“World Class” a phrase not thrown about loosely: Henry Nava
By Ed Arguellas
Santa Paula News
Published: October 30, 2013
This is the third in a series of articles featuring random Santa Paula musicians to be showcased in a California Oil Museum exhibit opening in mid-April 2014. “Melody Hall: A Tribute to the Musicians of Santa Paula” is dedicated to the scores of talented artists who were raised or currently reside in the Santa Paula community.
By Ed Arguelles
Within music circles, “world class” is a phrase not thrown about loosely, particularly for a man who never imagined traveling beyond the city limits of Santa Paula. But mention Henry Nava’s name to anyone remotely connected to the professional music industry and you will hear it said of him time and time again -- not only for his 70 years of woodwind artistry, but equally for his humble character.
Born in Rancho Sespe in 1931, Nava’s exposure to music came when, as a child of 8, he watched in amazement Hispanic minstrels perform during the annual Cinco de Mayo fiesta held in the village dance hall known as “El Piso.” “These musicians played such beautiful traditional Mexican and Tejano music that brought joy and happiness into our lives,” said Nava. “Their songs were powerful magic that put smiles on faces of those who twirled on wooden floors to the popular Beto Villa ballads in a cultural setting that was ours. It was then that I knew I wanted to be one of them.”
The prospect of purchasing a musical instrument for their son meant financial sacrifice for farm laborers Pedro and Raphaela Nava, but both could see that young Henry, the oldest of four children, had serious musical ambition. It was not long after the family moved to Santa Paula that Henry, at age 11, received his first instrument, a clarinet. “My mother paid $2 each week from her packinghouse paycheck for my first music lessons,” said Nava. “Mr. Felipe Bueno taught me not only the fundamentals of clarinet and how to sing notes, which we called ‘solfejo,’ but trained me to read music and instilled a desire and discipline to practice and practice.”
Amazingly, by 1944, at age 13, young Henry was offered the opportunity to play his first professional job in Piru with maestro Bueno, alongside legendary Santa Paula musicians, Jose Ramirez and CostancioHernandez, for which he was paid an astonishing $3.
During the mid-1940s, with good friend and sax player Danny Flores, Nava energetically sought every opportunity to improve by accepting as many house party and wedding gigs as he could get. It didn’t take long for the two of them to discover the abilities of Clyde Flanagan, who had recently moved to Santa Paula following a career playing Big Band Swing in Chicago and other famous venues. “Clyde Flanagan was an accomplished and highly respected big band woodwind artist,” said Nava. “He had made it to the big time, and even though he was older than us, he actively took an interest in our musical development and showed us tricks of the trade that enabled us to augment our sound and improve our instrumental technique. He was a major influence on us both and one of the nicest men one could ever meet.”
Following World War II, teenage clarinetist Nava continued to bounce around and was invited on occasion to play bigger gigs with local big band favorite, the Arellano Brothers. “Bennie, Fred and ‘Tamboras’ (Frank) Arellano loved that big Count Basie sound and, no doubt, its influence on me and everyone else was infectious,” Nava said. “They were not only gifted musicians with great family chemistry, but the opportunity to learn to play with so many fine musicians, particularly hugely talented alto sax player Porfi Ibarra, was truly an inspiration that motivated me to improve my own saxophone skills.”
By the end of the 1940s, teenage Nava longed for a bigger life beyond Santa Paula and the only way he could see getting it was by joining the U.S. Marine Corps. “Prior to 1947, the farthest I had ever traveled was San Jose, California, and that was to pick fruit with my parents,” said Nava. “But with no education, no trade, no money and staring at the prospect of picking lemons the rest of my life, I joined the Corps at age 17 and they took me in April of ‘47.”
Following three months of boot camp in Oceanside, Nava was invited to audition for the local Marine Corps Marching Band and was flabbergasted when they quickly informed him that he was in. “On Jan. 1, 1948, at age 17, I was marching in the Pasadena Rose Parade with my clarinet with 150 soldiers of the 1st Marine Division,” said Nava. His clarinet skills were so highly regarded by his superior officers that, in 1952, while America was embroiled in the Korean War, he was sent to the prestigious U.S. Navy School of Music at the Anacostia Naval Receiving Station in Washington, D.C., to serve Uncle Sam in a most unique and special way.
After six months of grueling study in music composition, theory and practice, Sgt. Henry Nava was shipped west to Treasure Island, California, where his clarinet skills were put to work over the next two years. “For me, having spent my entire life in a small town, it was an eye-opening experience,” said Nava. “The patriotic honor of playing in parades and homecomings for brave soldiers returning home from Korea was both happy and bittersweet, for so many of them arrived home all shot up and many were carried off their ships in stretchers.”
Given the assignment of lead clarinet player in the 35-piece Marine Corps Orchestra, Nava was provided the opportunity to tour America’s West Coast, giving him special privileges that his $38 monthly salary could not otherwise provide. “Everywhere we played, the beds were clean, the chow was good and the people treated us wonderfully,” said Nava. “Our Navy transport flights were bumpy (no seats) and our bus rides were long, so to fight boredom, musicians often pulled out their instruments and jammed as we journeyed through the Oregon, Washington and California air and highways.”
It was during this time that Nava slowly transitioned from clarinet to saxophone. “When we weren’t practicing or performing, there was ample opportunity to learn from one another, and, since we were all housed in the same barrack, we musicians spent our leisure time sharing our knowledge and understanding of different instruments and styles of music,” said Nava. “It was here that I learned to play and appreciate Dixieland Jazz and other styles of composition that I continue to play to this day.”
In 1954, Nava returned to civilian life, moving first to Van Nuys, then to Simi Valley, to raise his family. Rejoining Laborers Local No. 585, Nava found abundant day work in the exploding Los Angeles construction industry that post- World War II and the Korean War had created. From 1958 to 1967, Nava, who by then had transitioned from clarinet to primarily tenor sax, while adding flute, soprano sax and other woodwinds to his repertoire, served as sax soloist for the very popular LA band, The Gents. Led by piano player Danny Rosales, it quickly became one of the hottest in-demand big bands of its era. As busy a musician as Nava had become, he continually looked forward to playing music with friends he had grown up with in Santa Paula and Ventura County.
In the late 1960s, Nava hooked up with talented piano player brother Jesse to form the core of the widely held Nava Brothers Band that specialized in Latin Jazz. It was a partnership that lasted more than 20 years. “My brother just loved to play and because he had been professionally trained in classical and modern styles of piano, his musical arrangements and structure were just so beautiful to experience,” said Nava. “Jesse’s wife, Diana Rey, on vocals; Dick Lowe on trumpet; Tino Cardona on electric bass; Beto Zendejas on guitar; and the two of us were the mainstays of the band, but we were regularly joined by local freelance musicians, Ruben and Henry Estrada, Gordy Sanchez, Ne Ne Hernandez, Joe Castañeda and so many others, that playing gigs in Ventura County was like family reunions.”
The list of accomplished musicians and celebrated bands that Nava has played with over a musical career that has spanned seven decades reads like an encyclopedia. “Henry Nava is simply one of the greatest sax players to ever come out of Ventura County,” said renowned “vibes” player and recording artist Ruben Estrada of Oxnard. “It has been a lifelong pleasure to have shared the stage with his sound and with his ability to play practically every style of music one can think of.”
Though Nava is now in his early 80s his cell phone rings daily with abundant offers to play his gifted horn with a stamina that would match musicians half his age. “I appreciate God for all his gifts,” said Nava. “I feel very blessed that I can feel completely relaxed performing with other musicians with any kind of music.” “For me, it was God’s given gift that completely changed my life.”