

“I always thought of myself as poor,” said Nicho, “but when we came here, my parents had a house built for them and paid cash for it. Before we left the Valley, we sold off all of our livestock.” When Nicho arrived in Fort Worth at age 14, he had already learned to play the accordion and sing. He showed up at his first local dance in the baggy zoot suit of a pachuco, carrying his accordion in a pillowcase. “People around here didn’t know what to make of my pop,” said Leo. “He saw the band at that first dance — just a violin, guitar, and drums — and thought, ‘I’m going to clean up in this town.’” Nicho recalls buying his first house at the age of 16 with money he made performing.

Back in those days, Leo said, a four-by-nine-block area in the vicinity of the Stockyards was “a city within a city” for recent arrivals from Mexico and the Valley. There was plenty of work for the men in the paper and packing plants nearby, and women could venture south and west to work as domestics — taking care to be back in the neighborhood before nightfall. South of the Catholic Men’s Club, you can still see the buildings that housed the shops that served the community.

Following his marriage to Rosa in 1953, Nicho, who’d previously worked in pipeline construction, opened an awning business, S&W Canvas Products, with T.D. Winn, an African-American in his 40s. The elder Saenz credits Winn with teaching him patience. Out of respect for his partner, he kept the “W” in the name of the company after Winn died of leukemia in 1973. “In school from ’63 to ’69,” said Carlos, “I was taught to hate blacks. But T.D. Winn was like a grandfather to me.” By the 1980s, the company was working on projects all over the country.

Around the same time, Nicho relocated his family to the house on Lagonda Avenue — then a predominantly Czech neighborhood — where he and Rosa still live. “My pop liked to stir things up,” said Leo. “We were the first Hispanic family in the neighborhood. After us, others followed.” Leo remembers his father putting a fallen tree in the road to slow down drivers who used to speed down the street, endangering the neighborhood kids.

“Growing up, we were so poor, we couldn’t pay attention,” Leo laughed. “We couldn’t afford Converse sneakers, so we’d buy Keds and paint the [Converse] stars on the side!” He also remembers getting sent home from Denver Avenue Elementary School, a couple of blocks from his parents’ home, for speaking Spanish on his first day of school. Today, the school has been renamed in honor of Rufino Mendoza, the father of current Fort Worth police chief Ralph Mendoza.

When 16-year-old Leo dropped out of school in 1981, Carlos told Nicho, “We’re taking a step backward. This family can’t survive with uneducated people.”

Carlos and Leo are strong, forceful personalities who might end up at loggerheads in a different kind of band. Instead, said Carlos, “We feed off each other. I’m the straight man, Leo’s the comic. When we’re not together, we miss each other.”

At 37, Leo Saenz is a genial “life-of-the-party” kind of guy who’s always surrounded by friends and fans. Onstage, although Carlos and his daughter Meliza do most of the lead singing, Leo is the band’s master of ceremonies and natural comedian. Leo began his musical career playing drums with his father, but he was inspired to pick up the trumpet when he saw Kirk Douglas in the film Young Man With a Horn. At first, unable to afford a horn, he imitated trumpet players by blowing in Coke bottles. He started playing trombone in the school band at 11. “The horn was taller than I was,” he laughed. “I had to tie a string from my finger to the slide so I could play in the seventh position.” Soon after, he found “the horn from hell,” a cornet with bent valves, at Los Amigos Pawn Shop.

At first, Leo relied solely on a keen musical ear to be able to play. He would practice his horn in the side yards around his family’s house on Lagonda. When neighbors complained about the noise, he’d retreat to Oakwood Cemetery, where he could practice in peace. Soon, he had developed his tone to the point where people no longer complained when they heard his playing. Rather, they’d flock from around the neighborhood to listen to him practice. But he still hadn’t learned to read music. “I heard him playing the music to Herb Alpert’s ‘Rise’ perfectly,” Carlos recalled. “Then I looked at the music stand in front of him and saw the music to ‘Carnival of Venice.’ Our mother told me, ‘Listen to Leo, hear how well he can read the music.’ But I told him, ‘You can fool everybody, but you can’t fool yourself. You need to learn to read the notes.’ ”

When Leo joined Latin Express in 1979 at age 14, his brother recalled, he had “no chops, no range, and no business on stage.” One after the other, the band’s veteran horn section, keyboard player, and drummer all quit in protest. But the fledgling trumpeter was willing to learn, and his older brother was willing to school him in the craft of musical performance. He also counseled his brother to keep focused and stay in school.

But when Leo was a high school sophomore, his first son was born, and he quit school and the band to work for his father’s company installing awnings. The experience of doing heavy physical labor convinced him that he needed to go back to school. Leo graduated from North Side High School with both a diploma and an auto mechanic’s certificate and went on to study music at the college level. Starting at what was then the Tarrant County Junior College’s south campus in 1985, Leo studied under local jazz heavyweight Rick Stitzel, who introduced him to the concept of swing and to modern jazz players like Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard. Leo later switched to TCJC Northeast, where instructor Jack Cobb became another important influence.

Carlos recalled one trumpet teacher who changed young Leo’s embouchure (the way the lips and tongue are applied to the mouthpiece) after he’d been playing for several years. “He came to practice and couldn’t play a note,” he recalled. “I asked him what was up, and he said his teacher told him he’d been playing all wrong. I went back to the teacher and told him, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. He can play. Don’t change his embouchure.’”

The young musician learned his lessons well, and today his upper-register trumpet flights are a highlight of any Latin Express performance. He’s also been known to pick up a trombone or alto saxophone. He’s a fixture at the Black Dog Tavern’s Sunday night jazz jams, and one of the few area musicians to make a living solely through music. The members of the Latin Express horn section have become in-demand session players for other artists’ gigs and recordings.

Part Two: http://www.fwweekly.com/content.asp?article=2457(Click here to continue...)

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