“Ray Barretto once said to me when I had him on my radio show,” recounts bandleader Chico Mendoza when asked about his short-lived band, Ocho. “He said, ‘Chico, I loved your band, man. Let me tell ya, Ocho was ahead of its time!’ And that basically encapsulates Ocho to this day. What we were doing was anachronistic. It wasn’t in the right place and the right time. But today, you hear fusion and Latin jazz everywhere.” ...MORE >
“Ray Barretto once said to me when I had him on my radio show,” recounts bandleader Chico Mendoza when asked about his short-lived band, Ocho. “He said, ‘Chico, I loved your band, man. Let me tell ya, Ocho was ahead of its time!’ And that basically encapsulates Ocho to this day. What we were doing was anachronistic. It wasn’t in the right place and the right time. But today, you hear fusion and Latin jazz everywhere.”
True, to be told you’re ahead of your time by one of the greatest congueros to ever slap the skin of Mama Earth won’t make you quit your day job, but it certainly helps validate what many a musician and critic—if not the record-buying public—thought about the eight-piece African American ensemble out of Newark, New Jersey.
“Their music was a little off the beaten track as far as what was being put out at that time,” says veteran producer Bobby Marín, who oversaw all four of Ocho’s albums. “I’d like to be able to tell you they got famous and all that, but they weren’t really appreciated like they are now.” Whether or not Ocho is appreciated significantly more today than during their four-year run in the ’70s is still up for debate. What’s indisputable, however, is the unique quality of the music: a marriage of Latin, jazz, soul, and funk forged and honed not on the streets of Spanish Harlem but in clubs found on the other side of the Hudson.
Chico Mendoza didn’t start life as a Chico. Born one Ira Roberts Jr. in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1939, a young Ira was surrounded by records. Literally. “We didn’t have a lot of room,” Chico remembers. “So they used to stack these 78 [rpm] records up like pillars; there must’ve been a dozen of those piles all over the house, and everybody in my mother’s family knew where every record was. Music would start playing on the Victrola, and I’d watch all these people dance to this great jazz and R&B into the wee hours of the morning.” On his father’s side, the sonic influence came from the Caribbean. “My father was half Cuban. A merchant seaman, [he] would get these short runs to Cuba and bring home records. He could speak very good Spanish, so he’d be singing these Cuban songs around the house. So here I am, a little guy listening to all this. On the one hand,I’m listening to jazz, blues, and R&B, and then I’m listening to all this Cuban music, so the natural marriage came: Latin jazz.”
The musical seeds may have been sown, but they didn’t take root until the family moved to Montclair, New Jersey, where Ira remembers hearing a record that would change his life. “I heard my first Tito Puente record, ‘Mambo Diablo,’ and flipped! It was Latin jazz, though they weren’t calling it that then. Immediately, I told my mother I wanted to take drum lessons, ’cause Tito was a drummer.” Obsessed, he eventually taught himself piano, music theory, and harmony, and worked his way into a popular local band, the Cubaneers. By age sixteen, a growth spurt allowed him to sneak into New York City’s iconic clubs. “I’d see people like Dizzy, Carmen McRae, Stan Kenton at Birdland, then I’d go up to the Palladium and see Tito Puente! All the guys in my band would be out dancing on the floor, and I’d be standing next to the musicians reading their sheet music!” Determined music would be his life’s work, the nascent bandleader adopted the name Chico Mendoza and started another group, steadfastly gigging and gathering a following in Newark’s fertile club scene. “As I got more popular,” says Mendoza, “I was able to get jazz guys who could understand how to play Latin.”
The midwife in Ocho’s birth was another Chico—Chico Alvarez—who was working with Marín at UA Latino (he would later design Ocho’s LP covers), and whose buddy played congas in Mendoza’s band. “Chico told me about this instrumental group out in Newark called the Chico Mendoza Tropical Orchestra or something,” remembers Marín. “‘Flautira’ was the first song they played at the audition, and I fell in love right then and there—such a nice, groovy thing! I was impressed particularly ’cause they were all African Americans playing great Latin jazz and salsa, and playing their asses off. They had all the ingredients, but I said, ‘The name’s gotta go.’ I said, ‘How many are you?’” Mendoza adds, “They wanted the band to have a one-word name like the Beatles and the Supremes, ’cause, at that time, that’s what was happening.” Thus, the newly christened Ocho was born.
Recorded at Broadway Studios in midtown Manhattan in June of ’72, Ocho was structured mostly around cover tunes from the Morro publishing catalog, owned by UA Latino’s Fred Ryder. “That was one of the Catch-22s,” says Mendoza. “But it didn’t really matter, ’cause I was an arranger, first and foremost.” Arranger, conductor, pianist, vibist, and percussionist, Mendoza led Ocho through Cuban classics such as “Oríza,” “Suena Tu Bongo,” and “Coco May May,” putting their own contemporary stamp on it, songs often having multiple movements.
“With ‘Oríza,’ I was trying to put the R&B sound with the rock sound. See, UA was competing with Tico, and Fred Ryder wanted to get something that sounded like ‘Oye Como Va’ that would be linked to United Artists. So we came out with ‘Ay Que Frio’—it was a radio hit, but it didn’t sell much.” A few originals managed to slip through, however, including the tune that nabbed the record deal, “Flautira,” as well as the group’s foray into psychedelia. “‘Undress My Mind’ was the first song Bobby and I did together,” says Chico. “We sat down at the piano, and I said, ‘They’re giving all these kind of risqué titles where they’re kinda ambiguous.’ And I had recently heard José Feliciano’s version of the Doors’ ‘Light My Fire,’ and there was this part he did on his guitar, and I said, ‘If I could turn this part into a song, Bobby!’” Marín continues, “Chico starts out sayin’, ‘Undress my mind,’ then I said, ‘Thunder, lightning,’ then every other line we’d trade off. Twenty minutes, the song was done.”
Ocho in the studio was never just an octet, however, as Marín knew any hope for crossover success necessitated something extra. “All they had were instrumentals,” states Marín, “so I brought the singers.” Willie Torres, Jimmy Sabater, and Manny Roman were veterans in their own right, having recorded with heavyweights such as Joe Cuba, the Palmieri brothers, and the burgeoning Fania All- Stars. “After we got those guys in, it all began to click,” says Chico. “We never had to play a song more than twice. I remember Jimmy Sabater saying, ‘Remember, Chico, when you make an album, if you make a mistake, the same mistake will be there thirty years from now!’” “Chico was a natural in the studio,” recalls Marín. “He did all the arrangements, played all the keys, the vibes; all I did was try to make it sound pretty.”
As pretty and arranged as it may have sounded, however, their debut failed to catapult Ocho into the mainstream. Three more albums would surface, each propelled by the same hybrid engine of jazz, Latin, and funk, and each respectably received, but not enough to break through. Eventually, Mendoza took a job as radio host with jazz station WBGO and began teaching music at New Jersey’s William Paterson University, where he still works today. Looking back, he says, “I remember people saying, ‘Can any good Latin music come out of New Jersey?’ They didn’t think they could sell Latin jazz. There was an audience for it, but the audience had to grow into the music. People never really danced when we’d play; they would listen. And even though we tried to downscale [for] the record companies and try and make it palatable, it still sounded different, you know what I mean?”