Dr. Jeff Nevin is arguably America’s Johnny Appleseed of Mariachi, the angel Gabriel of the guitarron, blowing the Heavenly trumpet to announce that something wonderful is coming.
Juanito Semilla de la Manzana learned mariachi as a boy in Tucson and brought it to Southwestern College in 1998. Today, SWC’s Mariachi Garibaldi is the best and best known collegiate mariachi in the world. Nevin has trained scores of professional Mariachis, including three members of the Grammy-winning all-women’s ensemble Mariachi Divas de Cindy Shea.
Music, he said, is in his DNA.
“My grandparents and parents were all musicians,” he said. “I started playing trumpet in band when I was 10 years old and have been playing ever since.”
He caught the mariachi bicho as a teen.
“When I was 15 I was invited to be in a mariachi in my hometown of Tucson,” he said. “At the same time I joined a local symphony orchestra and broadened my musical horizons.”
In 1998, during the last semester of his doctorate program at UCSD, Nevin started at SWC with three mariachi classes and the college symphony orchestra.
“I love teaching at SWC,” he said. “Starting the mariachi program here has been an amazing experience because it has given students an outlet to perform mariachi music after high school.”
SWC Professor of Music Dr. Cynthia McGregor called herself a Nevin fan.
“Dr. Nevin is one of the most brilliant musical minds I have met,” she said. “He spreads himself so thin in order to help further mariachi music in this country and to further the education of his mariachi students.”
Nevin has a BA in music composition from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. He earned a Master’s from Arizona State University and his Doctorate at UCSD, also in composition. He is classically-trained trumpet player of enormous talent and versatility. He has performed with the San Diego Symphony and the La Jolla Symphony, as well as muchos mariachis.
“Playing in these ensembles helped push me as a musician at UCSD,” he said. “Many of these musicians had been playing longer than I had been alive and it forced me to improve.”
Last November Nevin organized the first ever SWC Mariachi Conference that hosted more than 200 local high school musicians. It featured workshops with Mariachi Garibaldi members and local high school mariachi instructors.
“I called them master classes because students worked with former SWC mariachi students and professional classical musicians on instrumental technique,” he said. “Mariachi musicians tend to place an emphasis on learning song after song, but they do not realize (sometimes) that you need to spend time improving your technique.”
Nevin has a professional group called Mariachi Champaña.
“Champaña is the group I use to perform with symphonies around the country and around the world,” said Nevin. “Garibaldi performs primarily at SWC and many festivals and has toured several countries.”
SWC’s mariachi has played in Mexico, Russia, China, France, South Korea, Spain and Italy. Brazil may be next.
Nevin is also president of the Mariachi Scholarship Foundation, which supports high school mariachi students in San Diego County.
Donna Arnold, dean of the School of Arts and Communication, said Nevin is one of a kind.
“Dr. Nevin is extremely passionate about mariachi and his students,” she said. “He works hard to provide his students with amazing learning and performance opportunities.”
During the 2012-13 academic year Nevin went on sabbatical and wrote more than 1,500 pages of music for mariachis as well as symphony and mariachi combinations. His book, “The Ultimate Mariachi,” contains more than 100 arrangements of mariachi classics. He gives them away to high school music teachers.
“These books have given many students arrangements that are well written for the modern mariachi,” he said. “Students can now have physical music instead of transcriptions or playing by ear.”
Busy as he is, Nevin always finds time to play his beloved trumpet.
“I never stopped performing,” he said. “Mariachi has and will always be something I truly love and enjoy.”