Roberto Zenteno

Bandleader and Musician

Written by Editor of Bravo Houston, Olivia Flores Alvarez

SEMANA News, January 11, 2004

 Easily one of the most talented and respected musicians in the city, Roberto Zenteno is an exceptional trumpet-player and renowned bandleader. Few people know that he had had an impressive career in Mexico before he came to Houston 50 years ago. As a child, Zenteno picked up a trumpet after doctors warned his parents that he was overexerting his arm playing baseball. Music came easy to him and by the age of 15 he left home to tour professionally. He spent time as a sideman for La Orquesta Falcon and the legendary Perez Prado before he settled down in Houston to spend time with his young wife and growing family. Zenteno led his own Latino big band during the 1950s and was among the first Hispanics to cross the color line in the then segregated Houston to perform for white audiences in top nightspots like the Cork Club and Castle Club. "He was one of the very first that opened up that racial door. He got into the white clubs when there weren't too many Hispanics that were doing that," says long-time friend and colleague Kido Zapata. "You have to remember they wouldn't let kids speak Spanish in school back then, they would spank us if we did, but Roberto was singing in Spanish during that same time. The same people who would punish kids if they spoke Spanish in school would go to nightclubs to hear Roberto sing, Zapata laughs. "Roberto helped to open doors for us. Instead of using his fist, he used his head. And that was how we got over those lines, over those barriers. Roberto was one of those guys who did that." Zapata continues, "He's contributed to the music scene here quite a bit. By being a good musician, sure, but by teaching other people, too. "He's influenced a lot of musicians. I know guys who've worked with Maynard Fergerson and other really big names who started out with Roberto. They learned what they know from him and then went out and joined major bands, went on the road and made names for themselves. But they started with Roberto." "Just by being around him there's a lot you can learn. Not only musically but how to be a better person, how to mix with other people. He can make friends with anybody, from a bum to a king, Roberto can relate to them and make them feel comfortable," says Zapata. "There are musicians who made more money than Roberto, sure, but you can't judge a career by that. Somebody may have a million dollars but Roberto has a billion dollars worth of talent and experience, says Zapata. Like many gigging Latino musicians, Zenteno has recorded less than his fans would have liked. "he does have some recordings, not enough of course, because we would all want to have dozens of records by him, but he does have some, "says Zapata. "He was on one of the very first Perez Prado recordings. And of course he's got a couple of records of his own groups but it would be great if we had a lot more." Zenteno's son Javier recently re-mastered several tracks from sessions recorded during the 1970s with bassist Gilbert Martinez, saxophonist Cesar Morales and percussionist E. Martinez. He then re-released the material on a self-titled CD. Zapata says he is glad Zenteno has been singled out for recognition by Bravo Houston! "you're talking about a musician that needs to be talked about, about somebody that doesn't get the headlines or the awards that he really deserves, "he says. "He needs to be known and stand in the limelight, he needs to be talked about".