Tony Bolivar performs at the BaBaLoo Lounge
Michael and Tony Bolivar grew up in a family of five brothers and three sisters who were all music fans. Now, Michael and Tony perform across the desert.
Barbara Kerr, Special to The Desert Sun
Editor’s note: “Encores” is a series of stories that showcase local artists whose diverse careers have spanned decades.
As dusk settles into the Coachella Valley on a cool autumn 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 soar from his E flat alto saxophone, echoing across the restaurant. Three miles away, Tony Bolivar is on his feet, playing tenor sax as guests dance and cheer for Maryse Nicole and Company at BaBaLoo Lounge.
The polished performances by the two brothers reflect their diverse careers: artists who have been engaging audiences for decades through their love of music and family.
Originally from Sunnyside, Texas — a predominantly Black suburb of Houston — Michael and Tony Bolivar grew up in a family of five brothers and three sisters. Their parents weren’t musicians, but shared their love of music with their children.
The oldest, Michael, was the first to become 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 manipulate it,” he said.
When Michael got his saxophone, he played in his high school’s marching band. The school was named for Evan Edward Worthing, a Houston real-estate developer who set up a scholarship trust for African American students.
As Michael remembers it, “Evan E. Worthing gave us an opportunity to do what other people were doing because he wanted to decrease poverty and increase opportunities for African Americans.”
Crediting the school’s first principal, Allen E. Norton, and a favorite teacher, Sam Harris, Michael added: “When I started playing music, I had a great, great school to go to. And it made a big difference.”
It ended up making a big difference for the entire family: all five Bolivar brothers play instruments.
Playing with the O’Jays and the U.S. Army Band
After high school, Michael continued his education at Prairie View A&M, where he also played the oboe and bass violin.
Hoping to pursue careers in music, he and a friend took a train to Los Angeles, where Michael found work playing for the legendary R&B group the O’Jays.
Then, as his career was taking off, he received a draft notice.
Hoping to continue to focus on music, he decided to go to the Army military band office.
“I told the band leader that I was a musician and I played saxophone,” he said. “He got a saxophone for me and I played some music for him.”
Michael performed so well that he ultimately played for the Third Army Band and Chorus.
Life as a musician can be challenging, especially time on the road away from family. A marriage after his military service ended amicably and he takes great pride in his two children and four grandchildren.
He formed his own band in Northern California, where he had success in communities including Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. He also explored a new art form.
“I joined a ballet company because I wanted to learn how to dance and play at the same time,” he said.
While he loved Sonoma County, he got tired of the cold and 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 including Aretha Franklin, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Billy Preston and Lou Rawls. He has also released his own work, including an album of standards called “You Go to My Head” and his jazz albums titled “Joy Spring” and “In the City.”
‘Loving the music that my audience loves’
Technology has taken him in a new direction: playing the melody on the saxophone while a computer provides the bass, drums, violins and other instruments as the background.
“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 gets to learn different types of music, he said, and make people happy — all while getting paid.
At 78, he has also found a new musical love: the Great American Songbook. American jazz standards, popular songs, and show tunes are highlights.
“When I found out that my audience loved that type of music, I spent a lot of time making sure that I had a repertoire to be able to play the songs that they like,” he said. “I’m having one of the greatest times in my musical career, loving exactly the same music that my audience loves.”
He added, “I’ve been playing saxophone pretty much ever since I was in high school. And that’s been the thing that I’ve dedicated myself to. It’s served my personal purposes of living a happy life – something that had a lot of purpose – something that allowed me to be who I am. Someone who wants to be good and do good.”
The Bolivar family moved from Texas to Barstow, California, when the youngest of the brothers, Tony, was in sixth grade.
“For me, it was wonderful, because it was diverse, he said. “In Houston, it was an all-Black neighborhood because things were still very segregated. When we moved to California, it was neat being around different cultures.”
After high school, Tony went into the U.S. Air Force, where he performed with the Air Force Band. The experience was eye-opening.
“In Barstow, I was the best sax player at the school,” he said. “But then you get into the real world and there were guys coming out of college with master’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees that were in the band. When I got out, I wanted to study classical music. I went to San Jose State and majored in classical music and fell in love with the music from Austria and Germany and France. The great Baroque, Classical and Romantic composers.”
Delivering for his family
But when Tony married, he found that there weren’t many jobs available teaching music. As he and his wife, Teresa, raised their three children, he was a letter 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 going on the road.”
Then, after about 13 years, he told his wife that he was going to quit his job.
As he remembers it: “She said, ‘Well, have you prayed about it?’ So I did. I really prayed.”
When he told her that he had prayed about it and still felt he should quit his job, she told him: “OK, let’s do it.”
He didn’t have any work lined up but started playing at weddings. After one wedding, the minister approached him. His church was looking for an associate music minister and he wondered if Tony Bolivar knew of anyone who might be interested.
Driving home, he thought about several people then “suddenly felt that it should be me.”
His wife and the pastor agreed. He served at Fremont Community Church and its school for 18 years as a music teacher and band director, doing music arrangements, singing, and playing bass guitar, saxophone and keyboard.
He also gave private lessons. One day, a woman asked him to teach her teenage son living with Autism how to play the saxophone.
At first, he hesitated, telling her that he didn’t know how to do that. She asked him to please just meet her son.
“I ended up teaching him saxophone,” he said. “His mother started putting his videos on YouTube. We ended up putting a band together and going to Hong Kong and China to perform for big events. All of the students in the band had special needs.”
The Dream Achievers band has performed from the U.S. to Canada to China.
And he still teaches each 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 would travel to the Coachella Valley to visit his brothers, Michael and John. They finally decided to move to the region permanently.
Today, Tony performs at venues across the region, demonstrating his skill on saxophones (tenor, alto, soprano and baritone), clarinet, flute, piccolo, trumpet, bass guitar, and keyboard. At some performances, he plays two saxophones at once. And he does vocals.
He provides music for services at the Las Palmas Community Church in Indio, playing keyboard or saxophone as his wife plays piano. Tony is also program director for the Spirit of the Desert Foundation, supporting music education.
“Music saved me in a lot of 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 group I could belong to. Something that I could excel at.”
He noted, “Everybody needs something unique – art or music or academics or athletics or cheerleading or something – where you can learn how to work together as a team and get some individual success to apply to other areas of your life. You never know what that spark is.”
He still feels that spark himself.
“I’m almost 66 years old,” he said. “And I’m just getting started.”
Barbara Kerr is a freelance communication 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 chair of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) College of Fellows.
Encore: The Fabulous Bolivar Brothers
Saxophonists Michael and Tony Bolivar perform across 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 performed with B.B. King, Herb Alpert, Aretha Franklin, Lalo Schifrin, Little Anthony, Peaches and Herb, the O’Jays, the Imperials and more.) Collectively, the three brothers have delighted customers at Wally’s Desert Turtle for nearly a decade. And a member of the next generation of Bolivar musicians is now delighting audiences: Tony’s son, Isaac Bolivar, is a lead guitarist and musical director.
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