It takes a village: David ‘Gordo’ Sanchez
By Ed Arguellas
Santa Paula News
Published: November 29, 2013
This is the fourth in a series of articles sponsored by the Santa Paula Historical Society featuring random 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
Having a reputation as one of the fastest lemon pickers in Ventura County, teenager Chavelo Sanchez taught himself how to play 12-string guitar to such a degree that he, along with friends Lucio Magdaleno, Jesus Renteria, Jesus Valenzuela and good friend “Strong Coffee,” comprised a talented ensemble in Rancho Sespe during the early 1930s. These minstrels earned elite status among its villagers, for they made weekly trips to Burbank to perform on the popular Mexican radio show “La Chirimia de Don Pedro.” They were, however, not the only gifted musical group living within its famed pastoral setting.
Equally respected among its village residents, the “Orchestra Cervantez,” made up of siblings Manuel, Estrella, Juanita, Esperanza and David Cervantez, were not only gifted musicians, but appreciated teachers of music as well. Celebrations held within the tightly knit settlement honoring Cinco de Mayo, the 16th of September and festive church functions regularly brought these widely held troubadours into close contact with one another. So, it only seems natural that destiny would eventually play its hand. In 1933, when Chavelo Sanchez and Esperanza Cervantes eloped to Ventura in a broken-down motorcar, two talented musical families united to produce one of the most highly regarded trombone artists in Ventura County musical history: David “Gordo “Sanchez.
Born in Rancho Sespe in 1935 as the second of nine children, young David was enrolled into kindergarten in Santa Paula, where the family moved in 1936. Hard times brought on by America’s lingering Depression and the infamous Citrus Strike of 1941 financially strained the growing Sanchez family and forced them into making difficult decisions. Young David, affectionately nicknamed “Gordo” by Uncle Manuel because of infant chubbiness, was sent to live in Los Angeles while the Sanchez family migrated to Sanger, Calif., where they toiled harvesting grapes, baling hay and picking cotton.
Living on Los Angeles’ Brunswick Avenue with talented uncles Manuel and David Cervantez changed the direction of young Gordo’s life. Both guardians were strict and insisted upon respect and obedience, but they were also loving and musically gifted. Although Gordo was separated from his immediate family, his uncles “gave Gordo emotional and spiritual support and unselfishly shouldered and carried out the financial obligation that was crucial in pursuing a career in the music industry,” said sister Velia Sanchez. “Uncle David, an accomplished arranger/composer of music, played cello and trumpet, and was the major influence in preparing Gordo for his introduction to music and preliminary training as a young boy.”
Stored in a closet in their tiny Los Angeles home, an old slide trombone was presented to Gordo at age 11.Coupled with a work ethic engrained by hard-working parents and the steadfast tutelage of two musically gifted uncles, young Gordo devoted himself to his trombone in a hope of achieving his dream of becoming a professional musician. For Uncles David and Manuel Cervantes, his dream became theirs. Foregoing playing time with neighborhood friends, Gordo repeatedly practiced his trombone for hours every day. Learning to manipulate the trombone’s oversized mouthpiece to find range, Gordo began the tedious and physically challenging task of building lungs and strengthening his diaphragm -- essential to create power and sustain good tone. His uncles taught him an understanding of scales, how to reach for and use octaves, the art and practice of listening that brought a good ear for sound and, most importantly, an ability to read sheet music at a level that would impress professional artists twice his age. His mind fixed by the brilliance of two musical stalwarts, young Gordo made it a rule to practice every day for the rest of his life.
While performing in the John Marshall High School orchestra, teenage Gordo was selected to receive a highly competitive music scholarship to study with world-renowned teacher Robert Marstellar who, at that time, was “first chair” trombonist with the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra. Following weeks of conducting private lessons with Gordo, Marstellar recognized the potential of his gifted pupil and his recommendation to the school’s PTA for additional scholarship literally meant that David “Gordo” Sanchez was on his way to achieving a promising future in the music industry. News of the scholarships brought tears to the eyes of his uncles. “It was unbelievable what my uncles did for me,” said Gordo years later. “The love, respect and knowledge of music they taught me were something I carried with me throughout my musical career and I owe so much of it to them.” In 1952, at age 17, Gordo was good enough to join the musician’s union of Los Angeles and it didn’t take long for him to find steady work.
Gordo’s first professional gig was to play and tour with famed ballad composer and bandleader from Mexico Luis Alcaraz, where he steadily built a reputation for fierce trombone play. Touring with big bands in popular dance venues, such as Fresno’s Rainbow Ballroom or Ventura’s Green Mill, occasionally reunited Gordo with proud family members living in the Central Valley and Santa Paula. In 1956, Gordo was invited to record with legendary Cuban band leader Perez Prado and his orchestra on the widely acclaimed album “Havana 3 AM.” Listed on the album’s credits, Gordo’s searing trombone sounds resonate in the intricate off-beat musical patterns captured in the pre-Castro Mambo style typified by Perez Prado’s genius and originality.
Fate has accompanied much of Gordo’s life, which was destined for greatness. When Gordo joined the Army and was sent to Germany in late 1956, he wound up rooming with and befriending future great jazz trumpet player Don Ellis, member and leader of the 7th Army Jazz 3 Band, composed of the finest military jazz players stationed in Europe. Lacking a premier trombonist, music director Ellis wrote a personal letter to the commanding officer requesting Gordo be transferred into the elite band. The wish was immediately granted.
Touring throughout Europe playing jazz for American forces and new European allies with world-class musicians who would, years later, lead to bigger professional opportunities was, as Gordo describes “the greatest experience of my life.”
Demand for Gordo’s trombone skills skyrocketed over the next three decades after Gordo returned to civilian life with solid credentials and impressive recommendations acquired through his military contacts. Joining Army buddy Don Ellis’s orchestra, Gordo continued to record music and played in both the Newport (East Coast) and Monterey Jazz festivals (West Coast) and remained a very close friend until Ellis’s untimely passing in 1978.
By the early 1960s, Los Angeles had become the record capitol of the world and Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians became home to the hottest concentration of instrumentalists in the United States. Among the multitude of trombonists competing for work, Gordo’s name remained at the top. Tito Puente, Rene Touzat, Miles Davis, Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, Willie Bobo, Dizzy Gillespie, Eddie Harris, Tito Rodriguez, Ray Charles and Celia Cruz were among the “A-List” stars who regularly handpicked him for their Southern California and nation-wide tours. Regular night jobs at the Shrine Auditorium, the Million Dollar Theatre, The Village Latin Club, the Coconut Grove, where he backed up legend Ella Fitzgerald, as well as studio work for NBC, kept him home in L.A. throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. Special engagements, such as those at Las Vegas’ Desert Inn, the Empire State Building in Manhattan, Mexico City (with Stan Kenton performing in the historic Palacio de Bellas Artes), and tours throughout Latin America required him to “be away” for substantial periods of time.
One very special moment in his career came when given the opportunity to perform with the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra that early childhood tutor and mentor Robert Marstellar had once played for. Playing inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion under the direction of famed conductor Zubin Mehta, the performance was witnessed and celebrated by family and friends who were instrumental in his upbringing.
Sadly, today, at age 78, David “Gordo” Sanchez is paralyzed from a series of strokes that have robbed him of his strong body and silenced vocal chords needed to tell his story. Assisted living is required for all basic functions of life. But his name and achievements shine bright within the tight-knit Sanchez/Cervantez clan and among special friends that watched and appreciate his legendary rise and honor the courage he possessed to overcome adversity. His success teaches us that hardships are conquerable through one’s willpower and perseverance, but it also reminds us that it truly takes a village to build and realize a dream.