Infusing jazz with a Latin accent

BY ADAM SALAZAR | JULY 06, 2009 7:20 AM

Think of jazz music, and the images of Louie Armstrong, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane come to mind.

All too often, artists such as Tito Puente and Chano Pozo are left in the dark — until recently.
At the 2009 Toyota Scion of Iowa City Jazz Festival, two bands more or less brought a newer genre of jazz music to Iowa City: Latin jazz, a fusion of traditional jazz melodies and Latin-infused rhythms.

They spiced up traditional jazz instruments with such Latin ones as maracas.

Iowa natives and Jazz Festival veterans Orquesta Alto Maíz (“tall corn” in English) and Puerto Rican, New York-based David Sanchez and his quartet were just a few of the artists that presented a wide variety of jazz styles Iowans have come to recognize.

“Because of Alto Maíz, Iowans know about Latin jazz,” said John Rapson, a UI professor of music. “It has single-handedly educated the state on Latin jazz.”

Founded on the University of Northern Iowa campus in summer 1986, Alto Maíz has beaten all odds in bringing Latin jazz to Iowa.

The band, an 11-member ensemble, includes three UI professors in jazz studies and a Cedar Falls resident — vocalist and Panamanian Ed East. Through two decades of performing, it has successfully infused North American jazz with infectious rhythms and dance.

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Though the combination of salsa, mambo, and bossa nova and jazz may seem odd, history shows it has been a marriage from the beginning.

The creation and evolution of jazz cannot be mentioned without noting some foreign influences. The musical style was born in New Orleans around the beginning of the 20th century, and the city’s relative proximity to the Caribbean — whose peoples share a similar culture of ethnic mingling and Creole-African culture — allowed intercultural artistic exchange.

UI music lecturer James Dreier said because of this, New Orleans was the only U.S. city that would have been considered Caribbean.

The Afro-Cuban rhythms and instruments and melodic beats that developed across the Gulf of Mexico helped influence what is now known as modern contemporary jazz music. This cultural reciprocity expanded further to New York City, where the genre developed in the 1930s through 1960s.

But musician Sanchez expressed reservations about the term “Latin jazz” being used so uniformly by critics and journalists. He worries it might confuse the public.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be salsa or mambo to be considered Latin jazz,” he said.

Sanchez, whose style of music is more contemporary than Alto Maíz, doesn’t refer to his music as jazz. Rather, he said it is a collection of influential musical styles, and he believes the branding of Latin jazz solely in the image of salsa is not accurate.

Still, Latin jazz is marketable, he said, which keeps the term on tongues.

“People want to categorize everything,” Sanchez said.

Not constrained by categories, Latin jazz even found a niche in an unexpected place: non-tropical, non-Caribbean Iowa.

There are myriad choices for those interested in jazz. There are 11 bands and ensembles. Dreier noted one Latin jazz group that typically draws eight to 12 students. Dreier also co-operates the Afro-Cuban Dance Ensemble with the School of Dance, which focuses its performances with folkloric dancing accompanied by percussion and traditional Cuban Music. That’s essentially Latin jazz.

There are some limits; the UI School of Music does not offer an independent undergraduate major in jazz or jazz studies. The style counts as an emphasis area. Five students are currently enrolled in the graduate program in jazz studies.

But besides bands and dance groups, the music school offers 13 courses to majors with an emphasis on jazz studies. The school also offers two jazz studies courses that teach more than 300 non-majors jazz history and culture.

Rapson, the head of jazz, contrasted interest in Latin-infused music at the UI before and after Dreier arrived.

“We didn’t have people banging on our door before James came around,” Rapson said.

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