This story first appeared in our summer 2014 issue
It’s the first Friday of June, and the sun is beginning to set behind Miami. An eight-piece band plays a lighthearted ‘50s tune in front of Bullion Plaza as a woman dances her heart out in the empty street in front of them. With a bounce and loaded shimmy in every step, she dances solo. A few other bodies jitter by her, but this woman’s gusto is hard to ignore.
She has danced to this band’s music time and time again for years, she says as she finally pulls away from the music and asks for a hand up on to the curb.
The musicians are situated just across from where the Plaza Ballroom, an old social hub of Miami, once stood. They play classics like “Hey Baby, Que Paso” and “Blue Moon,” taking occasional requests from their audience seated in lawn chairs lining the opposite side of the street. In fact, they can play just about any pop standard from the ‘30s on up, as well as boleros and cumbias, by memory.
With trumpets, trombones, and saxophones in hand, Miami Big Band Sound has entertained at First Friday events like this – as well as reunions, weddings, benefits, birthdays and anniversaries anywhere from here to Kearny and Phoenix – for the last 24 years.
Whether they are playing Latin, country, or jazz numbers, the band has that unmistakably smooth, seamless, cohesive sound of musicians who have been playing for decades.
And they have, which is why money is no longer a motivation.
“We get some paying gigs, which isn’t bad every now and then,” says trumpet player George Sanchez.
Band members have come and gone. Yet, many of these musicians have been playing their songs in these towns long before they were ever a part of Miami Big Band Sound.
To understand Miami Big Band Sound, you have to understand the band’s roots.
In the beginning, Miami Big Band Sound was called Sipie and the Big Band Sound. That’s because Sipie, a professional musician originally from Miami, was responsible for starting the band around 1990.
But Sipie and the Big Band Sound was, in fact, a reincarnation of an even older band that once filled the old Plaza Ballroom on Saturday nights back in the ‘50s. That band was called the George Sanchez Orchestra, named after George. That band included keyboardist Joe (George’s brother), trombonist and vocalist Cruz Mendoza, and Sipie (all of whom later formed Big Band Sound).
At the time, the mambo and chacha were all the rage, and Globe-Miami, Superior, and Morenci-Clifton were hotbeds for talented musicians.
“In a lot of small mining towns, after the war, folks went to dances.” Joe says. “That’s all there was to do in those days.”
Back then, the Plaza Ballroom was the place to go dancing in Globe-Miami. Everyone dressed up. The George Sanchez Orchestra would show up in all white and play for a packed house. And every other Saturday, there was a fight.
It was also a time when segregation still divided the community. Originally, the Plaza Ballroom had two dance nights – Saturdays for the Anglo crowd, and Sundays for the Hispanic crowd. The band played on Sundays; but before long, they were attracting not only Hispanics, but white folks as well.
It was only a matter of time before the band was asked to play on Saturdays for both crowds. Without realizing it, the band had integrated the two dances.
“We happened to come around at the right time and the right place,” George says. “That shows what music can do.”
Back then, musicianship was really encouraged among young people.
“The schools had great music programs,” Joe recalls. “A lot of us were not athletically inclined, so we turned to music instead.”
Joe and George got music lessons from a fellow by the name of Genaro Bocardo in the back of their father’s barbershop in Miami.
“When dad wasn’t cutting hair, musicians would come in and play,” Joe remembers. “The music influence was everywhere.”
Joe and George learned music from Bocardo with a ruler, and a clunk on the head for getting notes wrong.
Mendoza, meanwhile, learned music on his uncle’s trombone, which had been put away during the war. When his school’s band director asked during an assembly for band players, Mendoza volunteered.
By the time Mendoza and the Sanchez brothers were just finishing high school, playing gigs became a means to make enough money to get into college. The George Sanchez Orchestra would often have whole weekends booked, playing music for a prom on Friday night, the plaza on Saturday night, and a tardeada (afternoon party) on Sunday. They would play for big events too, like dances on New Year’s Eve.
At their peak, George Sanchez Orchestra was invited to play the Phoenix Riverside Ballroom in Phoenix, the home of big bands.
“The Riverside was the place where good bands played,” George recalls.
Then, life happened.
Musical talent swept Sipie away at age 18, though he didn’t leave without some sound advice from George and Joe’s father. George can recite his father’s words to this day:
“Sipie, no drugs, no drinking, no smoking. Women are okay.”
“He lived up to that, which is unusual for touring musicians,” George remembers. “He was a killer with his looks.”
Meanwhile, most of the band retired from music, moving on to marriages, families, and careers. Joe later became mayor of Miami. Mendoza became Globe’s high school band teacher. George became an optometrist.
Sipie continued to have a successful career playing with big bands throughout the ’40s and ‘50s.
Eventually, he came back to Globe-Miami. When he did, he brought the old band back to life in the form of Sipie and the Big Band Sound. They got gigs around town, and began practicing in Joe’s garage once a month.
Then Sipie passed away.
“He continued to play until he died,” he adds. “You could name a tune and he played it.”
Original band member George Reyes also passed. Since then, other band members have come and gone, and the band eventually evolved into the eight-piece that it is today. Beyond Mendoza and the Sanchez brothers, the band currently includes saxophonist Keith Gustafson, his wife, drummer Linda Gustafson, guitarist Mariano, and steel guitarist Troy.
It is the love of music that keeps the musicians of Miami Big Band Sound together, Mendoza, Joe and George agree.
“We basically play because we enjoy playing. If we get paid, that’s great. If not, that’s okay,” Mendoza says.
Of course, none of them would have made it this far without their families’ tolerance, he points out.
“If our wives didn’t put up with it, we couldn’t do it,” he says with a grin.
Keep an eye out for Miami Big Band Sound in August at the Hamburger Fry at the Gila County Historical Museum. The band will also play the Centennial High School reunion in September.