Eva Quintanar is a composer, pianist, arranger, and orchestra director who had an active career in Los Angeles during the 1940s and ’50s (Read her Artist Biography here). Now 100 years old, she lives in a nursing home where she still writes music and plays the piano. She is one of the few surviving musicians from an era that featured a particularly productive music scene within the Los Angeles Mexican-American community. Quintanar’s existing body of recorded work – almost four dozen discs on which she is credited as composer or director – is amply represented in the Frontera Collection on 78-rpm releases. The artist’s son, John McGowan, 70, has worked to collect his mother’s recordings and preserve her legacy. He is professor emeritus of liberal studies at California State University - Dominguez Hills, and an amateur musician in his own right. Here, McGowan provides personal recollections of his mother’s career in an interview with Frontera website editor Agustín Gurza.
Agustín Gurza: I read that your mother was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1915, after her parents moved here from Mexico. Do you know what part of Mexico they came from?
John McGowan: My grandmother was from the northern state of Coahuila and my grandfather came from the southern state of Guerrero, where the family operated the Quintanar Ranch. My mother would tell us that her relatives from that ranch actually came to the United States for education, one of them actually attending Cal Berkeley. And one of them went back to Mexico and established a school for the local children.
Do you know if your grandparents left Mexico because of the Revolution?
My guess is they did because of the timing, but I’m not sure.
Since they were coming here for college education, it sounds like they were middle-class or maybe even an upper middle-class family?
I would say so, yes. The ranch was owned by the family and most of them were professionals who put an emphasis on education. Many of [my mother’s] relatives were educated, many of them in the United States, [only] to return to become teachers at the school on the Quintanar Ranch.
Did you know your grandparents personally? Did they have any musical inclinations?
Yes, they both did. My grandfather played guitar and sang and my grandmother played the piano and sang as well. They were not professionals but they loved it very much. They would play at family gatherings and that sort of thing. So my mom grew up with a lot of music in her household.
After her family left El Paso in the late 1930s, did they come directly to Los Angeles?
They actually moved first to San Diego and then to Orange County; in fact, to Fullerton, where I live now. They were here for a short time, then they moved to Los Angeles. By the time they settled here [in Los Angeles], my mom was already in her late teens.
Did she have any siblings?
She had two sisters and she was the eldest.
Was a music career always on her mind, or did she plan for some other career at first?
She was pretty single-minded and she showed musical talent early. She had the ability to play by ear, which I’m very jealous of. As far as I understand, she started composing fairly early as well.
So her parents recognized that?
Yes, they did, and they encouraged her very much. My grandmother was her first piano teacher. Then she had a series of piano teachers before she went to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music.
Do you know any other school she may have attended here in Los Angeles, besides the Conservatory?
If I remember correctly she said she attended Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles. Then she went on to study piano and composition at the Conservatory.
Where did she meet your dad?
They met at the Conservatory. My dad was a pianist as well, more into popular music and jazz. But they were both studying classical music at the time and they had the same teacher.
Well, that’s kind of romantic.
Yeah, it is.
Your dad is also named John McGowan, right? Where is he from?
That’s correct. He’s from Pittsburgh. He came out to California with his family in the 1930s, during the Depression. His father was an advertising executive at Wanamaker’s in New York City, and my grandmother was a housewife.
So, not really musical on that side of the family?
No, I don’t think so.
But it sounds like you also got into music.
Yes, I’ve always been a musician on the side. My night job, not my day job.
How many brothers and sisters did you have?
I’m the eldest of six.
Oh, that was a big family. Everybody still around?
Yeah, we’re all alive and kicking. We all still live in Southern California.
Obviously you’re a bicultural kid.
Yeah, my dad’s Irish and my mom, of course, is Mexican American. I remember my dad was very highly motivated to learn Spanish once he met my mother, and he became pretty fluent. He was blonde, blue-eyed so I have two sisters who are blonde and blue-eyed, and I have three brothers who are dark like my mom. Mom tells me that when we were kids she would push us around in the stroller and people would think that she was the nanny.
That was a sign of discrimination in those days?
Yes, especially when she was with my sisters, because they were blonde, blue-eyed.
Did she feel offended?
No, she straightened them out. She would make it clear that she was the mother and she was a professional.
Your mother didn’t take any guff.
No, she sure didn’t.
You were born in 1945 at a time when your mother’s musical career was very active. As a child, do you have any memories of going to see her concerts or watching her record?
Yeah, I used to go with her frequently when she went to work, either recording or performing. I was around age 5 when I started to be able to go with her, and I did that for about five years. Then we moved out of Los Angeles and her career kind of waned.
Where did you move to?
To La Puente, in the San Gabriel Valley
Oh, that’s not too far. But that was far enough to kill her career?
Pretty much. She didn’t drive that much and all of the business was in L.A.
So when she was in L.A. and you were going with her to recording dates and concerts, how did you guys move around?
We took public transportation, believe it or not. We rode buses and the old trolleys, which were called green cars. L.A. had a beautiful trolley system.
And where exactly would you go? To the Million Dollar Theatre?
Yeah, that was one of the places. She had a regular gig at the Million Dollar Theatre where she would go to rehearse and then have performances in the evening. And she was also an accompanist for the other acts who were on the bill at the time. She would accompany almost anybody—comedians, puppeteers, dancers. She was in charge of putting a show together, rehearsing the music, and then performing. These were the big musical reviews, like the old-fashioned vaudeville shows. And what’s interesting is that at the same time, she was sharing the stage with black performers. They would come in and perform for black audiences before the performances for the Latin audiences. And she has told me stories about some of them that would stay and play with her band. They were excellent jazz performers; Lionel Hampton, for example, played with her. A lot of the regular members of her orchestra were from the L.A. Conservatory, and they were also very good musicians. All male, of course. And it was amazing – knowing musicians the way I do – that she could keep them in order and get things done.
How do you think she was able to command that kind of authority?
I think it was her talent. They recognized how great she was and were willing to follow her.
Well, would you say she was a taskmaster or more of a gentle leader?
I would say the former, a taskmaster – but a gentle one. She got the job done without hurting too many feelings.
Her biography notes that she would also accompany big-name performers who would come from Mexico, such as Pedro Infante and Pedro Vargas. What can you tell me about that?
Yes, they would have visiting artists who would perform at the theater and she would be the accompanist for those performers. She had a wonderful ability to transpose to any key, which for a singer is a gold mine. So they loved her because when a singer came in and had a cold, or something like that, and had to suddenly sing two steps down, she was able to make the adjustment for them. It’s very difficult. You had to have a good ear and a good knowledge of your instrument to be able to do that. So it’s a wonderful skill to have and they loved her for that.
So during the times that you tagged along with her, where were you? Were you backstage?
Wherever she went, I would go with her. So when the band was playing I would be sitting on the floor of the band shell, just playing with my toys. I learned very early on when to be quiet and when I could talk, especially during recording sessions. She would take me to the Taxco label’s recording studio, and I learned not to say anything when they were recording. The light told me, and I guess I was cognizant enough to know what was going on.
Why did she take you? If there were six kids in the family, why were you the lucky one to go?
Well, being the oldest and being a quiet kid. And there [was a five-year gap] before my sister came along. So when I started going with my mother, my sister was much too young, but I was just about the age that I could do it.
Where was that studio?
The address is on any [Taxco] disc, but it was downtown L.A. someplace. There were a number of small Latin labels downtown. There were so many of them, I can’t believe it. I kind of discovered them when I was collecting her records, because her music was recorded by various people on various labels. She was on a number of smaller labels as well as the big labels—Vocalion, Discos Mexico, Okeh Records, Columbia.
So she was on those labels as a composer or as a performer?
It varied—composer, musical director, arranger, or accompanist. She did not sing on any of the recordings that I have. Although she’s got a lovely voice, she never recorded it commercially.
That’s too bad. Why did that happen?
Primarily because the emphasis was on her composing. If I had to say which she enjoys the most, it would be composing, with directing right after that.
Between your own personal observations as a child and your later research discovering what the musical environment was like in her era, how would you describe it to us today, for those of us who weren’t around at the time or not familiar with the history? Would you say it was a very creative and lively cultural environment for the Latino community here?
It was very much so, and she was very much involved in it. She knew [Mexican muralist] David Alfaro Siqueiros, for example, personally. And [Italian American author] Leo Politi, who was famous for writing children’s books; he was a friend of ours. So she was very much a member of the artist community.
How did she happen to rub shoulders with people like Siqueiros when she was coming from the musical field?
She tells a story about when she was at a private party and Siqueiros was there. She was playing the piano and he really liked what he was hearing. I’m not quite sure of the details, but he asked her to trim his hair. So she cut his hair and he drew two pictures for her in response.
Wait. Just out of the blue Siqueiros asked your mom to cut his hair at a party?
I don’t know what the exact situation was, but that’s what he asked her to do. So she cut his hair and he drew those two pictures for her, very small pictures. Afterwards, they both went out to dinner but they left the pictures on the piano. When they came back, the pictures were gone. Someone had taken them and she never got a hold of them again.
How did she share these stories with you? Would she reminisce during family dinners while you were growing up?
They were stories in response to questions I asked. You know, once she left Los Angeles in 1955, the family grew rapidly and she devoted most of her time to being a mother, but she always had her musical career in her mind. I grew curious and would ask her about what she had done and what she had seen, and that’s basically how I learned about her career.
Did you ask just informally in conversations, or did you do formal interviews that you would record?
No, it was informal. I wish I had the foresight to [record them], but I didn’t.
Did she like to talk about her time in the music business?
Yes, she did.
It can be a pretty cruel business and a lot of musicians struggle to keep working and they never get a break. But it sounds like your mother was pretty well established and successful.
Yes, she was, and she actually missed it. She loved her children but she loved her career, too. In fact, I remember her telling me she was getting ready to tour South America. She had signed a contract to go to Rio to perform. However, that was right at the start of World War II and the trip was cancelled.
But she continued to work locally?
Yes, she still had many years of career that she spent locally, another 15 years at least in L.A. It was in 1955 that we moved out to La Puente.
So that became kind of a suburban move for the family, right?
Yeah, we lived right in South Central Los Angeles and my dad was concerned. It was a difficult place to live for our growing family, with problems of crime and [inadequate] schools. Also, my dad got the idea of moving to the new suburbs out in [the San Gabriel Valley].I was about 10 at the time.
What did your dad do for a living?
He was a blue-collar worker, a truck driver mostly. He worked for the Gallo winery, driving a delivery truck. And then both of my parents started a music school, a piano school, in which they taught the students. It was called the McGowan-Quintanar School of Piano and they worked out of our home in La Puente. They taught for many, many years, and taught hundreds of students.
So you remember kids coming to your house all the time to take lessons?
We used to pick up the kids. In fact, I was the driver. My dad got a Volkswagen microbus. When they first came out, he fell in love with them and decided to get one because of the number of kids that he had. It also served as an excellent vehicle for providing transportation for the music students. That became very popular with the parents because then they wouldn’t have to transport their own kids.
Well, that’s great. But your mom and dad still had little kids of their own, your younger siblings, at the house?
Well, they took their garage and converted it into a music studio so they could teach in the studio separate from the house. I was Lord of the Manor while they were teaching.
You mentioned a minute ago that there were hundreds of students who attended the school. Why did you make note of that? Is it because you feel your parents had a strong impact on music education in the area?
Yes, they really did. They taught a lot of students. One of them was Arturo Márquez, whose music was recently performed by the L.A. Philharmonic. [Editor’s note: Márquez was born in Mexico in 1960 but moved to the U.S. and started his musical training in La Puente in 1966.] He’s very well known in Mexico. He went to Cal Arts and was probably my mother’s most famous student.
Nowadays, schools are bemoaning the lack of musical instruction and it might have been true back then, too. Would you say your parents’ school was an important resource for local kids to get their musical training?
And was it accessibly priced?
Yes, that was part of the attraction. They would have a sliding scale for students, based on their economic standing. And they would have family rates for two or three students from the same family. They made it really convenient for folks.
You’ve obviously spent some time documenting your mother’s career and, I would say, preserving her legacy. Why is that important to you?
Well, it’s interesting because in their advanced age my parents have moved quite a bit. As they got older they needed more help, so they would move to stay close to their kids. But in moving, sometimes part of her recordings were lost or damaged. And these were the original 78s. My sisters tipped me off that my mother’s recordings were being damaged because they weren’t being handled correctly. When I finally was able to look at what was left, there was very little in terms of recordings. As we were growing up, she would always perform her songs for us at the piano but I never knew what her original recordings were like or where they were, or even if they were available. So now, after realizing that so many of our copies had been lost, I got on eBay and discovered that there still are many records of hers floating around. I have collected about 15 of them so far. That’s when I ran across the Frontera Collection and was delighted to know it held a majority of her music.
So the Frontera Collection accomplishes a little bit of your goal, which is to preserve her work.
Yes, exactly. The collection is very important because otherwise we wouldn’t have any of her original recordings, or very few.
Does your mother still play the piano?
Yes, even at 100 years old, her faculties are still very strong and she still has very strong technique. One of the videos
I have is of her at her nursing home playing a composition she wrote recently. Technically, it’s very advanced. And it’s a beautiful song. She plays it straight through without any mistakes, that’s why I selected it [for this interview]. She practices every day, and she still composes.
So do they have a recreation room at the facility with a piano for her to play?
Yeah, they wanted to hire her to play regularly. They had her playing two days a week out of the goodness of her heart, she says, but after a while she got tired. She has the ability to read anything, which is another outstanding skill she has. She can read scores very well. So she can play all the tunes from the 1920s and ’30s that the Anglo elderly really love.
Oh, very good. But she didn’t take that job.
No, she didn’t want the obligation of having to play every day. But she plays once in a while.
You know, they say that music is good therapy for the elderly.
Oh, absolutely. I can see it in the way the old folks respond to the music when she plays.
And your mom, obviously it still motivates her?
Oh, yeah, very much. She still loves to play and people still love listening to her.