Backdrop: Tamara Backdrops
|“Music has always been what I needed to be happy.”|
The 911 Mambo Orchestra
In 1979, when he was 16, Angel Meléndez assembled his first orchestra using his band buddies at Humboldt Park’s Roberto Clemente High School. Wearing black suits and bright red ties, the Clemente All Stars would sometimes play until dawn, entertaining crowds on the West Side in clubs like the Latin Village.
More than 25 years later, Meléndez, a trombone player and composer, still relies on some former Clemente All Stars to power the five Latin jazz orchestras he fronts in Chicago. Last February, The Recording Academy, which gives out the prestigious Grammy, singled out one of those bands—the 20-piece Angel Meléndez & the 911 Mambo Orchestra—as a finalist in the Traditional Tropical Latin Album category. The recognition came as a welcome surprise to the city’s Latin music community, since labels in New York City and the West Coast regularly overshadow Chicago-based talent. Produced locally by Andrés Meneses and Latin Street Music, the album didn’t win—that honor went to Cuban mambo king Cachao—but Meléndez and his band are now at work on new compositions and a second album. The nomination prompted invitations to perform last summer in the city’s jazz and Latin music festivals, as well as at a critically acclaimed July concert in Millennium Park alongside Danilo Pérez, a celebrated star in world music.
In his songs, which range from original compositions to new arrangements of traditional music, Meléndez melds jazz with layers of Latin rhythms, such as salsa, mambo, and cha-cha.
The energetic mix reflects Meléndez’s formative years shuttling between his native Puerto Rico and Chicago with its lively jazz scene. After his mother permanently settled in Chicago during the 1970s, a musical cousin—Carlos Rexach, a founding member of the 911 Mambo Orchestra—immediately hooked the 12- year-old Meléndez on the trombone and introduced him to the city’s colorful salsa scene. “Music has always been what I needed to be happy,” says Meléndez, now 42. “It is where I get my release.”
Determined to play professionally, Meléndez joined the band program at Roberto Clemente High School, and there Robert Bartley, a music instructor, taught him to read music and later encouraged him to audition for the All City Band and for VanderCook College of Music. Since earning his teaching credentials in 1995, Meléndez has begun to influence a new generation of musicians. As the music department chair at Farragut High School, a largely Hispanic school in Pilsen, he augments the school’s small collection of instruments—about 40 for 600 students—with pawn shop buys pieced together with tape. “There are a lot of talented kids here,” says Meléndez. “I want to do for them what Mr. Bartley did for me. I just put a little jazz band together with students who have only been playing one or two years. We played a [convention], and they were so good, the audience thought it was the kids who had won a Grammy.”