Robert "Beto" Skiles (8-22-48) was born and raised in San Antonio, a largely Hispanic town of diverse cultures and attitudes, a diversity reflected in his own household. His two brothers and Skiles grew up with Spanish speakers, sports enthusiasts, world travelers, Catholic clergy, cattle ranchers, oil & gas execs, and most importantly, musicians. “Musical diversity prevailed in our home.” His father, R.D. “Dude” Skiles, was a well-respected jazz trumpet player, while his mother, Hortense, was a classically trained concert pianist. So when dad was showing him a hot Louie Armstrong lick on trumpet, his mom was playing Rachmaninoff on the piano in the music room. ”Really, our entire house was a music room.”
During high school, Robert played trumpet. After his junior year, his parents sent him to the Aspen Music Festival and School to see if he was really serious about music as a career. While in Aspen, he had the opportunity to attend master classes with the composer, Darius Milhaud, and to study trumpet with the principle trumpet player of the New York Philharmonic, Robert Nagle. The program was over his head. He did, however, get an idea of what it would take to be a successfully classical player, and it was not for him! It was difficult to see devoting that many years of practicing and mastering his instrument just to play in a symphony orchestra.
After high school, he entered North Texas State (now UNT). This was an exciting but dangerous time to be in college. The 60s were years of political upheaval, assassinations, race riots, the Vietnam War and drugs. But, he persevered and graduated with a BA in music and a minor in philosophy. By this time, however, Robert had grown tired of playing the trumpet and turned his attentions to composition, arranging and piano, in that order. In fact, that’s what he does now; he writes and arranges for instruments and ensembles ranging from solo cello to jazz band full orchestra. After school, Skiles returned to SA, and played piano and B3 organ in clubs along San Antonio’s famed River Walk. While this experience was good for him, he began to ask himself, “is this what my musical family and my degree prepared me for? I wanted a higher ceiling than this.” So he flew to France where he enrolled at the Univ. of Grenoble where he met artists and intellectuals from all over the world and was a time of expansion for him.
Following nearly a year in France, Skiles returned to Austin ready to find his own voice. Upon his return, he began playing and writing for jazz groups like 47 Times Its Own Weight and Tomas Ramirez, the Jazzmanian Devil. He entered grad school and studied under composers, Karl Korte and Dick Goodwin for a master’s degree in composition from The Univ. of Texas. The strain of playing jazz for a living proved tiring, and so he found employment playing piano for a ballet company, theater productions and the dance dept. at UT. But he tired of these activities and abruptly resigned only to give up music altogether. Perhaps without adequate research, Robert decided to join the “back to the land” movement, and after giving this notion some thought, and with what money he had left, he bought a 133 acre farm in a remote section of Madison County, Arkansas. However, the passion he had for this movement was quickly extinguished by the rigors of farm life. He saw veteran farmers of the area work 12-14 hour days just to make ends meet. Soon, with his lack of experience and mounting farming calamities, Robert sold the land and returned to Austin.
At this point, “I was ready to play gigs, any gigs – night clubs, nursing homes, bar mitzvahs, funerals, street corners, anything but farming!” Skiles resolved to set 3 goals: 1) to get his works played by major symphony orchestras, 2) make more accessible his jazz compositions and 3) to share what he had learned with others.
Robert believed that the art closest to music is dance, both of these disciplines being about form and gesture. Yet essentially, jazz is a music for the brain, not the feet. He reflected on this conundrum and decided some combination of jazz and Latin music was the answer. Of course, others had walked this path before and left a great body of work. He studied the music of Machito, Tito Puente and Dizzy Gillespie. The popular Latin music at that time included Tejano, Mariachi and Cumbia. Yet Skiles still felt that there was room for yet another musical marriage of Latin and jazz that would reflect his own preferences and personality.
His flirtations with Latin, however, were intensified by a trip to Acapulco where Robert fell blindly in love with a Mexican girl. After a lengthy courtship close to tying the knot, he was informed that she loved someone else. While the experience was painful, it left Robert with a new appreciation of Latin music and its suitability for use in a big band format. After much thought and with some fanfare of Mexican rhythmic spice, family background and N. Texas Lab band jazz, he announced to his music comrades his idea for a combo, a concocted ensemble called “Beto and The Fairlanes,” or Beto y los Fairlanes – Beto being a common Latin name for Robert and Fairlanes reminding him of typical street band from San Antonio. All of this tongue and cheek was intended to be more fun than serious. He envisioned the band to be a kind of social club, i.e., a reason to party and write charts, eat BBQ, drink beer, etc. While Skiles did not expect the group to last more than a year or so, to his amazement, and our very real enjoyment, Beto and The Fairlanes has flourished for over 39 years! The band has become an institution in Texas music.
So, Robert’s first goal was met: making jazz more accessible to the average listener. Similarly, he felt that works for orchestra are made more accessible when they accompany a narration, dance, film or vocal performance, thus achieving his second goal. And this 2nd goal of writing and arranging for symphony orchestra began with his friend, the late conductor and violinist, Akira Endo. Endo commissioned and programmed three of Robert’s works, all of which had themes relating to Texas historical characters and events: Viva Texas!, Fantasia Latina and A Portrait of Juan Seguin, a famous yet controversial Texas hero. Also for Akira, he wrote arrangements for Pops concerts featuring various artists, as well as performances for children. One of those artists who performed with the Austin Symphony was Tish Hinojosa with whom Skiles went on tour performing with orchestras nationwide. He actually got to conduct the orchestra in these performances which was a great thrill for him. In his words, “I was allowed to drive the Ferrari.” Presently, he is looking forward to conducting his latest piece, A Portrait of Barbara Jordan.
Regarding Skiles’ third goal, sharing what he have learned with others, he has been blessed with a 25-year teaching career at Austin Community College. He has learned that it is, indeed, a calling. “Few other professions can influence a person’s life more powerfully than a teacher. A good teacher is right there along with the student in making life decisions. The return is priceless! Teaching is truly its own reward. Teaching has been a mutual exchange of experience and ideas that keeps me mentally and spiritually alert.”
Another spiritually enriching experience for Robert was his 12 years as pianist and arranger at Austin’s Unity Church of The Hills. “The Unity people are all about positive Christianity (without the sin and hell), an altogether refreshing interpretation of Christian teaching not in conflict with science …” The most important lesson that he learned from Unity, though, was the value of fellowship. He found that laughter dissolves metaphysics. That is, doctrinal differences disappear when two or more individuals come together in friendship and good humor. Unity is a faith built on love and tolerance. “I still resonate with those insights.”
Retirement is contrary to Robert’s nature. He hopes to empower others to follow their own creative paths, even though those paths may not be immediately obvious.
Click below to view Robert's youtube performances: