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The lounge of the Burnsville Holiday Inn is nearly empty on a Saturday night. A couple of loud young men in blue shirts and ties hold down the bar, having ducked out of a wedding reception next door. Several decades removed from that walk down the aisle, a few middle-aged couples slow-dance to the five-piece band that improbably occupies the corner of the blacked-out restaurant. To these couples, the room might as well be the center of the universe.
Bill Duna's Latin Jazz Combo takes requests and plays them with fluid whimsy. Surrounded by the bass, drums, congas, and piano stands Kico Rangel, a silver-haired saxophonist who sounds just as lyrical on flute and clarinet. He has the long ears and thick glasses of an old man, but blows from his gut, with his entire body. He is 71 years old.
Contrary to the song he's playing, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," Rangel is everywhere these days. Besides sitting in with Duna's group, he leads two of his own. The beginning of last month found him performing at least once a day. Tuesday was Latin jazz for a dinner at the Neighborhood House in St. Paul; Wednesday, mariachi music at the Pool and Yacht Club; Thursday, Mexican folk songs for kids at World Cultures Magnet School; Friday, more mariachi songs at an employee lunch, then jazz standards at the Olympic Hills Country Club in Eden Prairie; Saturday, more Latin jazz at Pepito's.
Rangel is among those few local musicians who have performed regularly in public since the 1950s, but even in that rare set, he is unique: a bandleader who has kept one foot planted firmly in the traditional Mexican music of his youth, and the other in the jazz world that has welcomed him since the '60s.
Rangel hails from one of the more influential Mexican immigrant families in St. Paul—a musical clan with a regional reputation. He recalls lying flat on his stomach with his ear to the bathroom floor in his family's second-floor apartment, on the corner of Fairfield and State in the old West Side Flats. (Developers, as is their habit, turned the neighborhood into industrial buildings in the 1960s.) The Rangels lived above a shoe store, a pool hall, and the Carioca Bar, where 10 brothers and sisters could hear Mexican folk music wafting up through the floor—"some good voices," Rangel says.
For years, before the furnace exploded and burned down the building, those upstairs windows gave music to the neighborhood every summer. Six Rangel sisters sang in different combinations over the years, with the late Eugenia leading on piano. It is she who rented an instrument for her brother, after a visiting saxman caught Kico's ear. Soon, his song could be heard coming out of the windows, too. Clementine, Kico's wife, says she recognized his sound before she even knew him.
"Kico always had musician friends up there," says his sister Genevieve, who is still an active singer herself. "There was always music in our house."
Today, the musician lives barely a mile away on Winslow Avenue. He's been here more than half his life, and raised eight children, four as a stepfather. There are enough grandchildren around that they occasionally leave things on his lawn—like the electric drumstick that trips a visitor on the way in. Outside, birds sing in bright polyphony from trees on every side. In the morning, when Rangel practices, he'll answer them on his flute or sax or clarinet.
At heart, Rangel is a collaborator. "I never brag about myself," he says, and friends confirm this. Rangel's biggest musical leap came back in the '50s, when Cornbread Harris dropped by to play piano, setting children's nursery rhymes to blues. It was Kico's introduction to rock 'n' roll, and soon he was sitting in with Harris's band, local rock pioneers the Augie Garcia trio.
"I was in the circle of Mexican music, but then I kind of stepped out a little bit," he says from his St. Paul dining room. He draws a round shape on the table, then lets his fingers walk out of it. As decades passed, Rangel's résumé came to encompass a staggering list of styles—calypso, Hawaiian, Latin American, Middle Eastern, big-band.
"The only other Mexican people were doing Mexican music," says Trinidadian-born singer Cyril Paul. "Kico was a pioneer."
If he's remembered for nothing else, Rangel made history by cutting what is arguably Minnesota's first world-music LP in the mid-'50s, Chris Kalogerson Plays Greek & Latin Favorites (Panaural Hi-Fi). One track from that record is available on the 1999 CD Música de la Raza: Mexican & Chicano Music in Minnesota, issued by the Minnesota Historical Society. (Incidentally, Rangel enjoyed a long career in imaging at MHS.) But he has never recorded a CD with his own jazz or mariachi trios. This fact seems to bother him not at all; for decades now, he's turned up as a sideman on the recordings of friends.
Gazing at his own 1945 Communion photo on the wall, he points to different faces, identifying more than one "great musician" among them. "This guy, his son married my daughter a couple years ago," Rangel says. "This guy passed away. This one, I'm going to play his 70th birthday party down at Cherokee Park on the 26th."