I was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, a largely Hispanic town of diverse cultures and attitudes. In fact, this diversity was reflected in my own household. My two brothers and I grew up with Spanish speakers, sports enthusiasts, world travelers, Catholic clergy, oil and gas executives, cattle ranchers and most importantly , musicians. Again, musical diversity prevailed in our home. My father, R.D. “Dude” Skiles, was a well-respected jazz trumpet player, while my mother, Hortense, was a classically trained concert pianist. So when dad was showing me a hot Louie Armstrong lick on trumpet, mother was playing Rachmaninoff on the piano in the music room. Truthfully, our entire house was a music room. At all hours during the day, someone was tooting a horn, banging a drum, or playing the piano.
During high school, I played the trumpet. After my junior year, my parents sent me to the Aspen Music Festival and School to see if I was really serious about music as a career. While In Aspen, I had the opportunity to attend master classes with the composer, Darius Milhaud, and to study trumpet with the principle trumpet player of the New York Philharmonic, Robert Nagle. Needless to say, the program was way over my head! Everyone there was older than I and vastly more experienced. I did, however, get an idea of what it would take to be a successful classical player, and it was not for me! I could not see myself devoting that many years of practicing and mastering my instrument just to wear a tuxedo and play in a major symphony orchestra.
After High School, I entered North Texas State University (now UNT), a college just up the interstate from San Antonio. This was an exciting, if not dangerous time to be in college. The 60’s were years of political upheaval, assassinations, riots, the Vietnam War, and mind-bending drugs. Staying in school back then was a real challenge. However, unlike some of my colleagues who dropped out of school to tour with national acts, I persevered and miraculously graduated with a BA in music and a minor in philosophy. (drum roll…..tada!)
By this time, however,I had grown tired of playing the trumpet, primarily due to the constant need of embouchure maintenance. I said goodbye to my trumpet by purposefully leaving it on a bus headed for the far northern reaches of the country. (Adios, trumpet.) At this point, my concentration had become composition, arranging and piano, in that order. In fact, that’s what I do now, I write and arrange for instruments and ensembles ranging from solo cello to jazz band to full orchestra. After school I returned to San Antonio and played piano and B3 organ in clubs along San Antonio’s famed River Walk. This experience was good for me musically, however, I began to ask myself, “Is this It!?”. “ Is this what my musical family and my degree in music prepared me for?” I wanted to find out if in fact, my musical career had such a low ceiling. So I flew to Europe landing in France where I enrolled at the University of Grenoble. This was a time of expansion for me. I met artists and intellectuals from all over the world and learned to speak passable French.
After spending nearly a year in France, I returned to Austin ready to find my own voice. Upon my return, I began playing and writing for jazz groups. (47 Times It’s Own Weight, Tomas Ramirez the Jazzmanian Devil). Also, I entered graduate school and studied under the composers, Karl Korte and Dick Goodwin for a masters degree in composition from the University of Texas. Yet, the reality of playing Jazz for a living did not change; It was simply too difficult. Nevertheless, I found other employment-playing piano for a ballet company, theatre productions and the dance department at UT. Inevitably, however, I resumed playing casuals, that is, supper clubs, weddings, resorts etc.. The only difference was that now, I had a higher degree!
I found this situation intolerable, so I resigned to give up music altogether. I wanted to do something radical, something that I had never done before. I decided to join the “back to the land” movement. After giving this idea some thought, and with what money I had left, I bought a 133 acre farm in a remote section of Madison county Arkansas. However, the passion and fire that I had for this movement, was quickly extinguished by the rigors of farm life. I saw veteran farmers of that area work 12 and 14-hour days just to make ends meet. I, on the other hand, knew nothing about farming. My ignorance was only surpassed by my naiveté. Consequently, after suffering one farm calamity after the next, I felt the tug to sell the land and return to Austin.
Over time, that tug became a loud bugle call for me to beat an all-out retreat from the ,“Back to the Land Movement”! I was ready to “Give Back the Land to the Movement ! At that point, I was more than willing to return to Austin and play gigs, any gigs: night clubs, nursing homes, bar mitzvahs, churches, street corners, funerals, anything but farming! I resolved to set for myself three goals: 1) to get my works played by a major symphony orchestras, 2) make more accessible my jazz compositions, 3) to share what I have learned with others.
I believe the art closest to music is dance. Both of these disciplines are about form and gesture. Yet, essentially, jazz is a music designed for the brain, not the feet. I reflected on this conundrum for a while and decided some combination of jazz and Latin music was the answer Of course, this was nothing new. Others had walked this path before me and left a great body of work. I studied diligently the music of Machito, Tito Puente and Dizzy Gillespie I felt, however, that there was still room for yet another musical marriage of Latin and jazz that would reflect my own preferences and personality.
Initially, I became aware of Latin music in my hometown of San Antonio, The popular Lain music at that time included, Tejano, , Mariachi and Cumbia. I did not become seriously interested in Latin music however, until I fell blindly in love with a Mexican girl in Acapulco. After a lengthy courtship, we were very close to tying the knot when she informed me that she loved someone else! The memory of that nightmare still haunts me to this day, nevertheless, I did take away from that experience a new appreciation of Latin music and it’s suitability for use in a big band format So with great ceremony,I stood before my CCC (Creative Composition Cauldron), stirred in some Mexican rhythmic spice , some family background and North Texas Lab Band Jazz , added tempo to taste and ,”voila! (or “Asi!) There it was!
A concocted an ensemble that I called,“Beto And The Fairlanes ! (Or in Spanish:”Beto y los Fairlanes.) Starting with “Beto”, which is a common contraction for my first name, “Roberto” and, “Fairlanes”, simply because it sounded like a typical street band from San Antonio
All of this was done tongue and cheek was intended to be more fun than serious. I envisioned the band to be a kind of social club, i.e. a reason to read and write charts, eat BBQ, play volley ball in the backyard, drink beer, etc.. I expected the club to last no more than a year, maybe two at best. Well, miracles of miracles, as of this writing, Beto and The Fairlanes has flourished for over 39 years! The band has become an institution in Texas music. Evidently, my own Latin Jazz recipe worked and is still working. (see Link) Beto and The Fairlanes
In any case, my first goal was met: making jazz more accessible to the average listener. Similarly, I feel that works for orchestra are made more accessible when they accompany a narration, dance, film, or vocal performance. Thus, achieving my second goal, writing and arranging for symphony orchestra, began with my friendship with the late conductor and violinist, Akira Endo. He commissioned and programmed three of my works, all of which had themes relating to Texas historical characters and events.: “Viva Texas!”, “Fantasia Latina” and “A Portrait of Juan Seguin,” a famous, yet controversial, Texas hero.
Also for Akira, I wrote arrangements for Pops concerts featuring various artists, as well as performances for children. One of those artists who performed with the Austin symphony was Ms. Tish Hinojosa with whom I went on tour performing with orchestras nationwide
At this point , I got to conduct the orchestra! This was a great thrill for me. I was allowed to “drive the Ferrari”, so to speak. It is said that the king of all instruments is the orchestra itself, and I was behind the wheel ! –(rather, behind the baton) At present, I am looking forward to conducting my latest piece,” A Portrait Of Barbara Jordan”.
Regarding my third goal: “sharing what I have learned with others”, I have been blessed with 25 year teaching career at Austin Community College. What I have learned over the years is that teaching is indeed, a calling. Few other professions can influence a person’s life more powerfully than a teacher. A good teacher is right there along with the student in making life-changing decisions. The return is priceless! Teaching is truly it’s own reward. Of course, teachers must be paid for what they do and the pay is woefully inadequate in most cases. Nevertheless, teaching ,for me, is a mutual exchange of experience and ideas that keeps me mentally and spiritually alert. This is true in spite of the fact that I am easily three times the age of most of my students. Teaching, however, transcends age!
Another spiritually enriching experience for me was my twelve years as pianist and arranger at Austin’s Unity Church Of The Hills. The Unity people are all about positive Christianity : no sin, no blood, no hell and, no guilt. It’s an altogether refreshing interpretation of Christian teaching that has no conflict with science and technology. The most important lesson that I learned from Unity, however, was the value of fellowship. I found that laughter dissolves metaphysics! That is, doctrinal differences disappear when two or more individuals come together in friendship and good humor. Unity is a faith built on love and tolerance. I still resonate with those insights.
At last, I am coming to the end of this kaleidoscopic synopsis of my life in music. My goals continue to challenge me. Retirement is contrary to my nature.
I hope to empower others to follow their own creative paths, even though those paths may not be immediately obvious.