The Angels Herald a New Bandleader…In Memory of Freddy Rodriguez

By Charles Emmons

These times are challenging without question. When we feel down and want some sort of escape, we often turn to music for solace or to pick up our spirits. Many of us perhaps go to the local haunts to see our favorites.  We can’t do that now, but in March we lost one of our great fathers of the Denver jazz and music scene, Freddy Rodriguez, Sr. 

Freddy Rodriguez had been an enduring fixture at Denver’s oldest jazz club, El Chapultepec, for 40 years. Rodriguez came to the ‘Pec’ and its owners in 1980 after a long sojourn immersed in the jazz scene in Los Angeles in the 1960’s. While in California he rubbed elbows with the greats as jazz developed competing west coast and east coast sounds. Rodriguez used the time as a sideman to learn everything he could.

Born in Del Norte, CO the family moved to Denver when young Freddy was six or seven according to Rodriguez’s son. With roots in west Denver, Rodriguez attended Baker Jr. High and Denver West High School where he cultivated his interest in music first with the clarinet and then the saxophone for which he became known. 

By the time he reached Los Angeles in the 1960’s he had mastered several instruments, with so many musicians gravitating to California, Rodriguez perhaps was somewhat unsung. In 1966 he recorded an album with Roland T. Kirk (later Rahsan) under the direction of New Orleans horn player Tommy Peltier who brought together Kirk, drummer Maurice Miller, bassist Bill Plummer, as well as Rodriguez in the group the Jazz Corps. On numerous cuts, Rodriguez plays tenor sax, alto sax and flute. Notables like Woody Herman, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannon Ball Adderley, and Stan Getz played.  Freddy Rodriguez says that his father loved to hang out there.

Hermosa was an epicenter of west coast jazz, so it was like going to jazz school, and it served him well when Rodriguez returned to Colorado and started his long stint at the Pec in 1979 with a facility for playing a multitude of tunes and standards. He entertained audiences for decades at not only the Pec, but also Dazzle, Cinco de Mayo festivals, the Five Points Jazz Festival, KUVO parties and fundraisers, and the little known Donkey Creek Music Festival in Gillette, Wyoming.

Rodriguez was well known regionally and locally for his musical talent. But generally when you look back at a life well lived, what do you look for? Did you impact others? Did you make a difference? Were you a good person in the various roles of your life? The answer in Rodriguez’s life is a resounding yes. “He was a good solid man,” said his son. “He loved everybody.  Everybody loved my dad. He was a great guy.

Music was his vehicle. He brought Freddy Jr. into the Pec when he was just 13 years old. The bassist who played with Rodriguez for 20 years, Andrew Hudson first snuck into the Pec when he was 15 and Rodriguez subsequently let him sit in. Rodriguez and Pec owner Jerry Krantz would invite the horns section from the Gibson Jazz Concerts at the Paramount to the Pec to play for $100 according to Dick Gibson’s son, Robey.  

Rodriguez rarely missed an opportunity to expose audiences and other musicians to the music that he so loved. In 1980 a young musician interested in jazz had just moved to Denver from Kansas City, and he made his way down to the Pec where he met Rodriguez, who after hearing him said he reminded him of the drummer in the Roland Kirk band he had played with. 

Tony Black says he didn’t know a lot about jazz at the time let alone any musicians, but he met locals as well as national artists at the Pec including Billy Tolles, Bruno Carr, Gene Bass and Joe Keel. Rodriguez took him under his wing and Black says that he was both like a father figure and his best friend. He appreciated that often, older musicians are more comfortable playing with musicians their own age, but this is not Freddy. 

Black had the opportunity to tour the world with other bands with stops in Europe, Canada and Russia. “Freddy always had a spot when I came back,” said Black. “He wanted me in his group and pushed me to go out and be the best I could.” Black says that Freddy always had time to talk with you, and if you wanted to sit in weren’t good enough, he encouraged you to listen to and keep going in a positive direction.  “We’d always talk…discuss music…discuss life.”

Black met Freddy at a time when he most needed him. He says he was 23 when he first came to Denver, but had just lost his father at 21. As his musical talents, pursuits and career grew Rodriguez helped him navigate it all and taught him the essentials needed to be in the business. Black was impressed by Rodriguez’s openness both musically and personally, and the cross-generational dynamic that was so apparent when playing with him.

This was in large part due to the influence of Freddy Rodriguez Jr. who continued to play with his father after first dropping into the Pec at 13. “He could play ‘Round Midnight and then next Brickhouse,” said Black. “He was just that diverse. His son brought that to the table, but he had no qualms about it. He loved hearing the next era of music, and had nothing bad to say about it. He wanted to change with the times.” What was most important was knowing the song and the melody. “He was open to you putting out what you know,” said Black.  “You had to know the song, and he was open to learning from you as you were from him.”

Rodriguez was passionate about the business, and was a great teacher and mentor for Black and countless others. He showed Black how to treat family, music and people. It seems with Rodriguez there was considerable crossover. “Being with him showed me how he was, and I will carry it for the rest of my life,” said Black. “I miss him greatly. Things he put in my heart and soul will never leave me.” Black has played the Pec six or seven nights per week and says he never had to hustle any gigs because of his relationship with Rodriguez and the Pec family. 

Music has always been about family for Rodriguez. Freddy Jr. will carry on the legacy with nephews who play music and his 14-year-old daughter performed two or three songs with Freddy Rodriguez and the Jazz Connection at the 2019 City Park Jazz Festival. When Freddy Rodriguez Sr. passed in March the far reaching KUVO family posted condolences, prayers and blessings to the family on the website. 

Freddy Rodriguez Sr. touched so many lives with his music, and because of his passionate discipline he was known for never missing a gig until the end. He logged 40 years at El Chapultepec despite severe health issues, which weakened him but didn’t diminish his spirit and passion for the music. He was hospitalized and then infected with the coronavirus and passed on March 25. He was 89. Just passing April and Jazz Appreciation Month, it is appropriate that we recognize this stellar, beloved musician, father, mentor and friend.  Rest in Peace Freddy Rodriguez.