Los Conquistadores

It has been called the oldest musical organization in the Southwest, and for seventy-five years it never missed playing for a fiesta parade, but in September 1939 it played for its last fiesta. There was always music in Santa Fe. Many travelers commented on the bailes and fandangos that were frequent events in the villa at the end of the Santa Fe Trail. Josiah Gregg, one of the early travelers over the trail and author of Commerce of the Prairies, observed that “nothing is more general, throughout the country, and with all classes than dancing.” Music and dance gave the impression of a perpetual carnival. the musical instruments most frequently used in Santa Fe were the fiddle and guitar, with an occasional small drum like those used by the Indians.

With the establishment of Fort Marcy in 1846, the military band that was a part of most frontier garrisons brought a new sound with afternoon concerts designed to enhance the morale of the troops and improve relations with the community at large. At this the band was a great success. The daily paper frequently commented on its performance and the favorable response of the public to the music “discoursed” by the military brass band.

It was not until shortly after the end of the Civil War that a civilian brass band came to Santa Fe, and it had its origin, at least in part, in the military. Francisco Pérez, a native of Chihuahua, Mexico, who had served with the Confederate army as a bugler, participating in Sibley’s ill-fated campaign in New Mexico, returned to Santa Fe with half-dozen other young musicians and formed La Banda de Santa Fe (ca. 1865). Later the name was changed to Professor Pérez’s Santa Fe Band, and it performed under several other titles and directors until 1909 when it was incorporated as Los Conquistadores Band by Amado Gutierrez, Nicanor Baca, Jose R. Valencia, Francisco de los Angeles and Julian Grace “for the purpose of giving public and private concerts in the City of Santa Fe.” At that time Bartolo Ramirez was director and Antonio Alarid was manager.

Many of the men were also members of the Territorial Militia and served as the band for the First Infantry Division. a payroll record for July 18-30, 1911, for services rendered at Camp Mills, New Mexico, lists twenty-three musicians from Santa Fe, among them Robert H. Miller, drum major; Bartolo Ramirez, chief musician; Leandro Alverez, principal musician; Henry C Alarid, 2nd master sergeant; Daniel C. McKenzie, sergeant; Felix Sandoval, corporal; and three privates, Crensencio, Francisco and Eustacio Escudero. The drum received $1.20 per day, the chief musician received $2.50, the principal musician $1.33, sergeants $1.20, corporals $1.00 while privates received $0.80 from the United States government and $0.20 from the Territory of New Mexico. during World War I it served as the First New Mexico Regimental Band. In 1916 it participated in the punitive expedition against Pancho Villa, under General Pershing.

Following the war, the band was released from active service, and Dan McKenzie, who had joined Professor Pérez’s band as a young boy, became director. Henry C. Alarid, son of Antonio Alarid, served as manager. They continued in these positions for the next twenty years while the band increased in size and proficiency.

The Sunday evening concerts on the plaza from May to September were among the most important of the band’s activities, though it participated in many community celebrations such as Memorial Day and Fourth of July parades each year, baseball games in the summer, political rallies during election years, the opening of the new airport in September 1939, religious processions according to the church calendar, the Elk’s Club Santa Fe Trail Days benefits and concerts for the veterans in the hospital in Albuquerque.

They also played for funerals and weddings of band members, most notably the wedding of Ramon Escudero and Flora Gabaldon on June 24, 1935. However, their most demanding schedule came during the fiestas in September. They played three concerts a day for three days and marched in all of the parades and religious processions connected with that event. All of the required a great deal of rehearsal time and a certain amount of financial support from the community. there were uniforms to buy or refurbish. Instruments had to be purchased and repaired. New music was needed occasionally. And the bandstand and plaza needed some maintenance to make it comfortable for the musicians and their audience.

The Santa Fe New Mexican on June 8, 1935, reported that chairs for the band were urgently needed. It seems that the band members were forced to haul the heavy park benches up to the bandstand when they played, and those members of the audience who had come early in order to get a good seat “get tough about it and often refuse to let the players have the benches.” The writer commented that “If they’re going to give us the music we ought to let ’em sit down.” He went on to say that the band needed a lot more financial support if it was to continue the concerts. Finally the City Council authorized the purchase of thirty-six folding chairs for use by the band, and that problem was resolved. However, that was not the only problem. Parents were asked to restrain their children who had the habit of racing around the bandstand and hitting the players on the back of the head. Merchants were concerned about the litter on the plaza after the concerts. It was suggested that the sale of peanuts in the shell and popcorn and candy in paper containers (by the same merchants who complained of the mess) contributed to the problem and that alternatives should be considered. The mayor pointed out that most of the time the plaza was neat. Traffic on Palace Avenue was another distraction. It was decided to block off the street while concerts were held, and this seemed to meet with general approval.

Also in 1935, the City Council held a planning session to determine the best uses for the plaza. It was decided to hold a contest with prizes for the best suggestions. Fannie Baca and Elizabeth Turley won for their suggestions to replace the badly-worn grass with flagstone and shrubbery, center the bandstand, enlarge the gravel concourses and install walks and coping. As with all proposed changes in Santa Fe, these ideas drew immediate criticism from many sources. One James L. Seligman, in a letter to the editor, had a counter proposal. “Now that our once beautiful, cool and restful plaza has been turned into a rock pile, I … offer the following suggestions: Import some goats, paint flagstone green, place new city and county building on the plaza facing the Old Palace.” Some of these prize-winning suggestions were implemented and remain part of the plaza today.

The new look had not been in place very long before vandalism began taking its toll. Plants were pulled up, benches were overturned and broken, and the situation became so bad that in June 1937, the mayor and City Council decided to move the concerts from the plaza to Fort Marcy Park. This drew the usual reaction fro the public who maintained that the concerts belonged in the plaza and that the damage could be controlled with a show of force by the police, including the jailing of the worst offenders as a last resort.

Nevertheless, on June 20, 1935 [1937? — CJ], the concert was held at Fort Marcy and the mayor termed it a “wonderful success,” declaring the matter permanently settled. however, following many more letters to the editor and complaints from the band members about having to carry their heavy instruments such a great distance, the blowing sand that ruined their expensive musical instruments and made necessary the cleaning of all uniforms, to say nothing of the violence done tradition, the Council, at its next meeting, voted five to nothing, “practically without a word,” to return the concerts to the plaza. A campaign by the band to get the City Council to roof the bandstand was unsuccessful, even though the evening showers that came so frequently in July damaged their instruments and ruined the sheet music.

For several years the band used the old Second Ward school on Sandoval Street for rehearsal, renaming it Conquistadores Hall. McKenzie offered music classes there to interested students under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Many youngsters had their first opportunity to learn to play an instrument under his tutelage. In addition, McKenzie directed the St. Catherine Indian School Band from 1926 to 1934, organized the band at St. Michael’s College in 1930 and directed it until 1942, and started the band at Santa Fe High School in 1935. He also directed several fife, drum and bugle corps. A. B. Martines, son of the legendary chief of police, recalls playing in one during his junior school years. Although McKenzie did not have an academic degree, he was an accomplished musician, proficient on many instruments including the guitar. He transcribed and arranged music to fit the capabilities and instrumentation of the members of his bands and composed several selections that were very well received locally. Among these were Chiquita, a march dedicated to the people of Santa Fe, The Executive’s March, dedicated to governor Clude Tingley, Lluvia de Flores, to be used for solemn religious processions, June Roses, to showcase the talents of one of his students who played the xylophone, and La Villa de Santa Fe to express his deep feeling for his hometown. It was played for the first time in public on April 30, 1935, at a concert at St. Michael’s College and was played frequently thereafter at summer concerts for a number of years. It has been called the official song of Santa Fe, but the absence of City Council minutes from January 1 to June 30, 1935, makes it impossible to determine if official action was ever taken to adopt it. However, it was published in a booklet of songs used at fiesta time when the audience was invited to sing along with the band.

In addition to the instrumentalists, the band concerts also featured three very talented women vocalists: Gertrude Sanchez, Barcelona Montoya and Mrs. Tony Sanchez. They sang solos, duets and trios. at fiesta time there were many special requests for favorite songs such as La Borrachita, Las Golondrinas, La Estrellita, La Paloma and El Rancho Grande. In 1938 or 1939, the only woman ever to play an instrument in Los Conquistadores Band joined the group. Happe Davis had been a student at Santa Fe High and was attending the University of New Mexico when she approached Director McKenzie with a request to join the band. She played the saxophone very well, and as a joke occasionally played a selection on the tuba. She was so small that a uniform had to be tailored especially for her by one of the band members who was also a tailor.

Following the weekly concerts, which usually consisted of the traditional mix of marches, classical transcriptions and popular music, the band would march from the plaza to the Lensic Theater with the crowd following. There they would play a few more selections, with small boys, usually the sons or grandsons of the band members, holding the music. The boys would be tipped ten or fifteen cents for their help, and the band members would get in free to the movies. Of course, the purpose of increasing attendance at the movies worked every time. The band received excellent support from the local news paper which reported on July 2, 1938, that the organization was having one of the busiest weeks of its long and useful career, playing for the Elks’ annual celebration on Saturday, the Corpus Cristi procession on Sunday afternoon, the plaza concert on Sunday night and the Lions’ fireworks display on Monday night. this was typical of their summer schedule each year. In August, as a change of pace, the band members and their families enjoyed a picnic at Hyde Park, a much-needed respite before the demanding fiesta schedule was upon them.

In January 1939, at the annual business meeting of the band, Augustin Grace was elected president; Pedro Suazo, vice president; Manuel Sandoval, secretary; Ramon Escudero, treasurer; Dan McKenzie, director; Meliton Sandoval, first assistant director; Vincent Matt, second assistant director; M. P. Gabaldon, manager; Henry Alarid, assistant manager; Mike Alire, librarian, Dan Padilla, McKenzie’s grandson, assistant librarian; Bennie Rael, reporter; Max Apodaca, property custodian; Elias Maes, sergeant at arms; and Ramon Alarid, Bennie Padilla, another grandson, Mat Chavez, Leo Ortiz and Isaac Martinez as members of the board of directors. Most of the band members were included in this table of organization. It was significant that long-time members McKenzie and Henry Alarid now had assistance with the responsibilities they had carried for twenty years or more.

Fund raising, as always, was the first order of business. The band voted to sponsor a Valentine’s Day dance at the Lensic ballroom. The City Council usually made a contribution of $200 or $300, and the rest of their support came from merchants and public-spirited citizens. It cost approximately $1,200 per year to meet their expenses, and in those depressed times such an amount was hard to come by. However, the community responded generously, and band members expressed their gratitude.

In June, a group from Hollywood arrived to begin filming “The Light that Failed,” planning to transform the Rio Grande into the Nile, according to the local paper. Among the visitors was Joe Colling, conductor of the American Legion sixty-piece recording band of Hollywood. He joined the Conquistadores one Sunday evening and the next week conducted a couple of numbers, much to the delight of the band members and their audience.

The heavy schedule had taken its toll on director McKenzie who became very ill with pneumonia in July. Several guest conductors filled in for him while he recuperated, among them assistant director Matt who also served as assistant director of the band at the U. S. Indian School and the Young Democrats band.

The 1939 fiesta was the biggest and best ever. The war raging en Europe lent a certain urgency to the celebration. The Santa Fe New Mexican published a special fiesta edition which included an article giving the history of Los Conquistadores Band, crediting the name to a suggestion made by Ralph Emerson Twitchell. At that time there were thirty-three members, and they made their usual contribution to the enjoyment, not knowing that this would be their last fiesta.

The year ended with a seasonal flurry of activities, and on January 15, 1940, the band met again to organize for the new year. Most of the same names appeared on the list of officers though some were in different positions. One of the most significant changes was in the position of director. Meliton Sandoval was now director, and Dan McKenzie was assistant director. The lingering effects of his earlier illness had forced him to curtail his activities.

A fund drive was begun and plans were announced to begin the summer concerts the first Sunday in June “provided $1,200 is raised.” By the middle of May, however, only $120 had been contributed. When the crowd gathered on June 3 for the anticipated concert, only one band member, Augustine Grace, the president, showed up. An editorial in The Santa Fe New Mexican on June 6, expressed the sentiment of many in an editorial headed “We’re All the Losers”: The Sunday night band concerts are gone and with them one of the most interesting phases of summer in Santa Fe. Only the Fiesta itself surpassed the colorful crowd of flirting girls and boys, old women in black shawls, family groups in their Sunday best, piñon and tamale peddlers with their buckets.

The summer moon, the slow milling about the plaza, lovers’ soft talk and the music from the band stand made a delightful experience. … Visitors remember the experience long after they have forgotten other impressions of the village. … Santa Fe made a mistake in failing to support the band, failing to provide money for uniforms, for band musicians are proud and must have uniforms, and money for a few instruments and for a little pay for the members.

Only $1000 was needed, but the Chamber of Commerce was soliciting the town for $15,000 for its budget, and the attitude of the merchants seemed to be “let the people who listen to them pay the bill.” the City Council gave the band $200 to play for “general civic celebrations and in parades.” The money contributed by others was returned to the donors, and the summer band concerts passed into history. Beginning July 14, a different kind of music was heard on evenings in the plaza. Ignacio Ortiz, director of Los Nativos, recruited three other musical groups to join him in playing concerts through the end of August. The others were Los Morenos, directed by Henry Carrillo; Los Mariachi de Santa Fe, directed by Fred Arellano; and Los Villeros Alegres, directed by Benigno Muniz.

So the music continued, but a tradition had ended. Many of the young men went off to war, and Los Conquistadores Band became inactive. An attempt was made to revive in 1948 under the sponsorship of the VFW, and Elias Maes recalls a concert that summer when the director called Dan McKenzie to the bandstand to conduct the group in a number of two. He called for Zacatecas, always one of his favorites, then asked Maes to sing El Rancho Grande. That was his last time to wield the baton. McKenzie died January 29, 1949, and the band with which he had been so closely identified for so many years, played at his funeral.

The Santa Fe New Mexican, on May 31, 1950, in a full page ad pleaded for support for Los Conquistadores, but times had changed. The phonograph, the movies, the radio and the automobile all contributed to the demise of the amateur band, not just in Santa Fe but nationwide. Margaret and Robert Hazen, in their remarkable book, The Music Men:: An Illustrated History of Brass Bands in America, 1800-1920, paid tribute to the men who loved music so much:

Without the bandsmen who took up their brass instruments for their own enjoyment and for the pleasure of their neighbors, the country would have been a quieter, duller, and less joyful place. Certainly Los Conquistadores, the Music Men of Santa Fe, made their contribution to the joy of Santa Fe for many, many years.

Jean R. Padilla
Santa Fe, New Mexico, August 9, 1989.
Revised January 1992.