Phil Carreón was born in Los Angeles on May 6, 1923. He spent most of his youth in the Boyle Heights / East Los Angeles Area and attended high school at Roosevelt High. He began studying and playing the clarinet at age 11 and was considered an expert clarinetist by 16 years old. Phil led Roosevelt High’s ROTC band and studied with the dance orchestra. His combination of intelligence and affability resulted in a natural magnetism that fit well with his desire to put together his own big band/swing group with an emphasis on a brass section. Prior to entering the service, Phil regularly entered the Phil Carreón Orchestra in various Battle of the Bands contests put on by local dance establishments in LA and began regularly winning with his swing and jump music, all of which were powered by a loud, structured brass section.
At 18-years-old, Phil was drafted into the United States Army and volunteered for the ski troops during WWII. As a member of the Army Mountain Infantry regiment, he was a Browning automatic rifleman for the US in the Aleutian Islands. After returning from the islands, he was stationed at Camp Hale, Colorado, with the ski troops, where he played clarinet and rallied the United States Army’s 1st Combat Infantry Band. He did this while also developing and playing in several other small, informal dance bands.
After returning home from the service, he did what any obsessed musician does: recruited people to be in a band. Phil gathered a crew of 15 people and created The Phil Carreón Orchestra. As his musical fame grew, so did his reputation as an advocate against racial discrimination. He made it a point to play special events, such as those celebrating the founding of the Mexican Civil Rights Association. He was a PROUD CHICANO!!!! And he always challenged racists and stood up for others who were facing discrimination. For example, after Phil and his wife Xina “Yvonne” Carreón moved to Garden Grove post-1950, US Olympic Diving Champion and USC Medical School graduate, Sammy Lee, wanted to move to Garden Grove. He was looking for a home to buy but faced rejection from realtors and petitions from would-be neighbors due to being Korean. Phil and Dr. Lee were fans of each other, having both been raised in the LA area and were already friends. The discrimination waged against an Olympic hero like Dr. Lee made national news..and made Phil livid. He worked with Dr. Lee against the political, business, and neighborhood racism that he faced, and successfully helped Dr. Lee buy a home in Garden Grove.
Phil Carreón was a dedicated husband and father. He selflessly set aside touring and much of his band involvement to focus on raising his children. He coached his sons through Little League, he attended dance recitals, and the vast majority of the various sporting events his sons and daughters participated in. He was an involved, loving, and empathetic father. He was also a profoundly patient grandfather. He didn’t get mad at me when I ransacked my grandmother’s lipsticks at 2-years-old and smeared it in the carpet of their Santa Ana apartment. There was another time when I was 9-or 10-years-old and brought my clarinet over to his house when he and my grandmother lived in Vegas (post 2000). In an attempt to show him my skills, I started blowing on my clarinet maniacally; horribly out of tune. He sat there smiling ear-to-ear, over the moon I had an interest in playing the instrument he also started on. After I put it down, he asked if he could play my clarinet, so I let him of course, and he lit up the house. My dad and I were in tears.
It’s hard to know exactly what to say when you’re related to a legend, someone who leaves a legacy of genius behind. There are so many stories. Everyone thought he was brilliant, but he was so chill about it. He never was a diva or hot headed — that was my grandmother! I’m kidding, but she was definitely the fire to his chill. They were a radical couple, breaking rules and challenging the status quo in many ways. I miss them a lot, but I know they’re hand-in-hand dancing together in the jazz clubs of heaven.
EXTRA STORY THAT ONLY EXISTS HERE
(This one is iconic)
My Grandpa Phil was on tour with his band, Phil Carreón and His Orchestra (there are many iterations of this band name, but I believe this was the one he was touring). They toured the southern half of the United States — through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and even further East. They traveled to Louisiana for a gig, and my Grandpa showed up with his band for sound check. Everything was going according to plan, until the owner of the club told my grandfather that they wouldn’t let one of his main trumpet players into the venue or play the show that night because he was Black.
My grandpa tried to reason with the club owner. He was always an ace at that. There were few people who, after a conversation with my grandpa, remained angry about a situation or at odds with him. He was excellent at winning people over — a master at de-escalation. He was charming, genuine, and friendly, and just one of those people everyone liked.
Except this time. The club owner resisted a tree’s worth of olive branches my grandpa extended to get his bandmate to play that night. For context, my grandfather built his band’s entire Latin Jazz sound around a hard-hitting big brass section. It was his signature. It’s what made his Orquesta and various other bands different from the rest. The absence of a trumpet player was a sucker punch to the face.
My grandpa huddled his band and told them the news. They were pissed and wanted to boycott the show, but my grandpa had a different plan in mind.
Their set time rolled around and the band took the stage like normal. As if nothing happened. As soon as the curtain rolled up, the band turned around and started performing the opening song with their backs to the crowd in protest of the racist club owner.
I’m not sure if they finished the set, but realistically, they didn’t. Realistically, the band probably had to book it out of there because, well…standing up to racism is hardly ever peaceful, especially as a young, proud Chicano in the ‘40s. But he believed in honor and protesting racism, especially for his friends. It’s stories like this that make him a legend.
Biography provided by: Mary Carreon- Granddaughter of Phil Carreon