Thornton alum and faculty member Vince Mendoza, MM ’85, has been at the forefront of the jazz and contemporary music scene as a composer, conductor, and recording artist for the last 20 years. In 2011, he also was honored to be the commencement speaker for the USC Thornton School of Music.
Mendoza earned his master’s degree in composition from USC. But he first studied as an undergraduate at The Ohio State University, where he had the opportunity to study within a close knit music community in Columbus, OH. When he moved to Los Angeles, he planned to be a composer for motion pictures, but quickly found how large a music community existed in LA and realized the difficulties he would face making a name for himself. He credits his experience at USC with helping him get his foot in the door.
“USC was really the help for me to bridge the gap between having a nurturing environment of caring teachers and a conduit to the music industry in Los Angeles and abroad,” says Mendoza. “I really had both what I enjoyed in a smaller music school and also a school that is quite prestigious and well connected to the outside world.”
Mendoza is now a member of the faculty at USC Thornton, as assistant professor of jazz studies. He says that as a faculty member he has the opportunity to see how well the students at USC Thornton work together and support one another’s work. “Seeing that community of students grow over the years at USC is probably my favorite aspect of working with them,” says Mendoza.
Mendoza’s work includes scores of compositions and arrangements for big band and extended compositions for chamber and symphonic settings. His jazz composing credits read like a “who’s who” of the best modern instrumentalists and singers. His new album “Nights on Earth” is a collection of classic Mendoza compositions arranged for small and large ensembles, with guest appearances by Luciana Souza, Malian vocalist Tom Diakite, musicians from Spain, Africa, Brazil along with old and new friends that Vince has made over the course of his career.
Mendoza’s early solo albums on Blue Note Records, “Start Here” and “Instructions Inside”, were critical triumphs. “Start Here” was voted one of Jazziz Magazine’s ‘Top Picks’ and Mendoza was recognized as Best Composer/Arranger by Swing Journal’s critics’ poll in Japan. Mendoza’s arranging has appeared on many critically acclaimed projects that include dozens of albums with song writing legends such as Björk, Chaka Khan, Al Jarreau, Bobby McFerrin, Melody Gardot, Sting, and Joni Mitchell.
He has earned six Grammy awards and 25 nominations, the most recent in 2011 for his work on the John Scofield CD “54.” He was the orchestral voice behind the score to Lars van Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” featuring Björk, as well as the orchestrations on her CD titled “Vespertine”, and the orchestral CDs of Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now” and “Travelogue.”
Among his many accomplishments professionally, Mendoza recalls the Berlin Jazz Festival as a particularly meaningful moment. “If I would make a list, one of the favorite moments would be conducting at the Berlin Jazz Festival,” says Mendoza. “There was a particularly wonderful concert with the band in Berlin that was exemplary of the way music lifts our spirits.”
Mendoza has also written commissioned compositions and arrangements for the Turtle Island String Quartet, the Debussy Trio, the Chicaco Symphony, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, the Metropole Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, West Deutsche Rundfunk and the BBC. He has also performed major works at the Montreux and North Sea Jazz Festivals. USC alumni can keep up with him here.