Pictured: The cover art for The Green Mill Ballroom album by The Estrada Brothers. Photo from The Estrada Brothers Facebook page.
by Mark M. Alvarado
One thing that separates a good musician from a great one is the ability to touch listeners with an original sound.This is generally rooted in not only their skilled musicianship but stems from their spirit and ability to welcome you at the door. The tone of a beautifully played instrument comes with hours of practice and discipline. However, the genesis of that talent is born from a deeper region of the soul. It touches you and it can make you move. It can make you sing, even cry.
That touch is what came out of saxophonist Henry Estrada. It was also part DNA mixed with a profound love for jazz. As a founding member of the legendary Estrada Brothers, Henry Estrada carved out his place in the world of Latin music and has now taken that spirit and touch to a place where music greats are forever loved and remembered.
Henry Ortiz Estrada was born on July 25, 1936, in Ventura and passed on May 10, 2020, in Camarillo. Henry was raised and attended school in Oxnard with his eight brothers and two sisters. His parents, Luis and Jesusita, migrated from Chihuahua, Mexico to raise their growing family in fertile West Ventura County. His father was an accomplished professional violinist leading his own orchestra, providing the classical music foundation that led his sons to seed decades of the best music this region of California has ever produced.
It was his oldest brother, Luis Jr., that insisted the brothers learn an instrument after returning home from World War II. Henry’s younger brother, Angel, got them gigging in the mid-1950s playing pop standards for neighborhood parties, high school dances and wedding receptions. Starting out on percussion, the teenage Henry began paying close attention to jazz and bebop, wishing to switch over to saxophone, but the band of brothers insisted he keep playing percussion. Thankfully his mother took notice and purchased his first horn, affording him the opportunity to voice his musical talent and launching a career of performances and recordings that lasted seven decades.
Above all, Henry was a family man with his wife, Lydia, and children Gigi, Henry Jr. (Hank) and Sergio. He built a dual career as a reputable hairstylist to support his family, while the career of the Estrada Brothers simultaneously took shape outside of the local music scene due to baby brother Ruben’s fierce musical talent as a highly skilled multi-instrumentalist. The band blended their classical Mexican upbringing with jazz and Latin rhythms and as people in the music industry took notice, the brothers made a conscious decision to stay home and avoid the trappings of life on the road.
This was especially important for Henry, despite developing himself as a world class musician. He chose a life of being a well-rounded person and putting family before music. He looked at life philosophically and through a lens of spirituality, understanding that being a husband and father was far more important. Family was personal and intimate, but for the public he lived on stage as a masterful player, transmitting his tenor saxophone and flute into the hearts of fans up and down the West Coast.
From those early teenage gigs in the 1950s up through recording sessions for the worldwide Jazz Fantasy/Milestone label in the late 1990s, Henry and his brothers became the go-to favorites for just about any kind of performance imaginable. If East L.A. had Los Lobos, then Oxnard had the Estrada Brothers. By the 1980s, the Estradas were firmly devoted to Latin jazz with Henry and Ruben front and center. Brothers Angel and Bobby had moved on but the group was now anchored by Ruben’s prodigal teenage son, Cougar, on drums. Throughout the years, the Estrada Brothers shared the stage with the likes of Dave Bruebeck, Stan Getz, Tito Puente, Poncho Sanchez and Cal Tjader. They developed their own sophisticated sound built around Ruben’s steller vibe playing and Henry’s crafted jazz licks.
If you listen back to the recording of “Ya No Me Quieres”, Henry hits you hard with his romantic tenor, as an example of the many nights spent consoling the brokenhearted with his peaceful demeanor. It is also recommended to listen to their version of “Blue Moon” and let Henry take you on a ride with his flute floating through the heavy groove that established his family as the royal kings of the West Coast Latin jazz sound.
Being a real musician and a responsible father and husband at the same time is no easy task. The odds are stacked up against you because one has to be almost superhuman to pull it off. You have to be dedicated to your craft, get up every morning and haul your butt to work, provide quality time for family and still make it to the gig. Well, through the grace of God, that’s what Henry Estrada accomplished in life. Fifty-plus years of music and family with an extraordinary gift and talent to touch people with his soul. There’s no doubt Henry belongs in the same breath as Stan Getz and Paul Desmond as a pioneer of the West Coast Jazz sound. But his legacy is that of just being a humble cat who could play with anybody, but wisely chose to make sure his family came first.