The Bolivar Brothers Share the Gift of Music with the Palm Springs Area

Editor’s note: “Encores” is a series of stories that feature local artists whose diverse careers span decades.

As dusk settles in the Coachella Valley on a cool fall night, Michael Bolivar sits quietly on a stool in the Sahara Lounge at Wally’s Desert Turtle. The smooth sound of pop standards and jazz favorites erupts from his E-flat alto saxophone, echoing throughout the restaurant. Three miles away, Tony Bolivar is on his feet, playing tenor saxophone as guests dance and cheer on Maryse Nicole and Company at the BaBaLoo Lounge.

The brothers’ polished performances reflect their diverse careers: artists who have captivated audiences for decades with their love of music and family.

Michael Bolivar

Hailing from Sunnyside, Texas, a mostly black suburb of Houston, Michael and Tony Bolivar grew up in a family of five brothers and three sisters. Their parents were not musicians, but shared their love of music with their children.

The eldest, Michael, first became interested in music when he went to a friend’s house and saw him with a saxophone.

“I thought it was just spectacular to see something like that and be able to handle it,” he said.

When Michael got his saxophone, he played in his high school marching band. The school is named after Evan Edward Worthing, a Houston real estate developer who established a scholarship trust for African American students.

As Michael recalls, “Evan E. Worthing gave us the opportunity to do what others were doing because he wanted to reduce poverty and increase opportunity for African Americans.”

Quoting the school’s first principal, Allen E. Norton, and a favorite teacher, Sam Harris, Michael added, “When I started playing music, I had a really good school to go to. And that made a big difference.”

It ended up making a big difference for the whole family: all five Bolivar brothers play instruments.

Play with the O’Jays and the US Army Band

After high school, Michael continued his education at Prairie View A&M, where he also played oboe and bass violin.

Tony Bolivar, left, smiles as he listens to his brother Michael Bolivar play saxophone in Indio, Calif., Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022

Hoping to pursue a career in music, he and a friend took a train to Los Angeles, where Michael found work playing for legendary R&B group the O’Jays.

Then, as his career took off, he received a draft notice.

Hoping to continue focusing on music, he decided to go to the army’s military music office.

“I told the leader of the band that I was a musician and played the saxophone,” he said. “He bought me a saxophone and I played him some music.”

Michael performed so well that he eventually played for the Third Army Band and Chorus.

Life as a musician can be tough, especially the time spent on the road away from family. A marriage after his military service ended amicably and he is very proud of his two children and four grandchildren.

Michael Bolivar plays saxophone in Indio, Calif. on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022.

He formed his own band in Northern California, where he found success in communities such as Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. He also explored a new art form.

“I joined a ballet company because I wanted to learn to dance and act at the same time,” he said.

While he loved Sonoma County, he was tired of the cold and the rain. About eight years ago, he followed his brother – saxophonist John Bolivar – to the Coachella Valley where, Michael said, “I can play and be warm at the same time”.

Over the years Michael has backed star musicians like Aretha Franklin, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Billy Preston and Lou Rawls. He has also released his own work, including a standards album titled “You Go to My Head” and his jazz albums titled “Joy Spring” and “In the City.”

“I like music that my audience likes”

Technology has taken him in a new direction: playing the melody on the saxophone while a computer provides bass, drums, violins and other instruments in the background.

Brothers Tony, left, and Michael Bolivar perform regularly at various venues in the Coachella Valley.  They are pictured in Indio, California on Wednesday November 9, 2022

“It was an opportunity for me to grow even more as a musician,” he said. “It’s a miracle of technology.”

His performances at Wally’s Desert Turtle give him joy because he’s learning different kinds of music, he said, and making people happy, while getting paid.

At 78, he’s also found a new musical love: the Great American Songbook. American jazz standards, popular songs and show tunes are the highlights.

“When I found out my audience liked this type of music, I spent a lot of time making sure I had a repertoire so I could play the songs they like,” he said. “I’m living one of the greatest moments of my musical career, loving the exact same music that my audience loves.”

He added: “I’ve been playing the saxophone since I was in high school. And it’s the thing I’ve dedicated myself to. It’s served my personal goals of living a happy life – something that had a lot of purpose – something something that allowed me to be who I am, someone who wants to be good and do good.

Tony Bolivar

The Bolivar family moved from Texas to Barstow, California when the youngest brother, Tony, was in sixth grade.

Tony Bolivar, left, smiles as he listens to his brother Michael Bolivar play saxophone in Indio, Calif., Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022

“For me, it was wonderful, because it was diverse, he says. “In Houston, it was an all-black neighborhood because things were still very segregated. When we moved to California, it was nice to experience different cultures.”

After high school, Tony joined the US Air Force, where he performed with the Air Force Band. The experience was revealing.

“At Barstow I was the best saxophonist in school,” he said. “But then you go into the real world and there were guys coming out of college with master’s and bachelor’s degrees who were in the band. When I came out I wanted to study classical music. I’m went to San Jose State and majored in classical music and fell in love with Austrian, German and French music.The great Baroque, Classical and Romantic composers.

Deliver for his family

But when Tony got married, he found there weren’t many jobs available teaching music. While he and his wife, Teresa, were raising their three children, he was a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in Santa Clara and Pacifica to “provide some stability for the family instead of trying to be a musician and go on the road. road”.

Johnny Mesa salutes Tony Bolivar for playing double sax at Indian Wells Golf Resort in Indian Wells, California on May 24, 2022.

Then, after about 13 years, he told his wife that he was going to quit his job.

As he recalled: “She said, ‘Well, did you pray about it?’ So I did. I really prayed.

When he told her he had been praying about it and still thought he should quit his job, she told him, “OK, let’s do it.”

He had no work planned but started performing at weddings. After a wedding, the minister approached him. His church was looking for an associate music minister and he wondered if Tony Bolivar knew anyone who might be interested.

On his way home, he thought of several people and then “suddenly felt it should be me”.

His wife and the pastor agreed. He served at Fremont Community Church and his school for 18 years as a music teacher and band leader, arranging, singing, and playing bass guitar, saxophone, and keyboard.

He also gave private lessons. One day, a woman asked him to teach her teenage son with autism to play the saxophone.

At first he hesitated, telling her that he didn’t know what to do. She asked him to please meet her son.

“I ended up teaching him the saxophone,” he said. “His mother started putting her videos on YouTube. Eventually we formed a band and went to Hong Kong and China to perform at big events. All of the students in the band had special needs.”

Dream Achievers have performed from the United States to Canada to China.

Brothers Michael, left, and Tony Bolivar perform regularly at various venues in the Coachella Valley.  They are pictured in Indio, California on Wednesday November 9, 2022

And he still teaches every year at a summer music camp in Fremont for “Friends of Children with Special Needs.”

Helping others because “music saved me”

For years, Tony and his wife traveled to the Coachella Valley to visit his brothers, Michael and John. They finally decided to settle permanently in the region.

Today, Tony performs at venues across the region, showcasing his talent on saxophone (tenor, alto, soprano and baritone), clarinet, flute, piccolo, trumpet, bass guitar and keyboard. During certain performances, he plays two saxophones at the same time. And he sings.

He provides music for services at the Las Palmas Community Church in Indio, playing keyboard or saxophone while his wife plays the piano. Tony is also program director for the Spirit of the Desert Foundation, which supports music education.

“Music saved me in many ways from going down a dark road,” he said. “A lot of kids had sports. A lot had academics. But music really saved me. A band I could belong to. Something I could excel at.”

Brothers Tony, left, and Michael Bolivar perform regularly at various venues in the Coachella Valley.  They are pictured in Indio, California on Wednesday November 9, 2022

He noted, “Everyone needs something unique – art or music or academics or athletics or cheerleading or something – where you can learn to work as a team and achieve individual success to apply to other fields. of your life. You never know what that spark is.”

He still feels that spark himself.

“I’m almost 66,” he said. “And I’m just getting started.”

Barbara Kerr is a freelance communications specialist with a passion for writing about people, the arts, and special events. Inducted into the Dayton (Ohio) Area Broadcasters Hall of Fame, she is a past president of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) College of Fellows.

Again: The Fabulous Bolivar Brothers

Saxophonists Michael and Tony Bolivar perform throughout the Coachella Valley, including their regular appearances at Wally’s Desert Turtle in Rancho Mirage. Their brother, saxophonist John Bolivar, also appeared at Wally’s before retiring to Orange County. (John Bolivar has played with BB King, Herb Alpert, Aretha Franklin, Lalo Schifrin, Little Anthony, Peaches and Herb, the O’Jays, the Imperials and many more.) Together, the three brothers delighted Wally’s customers Desert Turtle for almost a year. decade. And a member of Bolivar’s next generation of musicians is now delighting audiences: Tony’s son, Isaac Bolivar, is a guitarist and musical director.

Brothers John, Michael and Tony Bolivar pose for a photo with their saxophones at Wally's Desert Turtle in Rancho Mirage, California on October 19, 2022. Together they have been playing at Wally's for nearly a decade.

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