Remembering Rozz Zamorano, Houston's Bass-Guitar Giant

L-R: Fondue Monks Denver Courtney and Rozzano Zamorano
L-R: Fondue Monks Denver Courtney and Rozzano Zamorano
Photo courtesy of Greg Davis

Note: this Christmas, Rocks Off is remembering some prominent members of Houston's music community we lost this year.

Houston's music community is still reeling after popular bassist Rozzano Zamorano was found dead in his Montrose apartment on February 19. Friends say Zamorano failed to show up for a gig with Vince Converse that night at Dan Electro's Guitar Bar, leading police officers alerted by his family to break down his door and discover him unconscious in his bed. Zamorano had just celebrated his 44th birthday the previous weekend at a gig with his band the Fondue Monks, also at Dan Electro's.

"Rozz to not show up at a gig -- that never happened," says Fondue Monks singer Denver Courtney, who had been Zamorano's bandmate since the group formed in 1991. "I've been onstage with Rozz when he had a 103-degree fever and was puking off the back of the stage."

After that birthday gig, Courtney says he and Zamorano had lunch the following Monday, and the bassist was excited for the future. The two had been talking about making another Fondue Monks record, he says, which would have been the R&B/funk-rock band's first new release in a decade. But that was the last Courtney says he ever saw of Zamorano, whose death cuts straight to the quick of an old-growth ring of the modern Houston music scene. This is a big loss.

After Courtney saw Zamorano, he says he thinks the bassist talked to a couple of people and posted a message or two on Facebook the next day, and that was it. "Musicians can kind of disappear for a couple of days and nobody pays really pays attention," Courtney notes, so no one really thought to look for Zamorano until he missed a gig.

Remembering Rozz Zamorano, Houston's Bass-Guitar Giant

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When that happened, according to the singer, Zamorano's father and brother Ronnie (the Fondue Monks' drummer) drove over to the bassist's apartment and saw his car in the parking lot, at which point they called police. Although an autopsy has not yet been peformed, friends say they think his death may be a result of Zamorano's severe sleep apnea, which was also exascerbated by his weight.

"He needed to have surgery, but he needed to lose a bunch of weight to have it," offers Warehouse Live talent buyer Jason Price, who says he met Zamorano one open-mike night at Instant Karma in 1999. Price often booked Zamorano's projects as opening acts such as his eponymous jazz-fusion trio before the Rebirth Brass Band at Warehouse Live, the night before the Dan Electro's birthday gig. The show wound up selling out on walkup sales, Price says.

"When I called and told him, 'Your trio can play,' he was beside himself just because he knew it would be a good opportunity," he recounts. "One of the hard things is looking [back] at my text messages and Facebook stuff saying, 'Dude, that was the best show...thank you for putting me on these killer gigs.'"

A mountain of a man whose size was matched by his gigantic talent on the bass guitar, Rozzano Zamorano was a native of Corpus Christi but attended Spring Branch Elementary School with Denver Courtney, years before they reconnected and started the Fondue Monks.

"The first time I ever met Rozz was on the playground, and he was challenging anybody to a footrace," says his future bandmate. "And to see Rozz back then, he was just his little-bitty guy, but he never backed down from anything."

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Remembering Rozz Zamorano, Houston's Bass-Guitar Giant
Photo courtesy of Leticia London

Zamorano never had much formal music education, friends say, but by his early teens had met up with Houston's famous Zenteno family. According to Jason Price, he used to lie about his age to play gigs with the family band, as late vocalist Norma Zenteno (who passed away in February 2013) took Zamorano under her wing.

"The thing that gets me, by the time they found him, it was a day shy of a year that Norma had passed," Price says. "He was so close to her -- he was broken last year. She was kind of a mentor to him growing up."

"Over the past year, when I was talking to him, he would say, 'You know, I miss Norma," agrees Denver Courtney. "There was a real deep connection."

Zamorano's other big role model was Jaco Pastorious, the jazz-fusion bassist once as known for his haughty attitude (and tragic end) as his prodigious talents. But Zamorano's similarities to the late Pastorious -- he won at least two Houston Press Music Awards for Best Bassist, and was a perennial nominee -- only extended as far as his confidence in his own abilities as a bassist, Courtney argues.

"He had an ego, but not a stuck-up ego," the singer says. "It was just when you know something that good and you play something that well, you're confident. And confidence is everything."

Zamorano was a graduate of the University of St.Thomas who had worked as an insurance-fraud investigator, although Courtney says he had been laid off about a year ago and had decided to focus on his music for the time being. He never married or had children, but taught private lessons (including to Courtney's son) and could often be seen at shows talking to other musicians, exchanging tricks of the trade. Even his neighbors grew to enjoy listening to him rehearse for hours on end, Courtney says.

"I've been reading some stories on Facebook," he offers. "His neighbors said, 'We always heard him playing his bass and we always loved it. It was kind of part of our day, to hear him noodling on his bass. And then we'd see musicians coming in and out, or other people coming in and out to have a bass lesson or just come over and visit with him, and he'd always stop to talk to us or visit with our kids. That was just his life.'"

Remembering Rozz Zamorano, Houston's Bass-Guitar Giant

Besides his own trio, Zamorano also played with the progressive/Latin-rock band Yokomono, but Courtney says the Fondue Monks had been on a real upswing lately. At their lunch last Monday, he recalls, "Rozz was jovial, just talking a lot about the future and music, just how excited he was. Everybody has been coming out lately to our shows, just a lot bigger crowds lately.

"He was just talking about [writing] new music and, 'Let's get another CD together and release some music,'" Courtney adds.

Now-former Dan Electro's owner Bob Edwards says Zamorano had a habit of hanging out at the club until the wee hours of the morning -- "Rozz was one of the very, very few people that we let hang out with us at the end of the night after we were done" -- whether hanging out after a gig at the club or after a night on the town elsewhere. One such night was after his birthday party two weekends ago, Edwards recalls.

"There was Rozz, hanging out with us at 4 o'clock, 5 o'clock in the morning," the clubowner says. "I didn't go to breakfast with him, but he went to breakfast with the rest of the people. I heard somebody say over [this past] weekend that they never saw Rozz smile, but here we are, sitting there at 4 or 4:30 in the morning.

"Rozz had a habit of sitting around with his eyes closed, and you'd never know if he had his eyes closed or not," adds Edwards. "Then somebody would say something funny and Rozz would snicker. Then he came around and he started telling stories. It's my last memory of him. He had me laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes."

Zamorano was remembered at a number of memorials across Houston. His father, Roland Zamorano, said he had received hundreds of messages from people from coast to coast, expressing their condolences.

"He was a very compassionate person," says the elder Zamorano. "He always put other people before himself, and he always mentored people. He always had a good word of encouragement for everyone. He didn't have that jealousy thing with other artists. He was a humble guy that let his art talk for him."

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