Every Christmas Eve my family gathers at my mother's house located 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 sound track, and in Tijuana it is not the sound of Villancicos Navideños, but it's more in tune with the sounds of, "Christmas with the Rat Pack", "Nat King Cole Merry Christmas", "Elvis, Its Christmas Time" and it is not Navidad until we play "Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Christmas Album"
Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (TJB) was not only a band that borrowed the city's name: their sound became synonymous with a desire for a cosmopolitan Tijuana, a city that might be similar to San Diego, yet one that maintained its Latin roots and an underlying south-of-the-border charm. During the 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, Central and South America. Tijuana grew from 165,690 in 1960 to 340,383 in 1970. Today, with a population close to 2 million the city is on an emergent and revival path after a recent past of cartel violence and economic downturns. Tijuana is investing time and talent on the creative efforts of its chefs, architects, artists, and homegrown young entrepreneurs who want it to flourish as one of the most influential and vital cities of the Americas.
The TJ Sound
The Tijuana sound had been in the making way before Herb Alpert set foot in Tijuana that first time in 1962 to experience the sound and atmosphere of la fiesta brava, (Bullfights) in the bullring known as El Toreo de Tijuana.
El Toreo was the oldest bullring of two constructed in Tijuana. It opened to the public in 1938, however it was dismantled in 2007. During the 1920s many bars and cabarets that catered to visitors from California during prohibition had musical acts. 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 not to mention bullfighting, the same 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 in full force and other famous jazz musicians began to show up to soak the vibes of the city 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 Gerry McFarland with their "Tijuana Jazz" album recorded in 1965, the same year Alpert released "Whipped Cream and Other Delights" (with model Dolores Erickson wearing shaving cream on the cover.)
Alpert continued to write hit after hit song, going on to win seven Grammys and selling more than 72 million records worldwide, with Tijuana Brass, a band that did not include Mexicans or musicians from Tijuana by the way. The band's inspiration of Tijuana was more atmospheric than physical. Alpert remembered in an 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. The bullring band of the time was lead by Miguel Bravo, a well-known local musician that was good friends with Rafael Mendez, one of Mexico's most famous trumpet players and 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 circulate to this day. Some of the stories relate that Alpert was Brazilian, or that the Tijuana Brass where 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 the one that Herb Alpert himself is a Tijuanense.
The Brass reunited in 1974 with new musicians, but this time the band only played for a year and 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 in the city's most emblematic architectures. 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", now with a large Tijuana crowd and bullfights, panning great shots of the city, that 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.
Out on the street today the old guard Tijuana musicians still discuss Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass 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. Others, say he learned his chops at 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 in the back cover of the "Lonely Bull album", yet Alpert himself mentions in the Wagner interview, that it was shot strictly for the album cover design, " 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 thought it would be a good idea to have them on the album."
The Caesar Restaurant was reopened in 2010 and its now one of the most sought after dinner places on Avenida Revolución and yes, it was the birthplace of the original Caesar Salad, first prepared back in 1927 by the chef Livio Santini while Caesar Cardini was the owner. Gabriel Bravo, a pianist that used to have a jazz trio in the 60s and son of Miguel Bravo, the first bullring band leader, still 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 tourist requested as if they where home grown tunes of Tijuana. Gabriel sits today four days a week at a piano playing jazz standard in an Italian restaurant in the Zona Río district of Tijuana, a one man legacy of the old 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 musical 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 of an imaginary city 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 quality time with their adopted city, because like all myths regarding this city they tend to be larger than Tijuana itself.
From Jelly Roll Morton to the Agua Caliente Casino and the Ceasar Salad, the Tijuana Brass is part of that legend that Tijuana relies on for a bit of sanity in our current and post 9-11 world of Operation Gatekeeper and Donald Trump. Lately, there is another rumor going around that Herb Alpert might come back, once more, to play his trumpet in Tijuana. The generation that grew up with his music is anxiously awaiting his return and the younger Tijuanenses want to see and hear this legendary musician the viejos are chatting about! Today, I think the city is ready for a good shot of brass sounding retro-utopia, so if you're reading this piece Mr. Alpert, there is still a Tijuana Taxi to welcome you across the border one more time!
Rene Peralta is a faculty member in the School of Architecture at Woodbury University San Diego. He is co-author of the book "Here is Tijuana" (2006). He is currently working on a new book titled "Tijuana Moods" that chronicles the musical history and urban development of Tijuana. His website; www.generica.com.mx