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Alejandra Rosas Olvera & Rafael Méndez

(This Article is in English) I offer you an interview with author and trumpeter, Alejandra Rosas Olvera (México). She is the author of the book Rafael Méndez: Homage to the Mexican Trumpeter. I's a new book about the life of the trumpet legend that is extremely interesting, with photos, history, and his importance within the trumpet world, as well as the Mexican musical world. (Note: the English version of the book has not ben released just yet).


Please tell us something about yourself. Where did you grow up?

I'm originally from Mexico City, the delegation Tlalpan, a town to the south called La Fama (Fame), years ago it was an industrial town, that established itself around an ice cream factory and several fabric factories. I'm a descendant of factory workers.

¿When did you start on the trumpet?

I started the trumpet at 15 years of age, imitating my brother who wanted to be a trumpeter. In the end, he stop playing and I kept going.

Where did you study and with whom?

In the beginning, I participated in a youth orchestra and choral program. It was here that I learned the beginnings of solfege and playing the trumpet. Afterwards, I entered the Life & Movement Music School at the Ollin Yoliztli Cultural Institute, where I received my performance degree. My teachers were members of the Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra, Jaime Méndez and Armando Cedillo.

At the same time, I was continuing my musical studies at the Autónoma University of México (UNSAM), studying for my BM in Political Science and Public Administration. I doubted my future in music for various reasons and decided to study an alternate career.

How is the music scene today in Mexico?

This is a difficult question to answer. Its a difficult situation because it is unfortunate that culture is not a priority of the government. In México, they always cut the budget from all the cultural programs. Long term plans simply do not exist, because the projects do not have clear plans for continuity, nor are they a priority due to the social impact they could have. Sadly, most of the cases of cultural life depends on the whims of those that are in office at the moment.

In the area of academia, the plan of study the musical institutions can offer to young people is deficient at best. The work force is limited.

Also, the internal situation within music guilds is sad; we are missing cohesion, solidarity, and organization... the system of power has triunfes in making us more individualistic y little sensible towards our own.

Speaking from my experience, writing this biographical book about Rafael Méndez was met with opposition. I did have some backing from an economic institution, but the publication, distribution, editing, etc was done only by myself. I am lucky in that I had friends, family, colleagues and civil associations who helped me with this project. Undoubtedly, the research has rigor and is a valuable contribution in a subject that had not been investigated much before.

I also wonder about the cultural factor - with the existence of machismo and misogyny, if it has influenced the lack of interest in the book within my country. Because from comments I have received, there seems to be some skepticism about the quality of the work.

Why did you think about writing this book about Rafael Méndez?

with Prof. Hickman

Because, with him, México owed a dept. Ever since I was a student, I heard references about his virtuosity and music making. I would watch some of his videos, but in the school library there was nothing more than the biographical sketch that accompanies his collection of trumpet and piano solos. In 2010 I had the opportunity to meet Prof. David Hickman (Arizona State University), and from him, I learned of the existence of the Rafael Méndez Library at that university.

Before starting this book, I collected history of the neighborhood where I was born. That experience helped me to have clarity on how to write Rafael's book. I decided to use testimony of several musicians, through interviews.

Link Arizona Library Page:

For what purpose does this book serve?

The contribution of this book, something unique in Mexico, is that it obtains a perspective of the life of Rafael Méndez, a native from Mexico. That is, its social, cultural, and familiar context. Fortunately I was able to gather several testimonies from relatives, colleagues, (even from his contemporaries in Jiquilpan, México) thanks to the valuable historical archive of that community.

This is why the testimony is such an important part and essential contribution of the book. Although I also looked for details in Rafael's personal life, which could give greater accuracy of the character, personality, personal tastes, and his philosophy of life.

Fortunately, thanks to these journalistic interviews and talks with his relatives in Mexico, a biography was made that speaks about Rafael from various angles: his legacy, his origin, his personality and the his relationship with the trumpet. It also spoke of his visionary aspect, his contributions to music, his teaching, as well as the most intimate details of his personality and the misfortunes he lived and how he forged ahead in life.

Where did all of the great photos in the book come from?

About 70% of the photo collection come from the Rafael Mendez Library at Arizona State University (ASU). Other photos are part of historical collections, generous contributions of relatives and colleagues in Mexico.

Where did the research for this book project take you?

During my researching, I was fortunate to coincide with prominent trumpet players of the present day, including their testimonies and ideas about the figure of my book, Raphael; such was the case of trumpeters Wynton Marsalis, Arturo Sandoval, Pacho Flores, Linda Briceño, and Maria Speziale, among others.

In addition, I also noticed an equally important theme that emerged from the various testimonies: what the training of Mexican musicians of the twentieth century was like. This is how Rafael became a star and is known throughout Mexico by his contemporaries.

with Wynton Marsalis
with Ramón Flores

with Linda Briceño
with Arturo Sandoval

With whom did Méndez study? Why is this important?

His main teacher was his father, Maximino (Masi-meeno) Méndez. There are also specific references to studying with other when he had his first accident: Schlossberg in New York, O'Donnell and Loney in Chicago, and Smith in Boston. He also had a great relationship with Louis Maggio and Herbert L. Clark.

In the end, after seeking the advice of his colleagues in the US (after the accident), Méndez decided to return to Mexico and continue studying with his father because he didn't feel he was getting any better. This had Méndez out of the performing picture for four years.

Why was Méndez such an important figure within the US and Mexico?

With Rafael Mendez, there are several qualities that make him an exceptional artist, besides the fact of achieving virtuosity on his instrument. His charisma and personality were a reflection of the values ​​with which he guided his entire life: disciplined, persevering, tenacious, supportive, generous, and by those people closest to him, he was a excellent friend, father and son.

He had the cunning vision to offer unique repertoire that reflected his own personal style, much of it was music from Mexico or that style of music. Once he became a star in Hollywood for his constant appearances on TV, film and radio, he left a profound trace within in the United States - I'm referring to the extensive teaching work he did for several years in schools and universities - thereby earning the affection and sympathy of musicians for several generations.

Rafael sometimes lamented that he did not have the same fame and recognition in Mexico, although his presence in Mexico was not as great as it was in the US. In this book, I managed to document the clear signs of affection and recognition that he had for Mexico and his fellow musician colleagues during his life and even more so after his death.

What are Méndez biggest triumphs?

Rafael soloing

At a very early age, Rafael made a decision to work as hard as he could to make the trumpet sound more like the human voice. In an interview he gave, he mentioned "I don't only look to play with the sound of the human voice, but the sound of many different instruments. My trumpet wants ti imitate the violin, and my maximum aspiration is the human voice." [1]

Furthermore, he helped lift the trumpet to a new level, as he assumed the responsibility that the trumpet wasn't just an accompanamengtal instrument, but an instrument that was brilliant soloist. He expressed himself by saying: "My goal is that the trumpet becomes an instrument of the concerto." In a newspaper (Mexico) interview in 1945, Rafael said: "I am sure that this instrument will very soon, an instrument that is relegated to a chamber setting, will be used to give solo concerts such as a violin, cello or guitar, due to its unlimited potential." He went further, declaiming, "I know that the next era is the era of trumpet." [2]

Rafael expressed that there were few pieces written specifically for the trumpet by important composers. So, he saw the necesita to write his own parts, where the trumpet was the protagonist.

From his youth, Rafael began arrangements for trumpet from works composed for violin, voice and other instruments. He did it out of intuition, with a deep liking for his instrument; and it was as such he had the opportunity to express himself onstage as a soloist.

Rafael was a complete artist - more than just a trumpet phenomenon, he was a composer, arreglos, and a visionary that widened the repertorio of his instrument.

Méndez had several problems playing the trumpet during his career. Let's talk about this theme a little....

Life had dealt Rafael several difficult tests, test from the result of bad fortune; its because Rafael, during his lifetime, had two major accidents that affected his embouchure in a "forceful way." In an interview at the age of 70, Rafael commented: [3]

In 1935, I had an accident in Michigan while I was the first trumpeter in the Fox Theater Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra pit was the earliest piece of the set to rise, and my seat was right by the door, at the entrance to the pit, so I had to be the last musician to settle in before it began to rise. I always waited in the rehearsal room, which had a revolving door. I warmed there, long before everyone had left and then I was going to take my place. On this particular occasion, the bass player arrived late, arrived running, entered the rehearsal room just as I was going to leave. I had the trumpet on my lips and the door hit me right in the mouth. So I played the show, full of blood - that was my mistake. My lip burned and I developed bad habits as a result. I finally got an abscess and then an infection set in. I had a lot of pus, and I was squeezing it to out in order to continue playing, so I could produce a sound. It got so bad that it looked like cottage cheese [4] and I stopped playing; I quit the theater and went to Mexico. There I played other instruments to live. I played the bass, I wanted to perfect it.

Here, you can view an interview (2 videos) in Rafael's house with Chuck Findley, Una Ramsey, Malcolm McNabb, and Bill Spilka. [Warning: some language used...]

After his first accident, Rafael achieved what seemed impossible at the moment, he rehabilitated his lip and began to play better than ever, save for the extreme register of the instrument. Anyone else might have given up to the difficulty of the rehabilitation or situation, but Rafael persevered. However, as an irony of life, Mendez was involved in a second accident in 1967 in which his mouth was severely injured - a triple fractured jaw. To be precise, he was playing baseball game in Jiquilpan, Mexico. He broke his bat and a piece of it, which had great speed and force, hit Rafael in the face, fracturing his jaw.

Unfortunately, Rafael Mendez was one of those people who had to be careful while playing the trumpet at a young age due to illness. Since 1956, his health problems affected his performance on the instrument. It began with severe allergic breakouts that caused strong attacks of coughs and sneezes. By 1962 he had chronic bronchitis. At first it reduced the number of concerts he gave a year and then it advanced to the point he had to cancel his live presentations. But he never stopped playing his trumpet, even though it may had been between the four walls of the study of his house. Anyhow, that was how he ended up with asthma-related conditions.

What trumpet did Méndez use? Mouthpiece/s?

Rafael Méndez

As Rafael gained more recognition and success, job offers were abundant. Trumpet makers, associating

his name with a recognized brand of instruments would undoubtedly be good business, as his fame increased to such a degree that he became known as "the best trumpeter in the world" (unintentionally - according to newspaper reports of the time).

Trumpet makers F. E. Olds & Son and Besson had a dispute over signing a contract for Rafael Méndez to be their consultant and brand representative. At one point, Méndez had to make the decision between promoting the Besson firm or the instruments of F. E. Olds & Son. Both offers were very generous.

This episode in his career is interesting because, you need to understand the role that Amor, his wife, played as the administrator of Rafael's career. Both companies had offered him different offers. The Besson firm offered him a contract and a $5,000 bonus. Rafael had decided to accept such an agreement, "nevertheless, once I got home to tell Amor the decision, since she handled all financial matters", he found Amor wearing a long coat that FE Olds & Son had sent her to encourage Rafael to sign with them. He explained that the $5,000 Besson would buy several coats, but Amor was not convinced. Besson's check was returned and Rafael signed with F. E. Olds & Son. " [5]

Once contracted by F. E. Olds & Son, Rafael put in his contract, as a condition, that they make a trumpet to his specifications. So it wa, and he earned $6,000 a year for the use of his name on trumpets.

Regarding the mouthpiece he used, I did not find a specific reference in this respect. In the library in Arizona, there is a box full of mouthpieces of various measurements that were his. This does not say much. However, I found an interesting conversation about it in a trumpet chat room (Trumpet Herald), where several trumpeters who were close to Mendez say they used a Bach ½ C, redesigned with specifications by the Olds brand. Here is the link to that conversation.

Méndez had a famous trumpet trio gong with his two sons. Did you communicate with his sons? What was the experience like?

the Méndez Trio

Unfortunately, I didn't get the opportunity to personally meet his two sons. But, through Prof. David

Hickman, they knew of the book and investigation and were said to be very excited. Just a month ago I ran into one of the twins of one of his sons, Rob (or better said, Rafael's grandson) and he mentioned to me the enormous enthusiasm everyone in the family felt when they received a copy of the book.

Would you like to add anything?

I would like to take the moment to invite everyone to take a look at the book. Truly, a lot fo hard work, dedication and love went into writing it. I have a facebook page dedicated to the book, the link is located below. At the moment, I am still working to having it publish in a digital format and its version in English.

Please visit the Facebook page here.



Ale, thank you very much for the interview! I am sure we have learned a lot and have enjoyed ourselves in the process. A big hug, and I hope to see you again sometime in the near future!



[1] Palomares, Germán, “Homenaje radiofónico a Rafael Méndez”, radio xeunfm 96.1 y xeyu 9600 kilo Hertz. México D. F. 1981.

[2] J. M. Tort, “La nueva era de la trompeta”, Mañana Magazine, artículo de 1945 Acervo de la Biblioteca Rafael Méndez de la Universidad de Arizona.

[3] Entrevista en su casa publicada en youtube con Chuck Findley, Uan Rasey, Malcolm McNabb y Bill Spilka.

[4] Requesón: leche cuajada de consistencia grumosa y espesa.

[5] Lyren Del, Jane W. Hickman, Magnificent Méndez, Summit Records, second edition, 1994, p. 43.

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