Portland Trombonist Denzel Mendoza Isn't Done Dreaming Yet
Created in response to a culture of xenophobia permeating the U.S., American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom is a triumphant, GRAMMY Award-winning record celebrating the resilience and artistic voice of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) recipients in America. In 2018 Philanthropist and music attorney Doug Davis turned to world-renowned trumpeter John Daversa and composer Kabir Sehgal to produce and arrange an album aimed to further dismantle the often bitter narrative spun by media of the immigrant experience through jazz, a genre that has stood at the forefront of social justice for decades.
Together, they assembled a cast of 53 Dreamers (young people who qualify for DACA) to re-imagine seminal works from the likes of James Brown ("Living in America"), Led Zeppelin (“Immigrant Song”) as well as traditional patriotic songs ("America the Beautiful"). Having made a name for himself performing alongside rising singer-songwriter Haley Heynderickx, Portland-based trombonist Denzel Mendoza was selected to join the cast of Dreamers for a whirlwind recording session at the Miami Frost School of Music.
A proud Filipino, Mendoza was born in Singapore and began performing in the sixth grade after his mother gifted him a pawn shop trombone. Ahead of an upcoming tour, he spoke with us about taking a non-traditional path in music, the importance of feeling seen, and the impact working alongside fellow Dreamers had on him.
You’re now firmly rooted in Portland's music community. What brought you to the Pacific Northwest?
It was quite a journey for me to come to Portland. I moved here three years ago from New York City. I was there for two and a half years. I went to the New School for jazz and contemporary music, but I was only there for one semester. For me, a proud Filipino, I didn’t want to take the flight of shame and go back to Las Vegas so I decided to stay for the remainder of those years.
It was an insane process of trials and tribulations. I became homeless during that time as well. By the end of the two and a half years, I ran out of money. I couldn’t handle not being able to support myself so I decided to join the army. I wanted to join the military. My cousin was attending West Point during that time. I attended his graduation ceremony and that inspired me so much so to where I was ready to join.
Do you have other family members involved in the military?
A lot of uncles and some of my aunts are. Mostly Marines, Airforce, and Navy. My cousin was one of the first in the Army. I said goodbye New York, I’m going back to Las Vegas to see my recruiter and join the army. I moved back, I see my recruiter and I bring in all my paperwork and he sees that I’m under DACA. Once he saw that, I wasn’t able to join. It’s extremely interesting. There’s a loophole: If you’re an immigrant and joining the military, you could get a green card or get citizenship pretty easy. If you’re under DACA, in order for you to join the military you have to speak another language. But I’ve been here since 2000. I’ve lived in America since I was five. All I know is English.
What were you feeling when you were denied entry to the military?
It was extremely disappointing. I felt like a failure because I felt as though I had failed musically in New York and I failed joining the military, even though it wasn’t my fault. By chance, while I was in Las Vegas, two of my best friends Dan Rossi and R.J. Reyes, a drummer and bassist who also dropped out of music school were in Las Vegas at the same time. We used to play music together in high school religiously.
Serendipitous that everyone was back at the same time.
Yep, just the three of us. During that time RJ had been writing these tunes and he said, "Dude, I have this gig with a prominent band from L.A called Knower. It’s Genevieve Artodi and Louis Cole." They’re in Las Vegas and we play a house show with them. It went so well and we were so inspired that they dug our music and invited us to L.A. The three of us were like, "Yeah, let’s do this!" At that time, Dan, the drummer, was also living in Portland.
That’s the Portland connection.
That’s it. He goes, do you guys want to move to Portland? Literally a week or two after I moved from New York to Las Vegas, I pack my bags up, I take the van and I move to Portland, Oregon. Music just flew from there.
It sounds like that was a huge turning point for you. Meeting local singer/songwriter Haley Heynderickx a couple of days after Trump's election was another one. Can you describe that interaction and how it impacted you?
That was also very serendipitous. My whole life has been serendipity and luck, honestly. I mean I’m a hard worker, but I’ve also been very fortunate an lucky and I’m grateful for it. It was a day or two after Trump got elected. When that happened, I woke up in tears. His rhetoric throughout his entire campaign was like, "Let’s end DACA, let's deport every ‘illegal’ immigrant." What kind of a term is that? "Illegal?" Am I a criminal? Ugh.
I was devastated. I had a gig two days after, somewhere at PSU, and I was supposed to sub. I didn’t know where it was on campus. I’m milling about, didn’t know where to go or what to wear, walking around aimlessly with my trombone. I go on Facebook and I see that close by there is this welcoming back party for a name that I recognized on Facebook, Haley Heynderickx. I decided to go because it was close by. I go to the house and the first person to open the door is Haley! I didn't know she was Filipino, when I saw that, I was like, "Are you Filipino?" She was like, "Yeah!" We immediately connected. She sees that I have my trombone and for some reason she’s like, "Do want to open my set?" I was like, "Yeah, you sure you just want to hear solo trombone?" She was like, "Yeah, of course."
I played a solo trombone set. At that time, I felt like I had nothing to lose. I came out to the crowd in that house and said, listen, I’m undocumented. I don’t have a plan set. This is going to be an improved set of how I feel. I have been a member of Haley's band ever since.
When were you contacted about the American Dreamers album? Were you familiar with John Daversa’s work prior?
Also kind of wild how this happened. I knew about John Daversa since high school. He’s a prominent bandleader, arranger, composer and trumpet player. He teaches at the Miami Frost School of Music and I believe he did some time at USC. He’s well orientated with the college music and college jazz scenes. Also, Genevieve from Knower also did gigs with John Daversa. The crazy sixth-degree of everything.
I had no idea that the project existed. I was at a recording session with the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble and I kept on getting calls from a random number. During a break, I call back and it’s Doug Davis, a music lawyer and one of the producers of said album. He said hey, I’ve heard about you, you’re undocumented, I know you play trombone, here’s this project. I’d love to hear a recording of you. I sent him the KEXP video of Haley's session with the full band. He gets back to me and he’s like, quote me on this, "You are exactly what we need, you are the unicorn we are trying to find."
He used "unicorn"?!
He used unicorn! I was like, "Dude, don’t say that, come on!" I was extremely happy to hear that. He said I want you in this project. We’re going to have a documentary made. There will be videographers in Miami, we want to fly you out. When can you do this? I tell him, whoah, I’m about to go on a month-long tour with Haley in two days. He’s like, "Okay, we can fly you out tomorrow."
So does that mean you did all of the recoding in one day?
In one day. It was absurd. I left the following day for Miami. I got there at like 9 or 10am. I tried going to my hotel and it wasn’t ready for me yet. I had taken a very early flight that I almost missed. I got to Miami, I was a mess, I haven't brushed my teeth, that whole airplane look. I wasn’t able to shower or anything so I went straight to the recording session. It was at at Miami Frost School of Music, a place I really respect because a lot of my contemporaries and people I met at the New School either went to Miami Frost for their grad or undergrad.
I get to the recording studio, and it’s the whole nine yards. It’s one of the most professional settings I’ve ever been in. I get there and there are cameras everywhere. I told myself to stay cool and pretend like you know what you’re doing. fter that, Daversa hands me a folder of music that he wrote. All arrangements and originals of songs that portray what it’s like to be an undocumented immigrant in America. These tunes are so hard. The first tune was "America the Beautiful" in quarter note at 295 or 300. Extremely fast, I’m sight reading the whole thing. 14 hours later, we’ve got an album. My next flight was the following morning to SXSW for the Haley Heynderickx tour.
"With this album we are trying to voice the fact that we are here and we are not only creative artists, but that we hold PhDs, we speak multiple languages."
The album features over 50 musicians who qualify for the DREAM act. Can you give some context to that piece of legislation for those who might be unfamiliar?
DACA stands for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. What DACA means is, if you qualify, you have to be a certain age and you have to had entered the country before a certain age. If you do qualify, you are protected from deportation. You get a social security number, you get a workers' authorization permit and you are allowed to work legally. The most important thing for a lot of DREAMers is you are allowed to go to college. That is the reason I was able to go to the New School. There’s no such thing as the Dream Act, we’re just called DREAMers. It’s DACA, but the Dream Act I believe has been denied for the past 20 years.
You've mentioned that historically DREAMers tend to remain silent around their status as undocumented. Does a project like this help change that narrative?
That’s the point of this album. We DREAMers are trying to create a voice for all of us. The lucky 53 that were involved, we are coming out of the shadows to say that we exist, we benefit this country, we pay our taxes, we work, we create art, we make this country better. There is so much rhetoric and naivety around people thinking that DREAMers or undocumented immigrants in general are criminals. For us, we can’t have anything on our rap sheet. If we are to commit a crime, that’s it. We have the cleanest record ever. It's something that people need to understand.
With this album we are trying to voice the fact that we are here and we are not only creative artists, but that we hold PhDs, we speak multiple languages. One of the DREAMers who fascinated me the most, Saba, who I believe she was from Pakistan. She goes to school in Texas- she’s about to get her PhD. She is a mathematician, but she also plays piano and has a beautiful voice. All the DREAMers on the album are the most talented and humble and interesting people I’ve ever met. It was nice to finally meet people who were in the same position I was in on such a large scale.
The spoken word introductions to each piece are powerful. In yours you say that an early age you hoped that maybe if people saw you with your trombone they would notice you. Has winning a Grammy made you feel seen/validated on a larger scale?
It’s interesting, the post Grammy win for me. Portland is such a small town and the music scene is even smaller. Everyone plays with everyone. With me being in all of these projects, I was able to make a voice with my horn in this town very quickly. Doing the tours I’ve done, people have recognized my name and what I do. After the GRAMMY win, people were like whoa, Denzel just won a Grammy, let alone the project itself winning three.
I was being seen more. The limelight was kind of crazy for a hot second. It became a running joke between me and my musician friends, like oh Denzel can't make this rehearsal ‘cause he’s out winning Grammys. I don’t hold it over my head.
So, why the trombone?
Growing up in Las Vegas—Southwest vibes. I had a lot of family in Southern California, older cousins and whatnot. They introduced me to ska. That was happy-go-lucky music with boisterous horns. I know so many trombonists who are prominent in the jazz scene across the country who, say, "Yeah, I picked up the trumpet 'cause of ska." A good friend of mine is the touring trombonist for Streetlight Manifesto. We would do pep band gigs for NYU.
Initially I wanted to play trumpet. My mom bought me a trumpet from a pawn shop. I was pumped, I brought it to my sixth grade brass class. My teacher said no, your lips are too big for trumpet. Which is absolutely ridiculous 'cause that’s so not true! But I realized they needed more low brass than trumpets. I tested out a baritone, tuba, and fell in love with the trombone cause I thought it was funny.
You’ve begun composing under the moniker "Illegal Son." What are your plans for that project and how does it differ from your other work?
Illegal Son came from that night that I met Haley. It was the beginning of my understanding that I can perform as a solo trombonist and people will listen and hopefully will be capitaved. I did another gig with a bass player a few months after that and it was an avant-garde, solely improvised act. My whole idea with Illegal son is that it's mostly improvised.
The term "Illegal Son" definitely comes from me being undocumented for the majority of my life. To live as an undocumented immigrant, your whole life is literally improvised. There is no tomorrow. Any second, an ICE officer or police officer can just pick you up. I’m always watching my back. It's an improvised day, every day of my life. With that project, that’s how I perceive my music. There is a form and there are many emotions going on. The group now is an upright bass and drums, a trio. The people that I’m playing with are well trusted friends that know how to be emotive with their instruments and listen and improvise.
You’ve played a supporting role in projects for a long time. Do you enjoy stepping into the "driver's seat"?
Do I enjoy it. [Laughs.] It’s a completely different mindset. For the the entirety of my life as an instrumentalist, I’ve always been a side guy. I’m completely happy with that, but I need to have this expression of myself and the only way I can do that is through a truly leading role. It is something that is extremely challenging for me. I’m always worrying about what my band members think. It’s difficult, but it's something that I’m challenging myself to do. It’s a passion project. It’s my voice more clearly through music.
It’s hard to say it clearly.
If expressionism was music, Illegal Son is expressionism in that form. It’s emotive and all over the place, but there is beauty and resolve and chaos to it.