Dr. Jose B. Cuellar

Director of the CECIPP:   Activities  |  Annual Reports  |  Working Papers  |  Menu


El Saxofón in Tejano and Norteño Music

by Jose B. Cuellar


I.  Introduction

Adolphe Sax died in 1894, over fifty years before his most important invention, el saxofón, was introduced into the musical records of the twin Texas-Mexican frontera musical traditions called "Tex Mex" or "Tejano" and "Regional" or "norteño."  More than a century after Sax's death, the saxophone is now a firmly established element in the extremely popular contemporary sounds of such norteño conjuntos as Primavera, Los Tigres del Norte, Los Huracanes del Norte and Los Rieleros del Norte; and such Tejano music groups as David Lee Garza y Los Musicales, Mazz, Roberto Pulido y los Clásicos, Emilio Navaira y Río and Jay Pérez to mention just a few.  The saxophone has revolutionized and jazzed up most 20th century music genres, and the United States-Mexican borderlands music is no exception.
 My project's purpose was to study how the saxophone developed and diffused as part of these twin traditions of norteño and Tejano Music.  My ethnomusicological approach included charting the continuities and changes in the life experiences of the saxofonistas and their musical expressions on the sax over time, as well as documenting the distinctions and similarities in Tejano and norteño saxofón playing over this past century.
 One assumption is that this study can inform us on whether there is one united macro-cultura that spans the borderlands from one end to the other, or a number of related micro-culturas corresponding tot heir various urban and rural mini-environments along the borderlands.  I am further assuming that by tracing the history of the saxophone's introduction into the Mexican American musical experience this research could concretely help us more clearly understand the concept of transculturation.  By transculturation, I mean the complex combination of synchronizing and synthesizing processes that adopt and adapt, meld and blend, combine and fuse diverse cultural elements into somewhat new cultural expressions in innovative and inventive ways.  And I also assume this research's results on the Tejano and norteño saxophone will show the extent to which our United Sates-Mexican borderland cultura, for all its diversity, is open and receptive, as opposed to closed and rejective, of outside influences or external elements.


Back to Top

II. The Findings

El Saxofón en la música norteña.

My research found there were a number saxofonistas throughout northeaster Mexico before the 1940s.  But, I found little evidence pinpointing exactly when and how the saxophone was brought to the region and by whom.

 Some knowledgeable individuals that I interviewed in Monterrey during the summer of 1997 speculated the saxophone first came to Mexico during the early 1860s with the military bands accompanying would-be-emperor Maximiliano's failed attempt to colonize the country.  Some others speculated El saxofón came later along with the French-influenced danzones to northeastern Mexico from Cuba, through the ports of Matamoros or Tampico.  Others suggested the saxophone first came to Monterrey and the surrounding region, form the "over-saxed" and jazz-crazed United States of the 1920s.  In sum, it seems the saxophone probably arrived in different ways and at different times to the various comunidades of northeastern Mexico.  It appears unevenly distributed across communities and years.

 Before the 1920s, the saxophone appears mostly as a military and municipal band instrument in Mexico.  By the 1930s, a number of cabaret and municipal orquestas throughout the Mexican northeast were playing with one of more saxophones.  But only after the late 1940s does the saxophone come into most northeastern Mexican communities and becomes really integrated in the new northeastern Mexican music eventually called "musica regional" or "musica norteña."

 The sax's actual arrival in northeast Mexico varied significantly from place to place.  For example, ethnomusicologist Garza Guajardo documented a line of saxophonists in Sabinas Hidalgo, N.L. dating back to 1906.  There is evidence that Monterrey was exposed during the early 1920s to the jazz-style playing of visiting saxophonists like Tudor Applen with the All American Jazz Orchestra from New Orleans, and locals like Manuel Martha with the El Porvenir Jazz Group (28).  And noted regional historian and ethnomusicologist Juan Alanis informed me that his documentation shows that the saxophone does not appear in Allende, Nuevo León, until the late 1930s.
 That was around the same time that Los Montañeses del Alamo started featuring the saxophone in their music.  Yet norteño ethnomusicologists agree it was only after the master saxofonista don Fidencio Almaguer replaced Lencho Gloria, in 1944, that the unique Montañeses style became musically apparent.  Fidencio Almaguer's impeccable harmonic sense, and semi-sweet, semi bitter sax tone complimented and consolidated the acoustic-oriented violin, flute, bass and bajo sexto with vocal ensemble sound of Los Montañeses.  Their particularly unique blending of sax and flute harmonies and fills behind and between vocals established a tradition still played and appreciated today.
 Don Fidencio Almaguer became the much-needed energetic centerpiece of the never-tiring group of Montañeses who traveled constantly during the 1940s and 50s.  They played at regional radio presentations and dance halls across the northeastern Mexican states form Tamaulipas, Coahuila and Nuevo León to San Luis Potosí, Durango and Chihuahua.
 The period between 1945 and 1955 is considered the "golden decade" of Los Montañeses del Alamo.  The group traveled to Mexico in 1945 and made its first recording ("De Torreón a Laredo,"  "Bailando Polka," "Del Alamo a San Francisco," and "San Antoniana") with don Fidencio on sax.
Fifty years later, everyone agrees don Fidencio was one of the best of all saxofonistas in the history of the group and possibly the history of "música regional."  The unique Montañeses style of sax pioneered by Mr. Almaguer can be heard on recorded classics such as: "Las Golondrinas," "Noche Buena," "Cuando Se Quiere Deberas," and "Sarabia."  Other Montañeses recordings feature don Fidencio's superb supporting role as the deep, but soft second alto voice to the flute, violin, or lead singer.
 Otro pioneer saxophonist, don Santos Ybarra described don Fidencio's playing style this way (originally in Spanish, these quotes were translated into English by the author): "Well, one of the characteristics of Almaguer is that he did not stay tied to the melody.  He would not tightly follow the way they do today, when the accordion carries the melody and the second plays a third below, very tight.  Fidencio would not.  He always played deep.  Wow!  He gave it that characteristic that the flute was playing above, and Fidencio playing more than an octave below.  And he would follow precisely in the very unique style of don Fidencio."
 Beginning in 1959 Esteban Aguirre Rocha regularly substituted for don Fidencio on the sax with Los Montañeses.  During the 1960s, at least two other saxophonists: Jesús Martínez and Estebanís son, Victor Aguirre, also regularly played saxophone with Los Montañeses.  The group's 1986 album was publicized as "the new sound of Los Montañeses del Alamo" and followed by several more.  Therefore, despite the passing of both don Fidencio Almaguer and his long-term substitute Esteban Aguirre Rocha, another generation of musicians appears committed to maintaining the more than 50 year old saxophone-based tradition of Los Montañeses del Alamo.
 "This maintenance" said Juan Alanís, "is almost by inheritance.  The saxofón is not learned in school.  The melodies, the tunes, are transmitted from generation to generation.  Many of them do not know how to read music; that is to say, they memorize and play with mastery as if they were reading the sheet music.  But this is from father to son, from musician to musician; how the use of the saxofón is transmitted."
 Guadalupe Quezada is very proud of the fact that he is the first saxophonist in his hometown of Linares to play "musica regional."  According to him: "Everything changed between 1945 and 1947.  A natural disaster, frozen crops that winter, forced many of the campesinos to become migrant cotton pickers the following seasons in the United States.  They returned with good clothes, leather boots, Tejano hats, plus a desire for diversion and lots of money to buy it."
 "The owners of the three of four cabaret businesses in the so-called 'tolerance zone' of Linares started hiring acordion and bajo sexto duets instead of orchestras in an effort to attract the returning so called 'wetbacks' who showed a definite taste for this regional music.  The dance promoters and radio stations followed, also hiring conjuntos and pushing the music."
In 1952 Guadalupe Quezada started playing sax with an accordion-bajo sexto duet.  Their ideas was to imitate the extremely popular first norteño-style recording made four years earlier by alto saxophonist Beto Villa, pioneer with accordionist Narciso Martínez in south Texas.  He said his goal, as a beginning conjunto saxophonist, was to learn to play Beto Villa's "Monterrey" perfectly.  He said: "It was the most difficult piece.  I knew that when I could play that tune, I was un buen saxofonista de música regional!"
 Santos Ybarra, a native of La Paz, San Luis Potosi and now a long-time resident of Monterrey, for many years has been the only saxophone repairman in all the northeast region of Mexico.  He has known and repaired the horns of most Mexican saxophonists in and out of the region for years.  Thus, his contribution to the actual maintenance of the norteño saxophone tradition is beyond measure.
 The son of a musician, Santos Ybarra finally convinced his municipal band director to let him play c-melody sax at age 15, after first forced to study the violin.  Almost a decade later, after moving with his wife to work in Dona, Texas, Santos Ybarra performed and recorded with the legendary accordionist Pedro Ayala.  He recorded the alto sax part on Pedro Ayala's  classic polka "La Pecosita" for Discos Falcón in Mission, Texas in late 1948.  Many groups have since performed and recorded distinct versions of it.  The legendary don Manuel Treviño holds the distinction of having recorded a particularly memorable version of "La Pecosita" on his saxofón melódico with Los Populares de China.
 Santos Ybarra remembered Pepe Gonzalez (a.k.a. El Gorreón), as the first saxophonist to play in what is now considered the characteristic norteño or closely following the lead voice a third below.  "He had a very unique manner of playing," recalled don Santos, "because his diaphragm had an impressive air capacity.  He could play extremely long phrases without breathing."
 Rodolfo "Fito" Hernández from Linares, was another great saxophonist according to Santos Ybarra.  Don Fito, who started with Los Regionales de Linares, is best knows for his work with three other legendary groups, Los Hermanos Prado, Los Gorriones de Topo Chico, and Los Rancheritos de Topo Chico.
 "When Rodolfo started playing," don Santos fondly remembered, "how precious he played those temas.  It was very beautiful!  He had the same melodic tendency as Pepe González, but he also had a very tender and beautiful sound."
 Along with that of Rodolfo "Fito" Hernández, the name of Roosevelt Delgado, the famoso primer saxofonista of Los Gorriones de Topo chico immediately came to Tacho Carrillo's mind when I asked him to name the best regional saxophonists.  Don Tacho is a dedicated organic historian with an encyclopediaís worth of knowledge regarding the region's culture and musicians.
 Other saxophonists who helped establish this unique estilo regiomontano, or Moterrey-style of sax playing during this foundation period of the 1940s and 1950s include: Manuel Treviño who first played c-melody sax with Los Populares de China; Salomón Quezada (Guadalupe's brother), one of several alto saxophonists who eventually replaced Manuel Treviño with Los Populares de China; Estevan Tirado, the saxophonist with Lalo Garcia's Conjunto (backup band for legendary norteño comedian/singer Lalo "El Piporro" González); Julio Prado, who also recorded with Los Alegres de Terán, is best known for his sax playing with Los Hermanos Prado; as well as his first cousin Valentin Prado, and son Julio Prado Jr., both of whom now play sax with Los Nacionales de Linares.
 Alvaro Garza of Sabinas Hidalgo, N.L. played a c-melody sax, co-founded an outstanding group called Los Norteños de Nuevo Laredo, with his brother Salomón Garza.  Don Alvaro on the alto sax. Jelling perfectly with the accordion and supporting the great duet, out-front vocal harmonization recorded a number of superb examples of this classic Monterrey style conjunto norteño.  Other less well known norteño saxophonists who also made significant contributions as group leaders include Santos Ramirez of Los Canarios and Miguel Arredondo of Los Cardenales.
 Santos Ybarra recalled that Fito Olivares once played a "great" melodic sax with Conjunto Estrella de Miguel Allende.  Over the years, Fito Olivares has significantly extended the overlapping musical boundaries of conjunto norteño and conjunto tropical by writing and recording many now-classic cumbias featuring his sabroso/tasty lead saxophone (for example, "La Gallina," "La Güera Salomé," "Josefina," "Juana La Cubana," and "Yo no Bailo con Juana").
 Recent recordings by Los Norteños de Nuevo Laredo, Los Dynámicos and Rogelio Gutiérrez contribute significantly to the maintenance of the norteño saxophone musical tradition and deserve a special note.  Los Norteños de Nuevo Laredo and Los Dynámicos recently recorded fresh instrumental takes of such norteño saxofón classics as "Los Coyotes," "Las Tres Conchitas," "La Curva," and others.
After first playing the larger, deeper sounding c-melody sax with Abelardo García Tijerina, accordionist with García y Lopez, Rogelio Gutiérrez started playing alto sax and assumed leadership if his own group.  He became the most productive and influential norteño saxophonist-leader to date.  He has produced many significant recordings over the years, both as a leader of his own tight "Monterrey" style saxofón y acordeón conjunto, and as a leader of Lorenzo de Monteclaro's backup conjunto.  Four very important recent releases ("Rogelio Gutiérrez Instrumentales" "Norteñas, Polkas Famosas 18 Exitos," "Polkas y Huapangos," and "El Rey de Las Polkas") include his classic interpretation of what is arguably the norteño sax canon: "El Pavido Navido."  Other tunes on this recording include "Los Amores del Flaco," "La Tuna," "Los Tres Negritos," and more.  These demonstrate don Rogelio's ability to either play a thigh segunda, take the lead, or depart by significantly improvising and harmonizing around the melody in unique and unexpected ways.
 Santos Ybarra thinks of Rogelio Gutiérrez as someone whose life story is totally connected to the saxophone.  In other words, someone who dedicated his life to the saxophone.  "His style was to play some great waltzes," don Santos remembered, "he always played four or five sets for everyone." If there is one single saxofonista who most contributed to both growth and maintenance of the saxophone in the norteño music tradition, and most deserves the title "el rey del saxofón norteño/the king of norteño sax," it is Rogelio Gutiérrez.


Back to Top


A Brief History of the Saxophone in Tejano Music

All the available photographic and other archival evidence dates the saxophone in Texas back to the early 1920s.  Although, the sax may have arrived earlier among other groups, like the Czech, who started immigrating to south Texas in the 1850s.  I found no evidence of the saxophone's presence among Texas Mexicans or Tejanos prior to the late 1920s.  Our only tentative conclusion that we can reach at this time is that the saxophone probably came into Texas Mexican musical hands from various sources at different times as also happened in northeast Mexico.
It appears that one of most probable sources of the saxophone came into the Texas Mexican musical experience as a result of  the close contact between Czech and Mexican musicians during the late 1920s when they were both being recorded by the Martin label in San Antonio.  As Chris Strachwitz observed: "These two cultures have long lived side by side in Texas and Mexican-American musicians have adapted many Czech/Bohemian tunes into their repertoire while most Czech bands have learned popular Mexican melodies."  Also according to Strachwitz, the sax-flavored "Corrido Rock" recorded by the Joe Patek orchestra, "is a wonderful example of the cross fertilization and borrowing of musical ideas which has been an ongoing process over the years."  Additionally the evidence shows that accordionist Narciso Martínez often played for Czech as well as for the Mexican audiences.  This is important because it was Narciso Martinez who first recorded with saxophonist Beto Villa.
 Alberto "Beto" Villa, born in Falfurrias, Texas on October 26, 1915, got his first saxophone from his father, the leader of an orquesta típica, who persuaded him to study with a private teacher of Mexican music.  As a teenager, when he joined the school band that played only american music, he developed a stronger interest in big jazz bands than in Mexican music.  By playing with a number or orchestras all over south Texas, Beto developed into a saxophonist with a clear fine tone and a well liked bandleader with a charismatic personality, and an excellent sense of his postwar "Mexican American" generation's popular musical taste.
 During the four years before World War II, Beto Villa played sax and lead his own Mexican American orchestra at a Freer, Texas dance hall six nights a week.  He played in the Navy band during the War.  After his Navy discharge, Villa gained more popularity and earned more money than ever by playing sax with his own orchestra in his own dance halls.
 In November of 1947, Idela Record producer Armando Marroquín recorded the waltz, "Porque te Ries," and a polka, "Las Delicias," with Beto Villa on alto sax and Reymundo Treviño on piano accordion, backed-up by drums, trumpet, electric guitar, and a contrabassist.  At Villa's expense, eventually Marroquín reluctantly distributed 200 records that created such a great demand that Paco Betancourt, Marroquíns partner, insisted that Beto Villa record some more.
 The following February, 1948 Marroquín recorded four instrumentals, two waltzes and two polkas, with Beto Villa on alto sax but with the popular Narciso Martínez on acordeón de botón.  Accompanied by a reduced orchestra, Beto and Narciso, changed the course and character of Tejano and norteño music forever with these recordings.  Almost every saxophonist in the region since has imitated Villaís lead interpretations when first learning these songs.  Villaís movingly melancholy saxophone made "Rosita" a 60,000-plus single record seller.  It became a big hit and a perennial favorite for him.  Nonetheless, it was his smooth version of "Monterrey" that placed the saxophone squarely in front and center of the Tejano musical tradition.  As noted by Guadalupe Quezada, this piece of musical mastery remains the root paradigm for all the saxophonists in the tradición norteña.
 Beto and Narciso recorded another set of extremely popular instrumental classics ("Las Gaviotas," "La Picona," "Tamaulipas," "Rock and Rye Polka") in 1949.  Beto Villa also recorded Pedro Ayala's "Mi Pecosita" in November of 1949, exactly twelve months after Santos Ybarra's first recording.  Of course, it was Beto Villa's jazzier version featuring two legato saxophones with bajo sexto and muted trumpets for backup that remains most popular (The Roots of Tejano and Conjunto Music, 1991).
 Beto Villa also cut a number of records with other well-knows accordionists like "La Chapaneca" in April, 1954 with Tony De La Rosa playing his crisp accented arpeggios, rapid runs, altered scales and jazzy syncopated contra-ritmos.  In addition, over the years, Beto Villa recorded sax parts al estilo Monterrey with a number well-known and lesser-known, or unknown conjuntos.
 For the next 16 years he performed and recorded what today we call a truly pioneering "transcultural" repertoire of saxophone-flavored música that appealed greatly to the war veterans and their lovers, pachucos and braceros, Mexican Americans and mexicanos on both sides of the border.  He played every style of popular music.  This paradigmatic repertoire set the pattern, or model, for hundreds of groups that followed.
 Beto Villa's transcultural and transnational style of music carried him to the forefront of this heavy sax-driven movement emerging from the 1940s and 50s United States-rooted Tejano tradition.  Other saxophonist and saxophone bandleaders also understood El gusto del público for the saxophone's smooth-to-gusty sound, and they consciously incorporated it in ensemble or solo parts (e.g., Frank Alonzo y Sus Rancheros, Balde González, Eugenio Gutiérrez, Pedro Bugarn, Dario Pérez and John Colorado).
 Beto Villa quit touring in 1960 because of health problems.  During the last four years, son-in-law Wally Armendariz played saxophone and helped Beto with the band.  Beto Villa died in 1986 at age 71 in Corpus Christi.  Yet, we have his legacy of over 100 78s and scores of LPs, and the hundreds of saxophonists on both sides of the border that still reflect his playing influence.
 Exactly three months after Beto Villa recorded "Monterrey," Isidro López turned 15 years old.  He was already playing saxophone in high school.   Born in Bishop, Texas on May 17, 1933, the following brief summary highlights Isidro López's sax contributions to the style of music he loves best.
 Isidro studies sax and clarinet in school, and attended college for a year.  His first regular playing job was with accordionist Narciso Martínez.  He then played second alto with master Tejano saxophonist Eugenio Gutierrez, and recorded his first lead vocal in 1954 with Juan Colorado's orchestra when the regular singer did not show up.  Before long he was recording on his own; at first with a conjunto featuring Tony De La Rosa on accordion, and later with his own orquesta and mariachi.
 Isidro limited his sax playing after he became a lead singer.  But his recorded arrangements always featured his smooth sax along with those of fellow saxophonists Max Bernal and Chuy Compeán.  One excellent example of Isidro's particularly smooth playing style is an instrumental polka called "La Callozona."
 Isidro continues releasing compilations including both current and earlier recordings.  He still performs live occasionally.  In 1990 Tejano music's primer saxophonist and vocalist was entered into the Texas House of Representatives Congressional Record 15 days short of this fifty-seventh birthday.
 On May 2, 1990, the day Isidro López was entered into the Texas Congressional Record, another pioneer Tejano saxophonist, Pancho Villarreal of San Antonio, turned 48.  Pancho got his first saxophone when his brother, "Ruco" Villarreal, who already had his fairly well known conjunto, said to his father: "buy him a saxophone and I will pay for it."
 Like Beto Villa and Isidro López before him, Pancho first stated playing saxophone in his school band.  At age fourteen, he joined a conjunto called Los Principes de Raymundo Valero.  he remembers how they wanted to kick him out because in his words, "no estaba en la onda/I wasn't in the groove."
 Shortly after forming his own group, Panchito Villarreal y Su Conjunto, he started appearing regularly on San Antonio's Spanish language television station KMEX, with "Tio" Laureano.  "I spent some time accompanying him, and after that, with Pedro Ibarra, who is now my brother-in-law."  Pedro encouraged Pancho to record, resulting in two 45s, "El Herradero," "Dame UN Besito," "Con La Luz Apagada," (unfortunately, Pancho could not remember the name of the fourth tune).
 Pancho summarized his career as a Tejano saxophonist like this: "I joined up with my brother "El Ruco" Villarreal y su Conjunto and that's how my career really got started.  About 26 years of my life I spent with Ruco.  We used to alternate with groups like Isidro López and Agapito Zúñiga, who had two saxes.  He was the first group that I saw with two saxes.  After that we started using two saxes.  After El Ruco stopped playing, around 1965, I went with Flaco Jiménez and Ry Cooder on a tour of California.  We went all over the United States and Canada, and played radio and television shows like Saturday Night Live.
 "I should note that after that, my son Panchito and I, together, played primera y segunda saxes with Arturo Aldare y Machismo, and George Rivas.  Everywhere, we went people would say 'there go los Panchitos."  We were always very close.  He was with me since he was about 12, and we played almost 13 years together."
 "After George Rivas, Panchito went with Emilio Navaira, and I went with Los Tall Boys.  They were a bit more my age," Pancho reflected.  "I recorded two CDs with them, and then suddenly they separated.
 "After Los Tall Boys, I went to help my son Javier with his group Sueño.  But to tell you the truth, I felt out of it.  Understand?  I felt out of it because they were young, and in Tejano, it seems that they want younger people.  I felt out of place with the kids and so I moved aside."
 Describing his personal sax style, Pancho said: "I never have lost that I always attack the notes.  That's how I learned.  I feel that Tejano has a real strong saxophone, but I've also been told that I play the sax too strong, that I attack the notes too much.
 "Like I tell you, I've played with orchestras that made me play softer, lighter and more legato.  And I do not particularly like that style."  In fact, for Pancho to like a contemporary Tejano group, it has to be like that of Rubén Ramos.  "The saxes attack the notes, they sound good.  They sound Tejano.  For me, that is Tejano!"
 The strong "old school" Tejano sax sound of the Rubén Ramos bands that Pancho Villarreal admires so much has been primarily driven by the saxes of: Frank Gómez and Rubén's alto-playing brother Alfonso Ramos, who has formed and reformed the Texas Revolution with him a number of times over the years.  Some recent recorded examples include Rubén Ramos "El Chupa Chavas" and on Alfonso & Rubén-- "The Texas Revolution: Together Again."
 Some of the other saxophonists who also contributed to this unique onda Tejana-style of sax playing during its foundation period of the 1960s and 1970s include: Louie Bustos and Jimmy Flores with Tortilla Factory; Sal Aguilera and Robert Navarro, Tony Matamoros and Jimmy Flores with La Familia; Bob López and Manuel Palafox with Ray Camacho; Danny Pérez and Joe Posada with The Royal Jesters and Jimmy Edwards; Joey Pérez, Carlos Hernández and Jimmy Solis with Sunny Ozuna and the Sungliners; Joseph Rifón and Roy Rositas with Agustín RamÌrez.
 When asked to speculate on the origin of this most-important sax attack, Pancho is positive that it is a norteño influence.  Another norteño influence that Pancho observed is the wailing or crying style of playing sax.  Pancho said the difference is that the Tejano is calmer and the saxophone play the primera part instead of la segunda. "And we don't play quite as rapidly or with a s much of the wailing sound."
 Pancho also noted the differences in use of chords between the norteño and Tejano music: "Los conjuntos play more simple, almost always using the traditional first, second, and third with the relative minor chord; because they don't go out of the relative.  The Tejano musician started using more ninths, more elevenths, more thirteens, you know, and combinations with the bass and guitar with the different chords.  That is the difference.
 "On my part, I also used grand chords, you see.  But I seem to notice that now I am going backwards, toward the more simple; it seems that is what the people like more.  and to tell you the very truth, I think is correct.  It is that there came a period where everyone wanted to make the thing very grand."
Asked generally to name norteño influences on his playing Pancho mentioned Los Gorriones del Topo Chico and Los Rancheritos del Topo Chico, but he was not quite sure the names of the specific saxofonistas.  when asked to name the most influential saxophonists in his life, Pancho unequivocally responded:  "the one who inspired me was Beto Villa, when he had his orquesta, and then Wally Armendariz, when he started to play solo."  When I asked his opinion about the difference between Beto and Wally, Pancho said:  "Beto's sax was more wailing and Wally's was more mellow, more separated and not so weepy."
 Assessing the Tejano scene today, Pancho concluded: "Mostly what happened is that they started using the keyboard's synthesized sax sound in place of the sax.  that has eliminated much of the work for the Tejano saxophonists.  For example, when my son started with Emilio Navaira, I think he was one of the first to double on both keys and sax.  En la onda Tejana the doubling of sax and keys is now used a lot.  It gives the conjunto a different flavor.  It has the advantage of playing accompaniment with keyboard and the melody with sax."
 Of today's tejano saxophonists, Pancho Villarreal likes "Joe Posada, and a friend Luis Chávez who played with Garry Hobbs, Givvy Escovedo, the saxophonist who plays with Jay Pérez, and of course, my son Panchito Jr."
 Panchito Villarreal Jr. is a Tejano saxophone pioneer in his own right, but of a different generation and a different sort.  In many respects, he is a prime example of his generation of Tejano Saxophonists.
 "Music was around us all the time, with my dad playing.  Basically we had instruments all over the place, pianos y guitarras y todo," Panchito said.  "Mostly because I heard him playing sax, I wanted to play sax.  So he started me at 12, and I really hit it hard.  When I was 13 I started to play professionally with him.  We played professionally together for about 13 years.  We did a lot of duets.  He was my mentor and turned me on to different styles of music, like jazz.  He had me listen to Charlie Parker, Phil Woods, Chick Corea, and so I started getting into jazz, but I was still more influenced in Tejano.
 "I first started with a beginner's alto sax, one of those pawnshop horns.  Then, through the years, when my dad and I started playing duets, I converted myself from alto to tenor, so that we could do the alto-tenor thing.  Now  I play mostly the alto."
 When Panchito and his dad played in his tío Ruco Villarreal's group, "it was more of a brass deal," he said.  "Instead of an accordion, we did the polka with two saxes.  People liked to hear it.
 "Now with my dad, our goal was to sound like one person.  My job pretty much was to follow him because he was the lead player.  We had to breath at the same time, tongue together, all that.  If we could sound like one, that's what we were looking for.
"My Dad did a lot more traditional conjunto than I.   I've done a lot more of what they are calling now 'conjunto progressive.'  I played with Emilio and Río for four or five years,  when he first started.  "That was my first experience with an accordion player where it was just me and the accordion player, and that was it.  That was a totally different experience.  That's another was of playing.  I had to re-learn phrasing because the accordion and sax phrases are totally different than with two saxes together, or playing with brasses, or whatever.  It is really up to you, the player, to follow the accordion.  I had lots of training with my dad and I am a good follower because for 13 years I followed his lead.  So when it came to the accordion, I said I can do this but its gonna take more practice, more listening, more hearing.
 "As far as I'm concerned, there are progressive conjunto like Emilio and David Lee Garza, and traditional conjunto like the Tall Boys and Flaco, and conjunto norteños like the Tigres.  Everything has some resemblance.  the instrumentation is the same.  The approach to the music is the same.  The only thing is that in Tejano the progressions are different and more challenging in that they move a lot more.
 "In traditional and norteño conjunto you pretty much stick with a four-five progression.  In Tejano, you do the two-five, throw in a six, do a preparation, go to the four, all these minors and stuff comes in.  You have all that in between substitute chords that sound real neat.  I find that we overdo it for the people sometimes."
 "Who were some of the Tejano saxophonists that most influenced me?  Well to be honest," Panchito said "first, I like the way my dad plays best of all.  And when we play together we sound the same, and we phrase the same too.  And I think Joe Posada is a great player.  He is more jazz influenced, and I like that because I like listening to jazz."
 Panchito talked about how his personal sax playing style has changed over the years since he started playing professionally with his dad and uncles.  "back then had more of a rough sound.  I accented a lot back then.  Then, as we grew, we started doing more of a jazz kind of feeling, more smooth.  And that's pretty much the way play now.  I'm more of a smooth player, I think.  Now if I don't have to accent or tongue it so hard, I won't.  I play everything more legato."
 Frank "Panchito" Villarreal Jr. played saxophone and keyboards with Emilio Navaira and Río at the first three Annual Tejano Conjunto Festivals of the 1990s.  Some of his undocumented sax work can be heard on Emilio Navaira's "Emilio and Mis Mejores Canciones- 17 Super Exitos;" and on La Mafia's "Nuestras Mejores Canciones ­ 17 Super Exitos;" and "La Mafia: La Historia Musical").
 After he left Emilio, Panchito Villarreal recorded with a number of other Tejano music groups.  An example is his recently recorded duel Tejano saxes with Givvy Escovedo on Jay Pérez's "Te Llevo en mi."  He also accepted a recording contract from Capitol.  "They approached me about a record deal to do my own thing," he said.  "I had been doing the music for Emilio, so they offered me a deal."
 "I'm also a keyboard player.  That's helped me a lot with my arranging and producing.  That's what I've been doing with my group Rodeo for the past five years that we've been together, arranging and creating the songs, making them as commercial as possible.  That's mainly our goal is to sell records in Tejano.  We have four compact discs: 'Step by Step' 'Unidos' 'Nuestro Tiempo,' and 'Sobreviviendo' on Capitol."
 Following in the footsteps of David Lee Garza, who won the Most Promising band Tejano Music Award eleven years before Panchito Villarreal's Rodeo won the Rising Star Tejano Music  Award in 1994.  That same year, Emilio Navaira won Tejano Music Awards for best male vocalist, male entertainer, best show band and best conjunto.
 In 1994 Joe Posada won the Best Tejano Musician Award for sax.  An extremely well respected Tejano saxophonist for years, Joe Pasada's outstanding recording and performance career goes back to his trailblazing period of Tejano sax work in the early-seventies with the Royal Jesters band.  Over the decades Posada produced a significant number of his own albums.  These discs exhibit his excellent use of jazzy Tejano arrangements as musical context for his very personal vocal and sax styling.  Although, like Isidro López before him, Joe Posada tends to limit his solo sax work.  "Analisa's Smile" on his Breakaway album is a welcomed exception, and a wonderful example of his rich postmodern Tejano tome and phrasing that continues impressing his contemporaries and admirers like the two Panchitos.
 Oscar Montemayor's extraordinary sax playing has obviously contributed significantly to the success of David Lee's Musicales.  Together they have won many Tejano Music Awards ever since their first Tejano Music Award for Most Promising Band of the Year on March 6, 1983.  When combined with David Lee's accomplished accordion, Oscar Montemayor's unique sax sounds has influenced the articulating and arranging of many other Tejano accordionists and saxophonists who try to replicate their sound and duplicate their success.
 Gibby Escovedo has been influencing the way Tejano-style sax is played for more than 25 years, from the early days of Latin Breed to recent recordings and performances with Jay Pérez.  Jay Pérez sang with David Lee Garza y Los Musicales until he left to form his own group in 1993.  Jay's backup conjunto continues in the "progressive" accordion-sax-synthesizer conjunto tradition.  As already noted, a number of excellent saxophonists already contributed to Jay Pérez's early nominations as Best Tejano/Conjunto Artist of 1994 by Pura Vida Hispanic Music Awards (SA News 7).
 In the mid- 1990s, two postmodern Tejano saxophonists were integrated into the evolving progressive accordion-sax synthesizer conjunto arrangements of both Jay Pérez and Emilio Navaira.  Both Marc Martínez and Valentín Maltos have made significant contributions as examples of a new generation of saxophonists who followed Panchito Villarreal's path by also doubling on synthesized keys and sax.
 Marc Martínez assumed the progressive-style Tejano alto sax and keyboard playing responsibilities with Emilio Navaira y Río after Panchito Villarreal left to form Rodeo.  Marc's sax can be heard on "Emilio: Sound Life," and "Live: Emilio Navaira y Rio."
 Valentín Maltos played saxophone with Jay Pérez at the 14th Annual Tejano Conjunto Festival in 1995.  That same year, Valentín's smoothly polished postmodern Tejano-style also sax was recorded on Jay Pérez's "The Voice."  The next year he recorded "No Limit's with Jay Pérez.
Two of the most popular, best-selling, award-winning groups in Tejano music, Joe López's Mazz and La Mafia also used a progressive instrumentation of sax-accordion-and synthesizer on their best-selling recordings.  Tommy González, who played saxophone and congas with Joe López and Grupo Mazz, and Jesse Perales, who played saxophone with La Mafia.
 Three of Tejano music's best known accordionists-Flaco Jiménez, Valerio Longoria and Tony De La Rosa- recently released recordings that feature the accordion-saxophone combination.  I take this as strong evidence of the continued incorporation of the saxophone in an effort to jazz up the traditional Tejano conjunto mode.
Flaco Jiménez's 1992 Arhoolie album "Flaco's Amigos," included two polkas, "Atotonilco" and "La Feria," featuring the wonderfully close harmony segunda sax playing of Pancho Villarreal.  Flaco's 1992 Reprise album titled "Partners' included five tunes featuring a postmodern Sanborn-like sounding sax of Joe Morales.
Flaco said he planned to record another album with Pancho villarreal on the sax because Ry Cooder, the producer, loves the sound of the saxophone and accordion together.  When asked if he had a personal musical reason for recording with the sax again, he said: "Porque it sounds more bluesy, más jazzy.  When the progressions changed, that's when the saxophone started being used more."
 "My father played with a saxophone once in a while, although he was more traditional.  Tony Molina is one of those who first played with mi papá in those years."
 Valerio Longoria wrote "La Filomena" as an acordeón-saxofón duet and recorded a seminal version with Chuy Compeán's lyrical alto in the mid-1950s.  During the 1990s, Valerio recorded an album titled "Caballo Viejo" featuring his son Flavio Longoria on traditional alto sax.
 Tony De La Rosa, who recorded with both Beto Villa and Isidro López a decade earlier, recorded "Paloma Negra" with his conjunto and two saxes in October 1960 (re-released 1993).  Then in May 1964, he recorded "Una Cualquiera" and "Perdí el Albur" with the same instrumentation, prefiguring the acordeón con two saxes sound that continues gaining popularity into the present.  In 1995 Tony released an album of timeless instrumental polkas.  Four of these tracks feature a pair of excellent undocumented saxophonists playing tight primera and segunda parts in the style of Beto Villa.  It also includes a polkacized version of country sax master Boots Randolph's "Yakkety Sax," and a medley of four sax classics: "La Cadena," and "Muchachos Alegres" blended with Salome Gutiérrez's "MI Ranchito/Elodia," and "La Bomba Atomica."
Manuel "Manny" Guerra, drummer and Tejano music producer extraordinary, and his brother, saxophonist Rudy Guerra, were primarily responsible for producing the Sunlgow's classic saxophone polka hit of 1967, "La Cacahuata/Peanuts."  This song was so successful that it caused and exceptional popular Corpus Christi group, George Jay and the Rockiní Ravens, to record an instrumental answer called "La Pachuca."
 Roberto Pulido y Los Clásicos provide the Tejano musical bridge between the postmodern, or "progressive," conjunto sounds of David Lee, Emilio and Jay, the old school power sax style of Texas Revolution, Latin Breed, and Royal Jesters, and the classic sounds of Beto Villa and Isidro López.  For the last 20 years, at the core of the unique Pulido blending of two saxes with accordion is Joel "El Gordo" Pulido on tenor, with Raul "El Flaco" Pulido, or Braulio Jiménez on alto sax.  All three have also contributed significantly to the extremely popular live performances and studio recordings produced by Roberto Pulido.  While Joel and Raul are responsible for most of the undocumented Tejano sax playing with Roberto Pulido's early recordings (e.g., Roberto Pulido y Los Clásicos: "Greatest Hits!").  In recent years Braulio has ably assumed responsibilities for the alto parts (e.g. Roberto Pulido y Los Clásicos: "Atraves de los años").  It is important to note that even Roberto Pulido himself has played some saxofón on occasion.
 The wide appeal of Roberto Polio's acordeón con dos saxofones sound spans across geographies and generations, from Seattle to Saltillo, and from seniors to niños.  It is very important to recognize that the relative influence of Roberto Pulido y Los Clásicos is positively heightened by the frequency that their music is reproduced in compilations of conjunto or borderland music (e.g. "Conjunto: Texas-Mexican Border Music," Vol. 4., "Best of the 8th Annual Tejano Conjunto Festival," and "Borderlands: From Conjunto to Chicken Scratch").
 Finally, there are two more Tejano saxophonists to consider.  They are both significant for different reasons.  One if the grandson of legendary alto/baritone saxophonist Ernie Cáceres, David Cáceres, who represents the continuation of the family saxophone tradition of playing from Tejano to jazz groups (e.g. La Differencia and Latin Playerz).  The other is Ichiro Nagata who played tenor saxophone with Los Gatos, a Tejano-style conjunto from Japan, and who is probably the most extraordinary example of the Tejano sax's transcultural transcendence far beyond the United States-Mexican frontera.

Back to Top


III. Research Reflections and Conclusions

My study of the saxophone in Tejano and norteño music addressed several sorts of questions.  First, are those of when, where, who and how was the saxophone first introduced and integrated into this international modern music context? Second, are those concerned with evidence regarding the permanence and salience of saxophone in Tejano and norteño music.  There were addressed in the brief narrative tracing the chronology of the saxophone in both norteño and Tejano musical traditions from the 1920s to the present.
 The evidence shows that the recorded introduction of the saxophone in Tejano and norteño conjunto music during the 1940s and 1950s was not only eminently popular at the time, but an innovation that continues resonating musically among younger and older generations of  Mexicans and other along and across the borderland, with two lasting results.  Firs, we have the evolution of some characteristic norteño and Tejano styles of playing saxophone that help distinguish Tejano and norteño from other saxophone styling, and from each other.  The second is the maintenance and expansion of a well-established repertoire of more than one hundred solo and ensemble classic Tejano and norteño sax solo and ensemble tunes.
 My research results support the conclusion that the saxophone's presence has added a new dimension and become an integral part of the sound of the more popular contemporary norteño and Tejano groups especially during the last two decades.  This research also found that the groups found a viable musical model in the early Narciso Martínez-Beto Villa accordion-saxophone combination.  Whether you call it "progressive conjunto" as do the Tejano Music Awards and Pura Vida Music Awards, or "conjunto orquestal" as does Juan Tejeda; the point is that there is abundant evidence of an increase in this type of musical melding, especially since the beginning of the present postmodern music period.  Tracing the saxophone's introduction and the integration into the Mexican American musical experience also helped us more clearly understand the concept of transculturaltion.  The saxophone's integration into Texas Mexican music proven an excellent example of instrumental transculturation.
 My study's findings are consistent with the notion of a multi-faceted frontera consisting of mini-environments supporting variants of the larger cultures and societies.  It rejects the notion of  a single borderland with a common cultura.  If nothing else, the results show how open and receptive (as opposed to closed and rejective) are our US-Mexican frontera pueblos and culturas.



José B. Cuellar, Ph.D was a recipient of a 1997-1998 Gateways Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.  At the end of approximately nine months of research on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border, he submitted his final project report entitled: "The Ehnomusical Context of the Saxophone in Norteño and Tejano Music."   This approximately 134 page report included an introduction; general research methodology; his findings and conclusions on the saxophone in Tejano and norteño music; and appendixes on the interviews and works cited; an extensive discography of essential Tejano/Norteño and other Chicano/Mexican music by artist; the first choronological discography of selected saxophone-flavored Tejano and norteño recordings; the first selected discography of Tejano and norteño saxophonists; and annotated list of saxophone players at the Annual Tejano Conjunto Festival; and a selected discography of Waila (Chicken Scracth) saxophonists.  The article that is included in this publication has been condensed from this larger body of work.  The complete study is available at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center for research purposes.

José B. Cuellar is a native San Antoniano and has a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California in Los Angeles.  He is a professor and chair of the La Raza Studies Department in the College of Ethnic Studies, and Director of the Cesar E. Chavez Institute for Public Policy at San Francisco State University.  He is also the band leader and saxophonist for Dr. Loco's Rockin' Jalapeño Band.


Top of Page

Go to Previous Page