How Jazz Music Connects Cultures in Baja California – Cronkite News
TIJUANA — Jacinto “Chinto” Mendoza’s first instrument was the violin. He was only 5 years old. A few years later, he adopted his flagship instrument, the alto saxophone.
Mendoza is now 79 and one of Baja California’s most famous jazz musicians, so revered that the state holds an annual jazz festival in his name. Hailing from Mexicali, a border town and capital of Baja California, his life is the embodiment of a blend of global influences, an example of how music knows no boundaries.
“If you love music, you can’t help it,” Mendoza said in Tijuana last Friday. “You convey everything you feel to people, and you can make people feel good.”
Mendoza and his music have experienced the transformation of Baja California from a state associated with violence into a region with a modern and complex culture. Tijuana, in particular, presents itself in a different light than it did when it was a notorious area for smuggling drugs and people into the United States. Cartel violence in the region peaked in 2008, with 844 reported homicides.
Even though violence in Tijuana appears to be on the rise again, entertainment and restaurants have played a huge role in bringing American and Mexican tourists back to the city with popular concerts and critically acclaimed restaurants.
The distinctiveness of Mendoza life is celebrated with the Chinto Mendoza Jazz Festival, held this past weekend in Baja. This is the 10th year of the festival, organized by the Cultural Institute of Baja California to honor his long contribution to the region’s music scene.
“I’ve dedicated my life to trying to introduce myself to the elements of music as much as possible,” Mendoza said.
The festival includes performances by various jazz bands scheduled throughout Baja in places like Ensenada, Tecate, and Mexicali. The Tijuana shows take place at CEART Tijuana, a state arts center that seeks to raise the profile of regional art and music.
“Our intention is to make CEART the home of Mexican jazz,” said Adai Villarreal, the center’s assistant director. “There is a major jazz movement here in Tijuana.”
Mendoza has been recognized throughout Mexico for his musical career. As a child, he played Mexican folk with regional musicians. He moved to Mexico City in the 1950s, playing alongside Latin personalities like Celia Cruz and Alberto Vázquez. He then studied classical harmony at the University of Chicago.
Mendoza – with a shrewd, seemingly always-on-the-move sense of humor – talks about jazz in a way that only someone who has lived and studied for decades can. He categorizes the genre as math or science, breaking it down into famous scale variations, progressions and melodies. You can hear it in his lines as he improvises.
It is this science, he says, that helps make music a global language. As such, it crosses the physical barriers between Mexico and the United States.
“We always worked together with the music,” Mendoza said ahead of his show in Tijuana, outside his hotel room, wearing a plaid vest and a puffy turquoise shirt. “Rhythm is a universal way of thinking about music.” In previous years he has collaborated with American artists from Boston, Los Angeles and New York.
Other genres of Mexican origin, such as rancheros and mariachi music, also transcend borders, he said. Mendoza and his children – son Álex and daughter Chikis – want to use the festival as a chance to show how jazz can bring Mexico together. The group from Mendoza, “Proyecto Frenesí”, played their last show of the festival last Saturday in Mexicali, their home.
“It’s not just Tijuana,” Chikis said. “Essentially, everything happens on the other side of the border. The need to improvise, on established melodies or on those that you will compose, is what drives jazz. It is a necessity of expression.
This Friday evening, the crowd quickly packed into the international gallery at CEART Tijuana, which featured an exhibition of trunks representing the cultures of different states and cities in Mexico.
Mendoza led Proyecto Frenesí through laid-back jazz arrangements of songs known in Mexico and the United States. Álex sang the first stretch – standards like “Bésame Mucho” and “Feeling Good” – with a voice that extended beyond the walls of the gallery. Chikis then joined in for a performance of “Mexicali Rose” and a tribute to singer Natalie Cole, whose last album was in Spanish and inspired the band’s name.
In front of the festival audience, Mendoza hops and jerks, the rhythm of his band exhaling from his body. His solo lines aren’t as long as those of younger players, but they’re full of passion and ideas. It’s not out of place to wonder why he even needs a microphone.