Stanford University holds a reputation around the world as a center for high quality academic excellence, and in the past two years, it is becoming a growing force for a new generation of Latin Jazz musicians. While the campus has held a strong arts community for many years, Stanford’s Music Department just added a Latin Jazz ensemble into their program in 2008. Established by pianist Murray Low, the group has made major strides over the past two years, becoming a popular group both among the students and the community at large. A long time veteran of the Bay Area Latin Jazz scene, Low has called upon his years of experience performing with some of the best musicians in the area, such as Pete Escovedo, Wayne Wallace, John Santos, and Kat Parra. The in-demand pianist has become a major force behind all these groups, adding a powerful set of montunos, improvisation skills, writing and arranging talents, and all around top-notch musicianship wherever he goes. The students in Stanford’s Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble have been fortunate enough to experience all of Low’s skills first hand, soaking up all of his knowledge and insight on a regular basis.
Low takes the group to another level this week as they get the opportunity to perform with Latin Jazz professionals from both the West Coast and the East Coast – a great gig for a pro, and an unbelievable experience for a student musician. Trumpet player Ray Vega, a veteran of the Tito Puente band, Mongo Santamaria’s group, The Bronx Horns, and a long-time solo artist will be working with the group throughout the week and sharing his musical insights with the community. On Wednesday, March 3rd, Vega will present an educational clinic entitled “New York Roots of Latin Jazz,” an opportunity for the students to get closer to Vega’s history, but also the greater scene – the clinic is free and open to the public. On Saturday night March 6th, Vega will perform with the Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, and they will be joined by two of the Bay Area’s prominent Latin Jazz artists – percussionist Jesus Diaz and flautist John Calloway. These two musicians share history with a number of the area’s great Latin Jazz groups, ranging from The Machete Ensemble to Diaspora and more. Together, these three major musicians, combined with the power of Stanford’s well-trained group and Low’s master musicianship, should add up to an unforgettable night.
With this event on the horizon and Stanford’s group rising in reputation, it seemed like a great time to get some more information about the band. Low kindly answered some questions for LJC this week via e-mail, giving us some background on the group and details about the concert. Check out the quick interview and pictures below and don’t forget about the concert – get the full details about the concert HERE – enjoy!
LATIN JAZZ CORNER: Give us some background on your involvement with Stanford’s Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble.
MURRAY LOW: I am the director and driving force for the group since its inception in January 2008. I formed the ensemble completely on my own without asking for any additional resources, financial or otherwise, from the Music department itself. Hence, it was easy for them to approve its existence because it was effortless for them to do so. I could also see that there was a core set of students who were keenly interested in exploring this idiom but had too many other academic commitments to do so on their own. They just needed a faculty member to sustain a learning and performance environment for them. Two years later, I am blessed to have the support of everyone.
My goal is for the program to be become a permanent fixture in the educational landscape at Stanford – “to legitimize it,” if you will, from an academic point of view. This year we received a prestigious grant from SiCa (Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts), which has allowed me to bring in guest artists to work with the band through clinics, master classes, joint concerts, and individual tutoring. It’s an exciting time!
I feel an obligation to raise awareness of Latin Jazz – to preserve its tradition while also paving the way for future innovation. Like most of my peers, at a younger age I was focused on establishing my career and presence in the field. Over time, I increasingly realized that I have a duty as part of the something “larger,” and I am in a fortunate position to able to do something about it. Here on the West Coast, visionaries such as Wayne Wallace, John Calloway and Rebeca Mauleon have established vibrant programs at their respective schools and I’m merely following suit. Your readers have long known that Afro-Latin Music and its larger cultural implications is a field of legitimate academic study, but it’s still a struggle to win respectability within the hallowed halls of the institutions themselves.
LJC: What inspired you to invite Ray Vega out to the West Coast for the concert? What do you think that he has to offer to the students?
ML: I originally met Ray when he was playing lead trumpet in Tito Puente’s band. I was in Pete Escovedo’s band at the time and occasionally the two groups would be on the same bill. Ray has always been interested in the West Coast scene; I was part of his “Quintet West” that performed whenever he was out here. We built our friendship from a lot of common ideals about music.
From the start, I was impressed by Ray’s passion and earnestness. He’s a no-nonsense person with strong opinions and a keen respect for tradition and the masters who define it. Yet, at the same time he is incredibly open about music and embraces new ideas and concepts readily. He’s a visionary who believes that each of us should stay true to our musical ideals.
It’s important for my students – well, everybody — to go beyond just playing the written music in front of them. They need to know why the music is the way it is, and how it came to be. Not only musically, but from a historical and cultural perspective as well. Ray was immersed in the New York Latin Jazz scene for key periods of its evolution and development and provides first-hand knowledge and insight in this regard. It was an opportunity that I simply could not pass up.
LJC: What types of things will Vega be covering in his clinic next Wednesday?
ML: The official topic is entitled the “New York Roots of Latin Jazz”. Ray is going to discuss the cultural and musical influences that combined together in that city which caused the idiom to be born. He’s going much further back in history than most people will probably expect. He will look the idioms’ humble beginnings via artists such as James Reese Europe, Fletcher Henderson and Ellington; explore its development through Machito, Mario Bauza, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker; and illustrate its current evolution up to the Fort Apache Band and beyond. It’s free and open to the public! There’s no excuse not to come.
LJC: Tell us about some of the repertoire for the concert & what Diaz, Calloway, & Vega will be adding.
ML: They have selected tunes from the repertoire that they play, or have played, with their respective professional bands. Some of the chosen pieces are difficult and the Stanford ensemble has risen to challenge of tackling them. We’re not dumbing anything down in any way, shape or form.
Because Jesus, John, and Ray come from different musical perspectives, it’s going to be a very varied program. Jesus Diaz offers up a pure Cubano/Timba perspective; John Calloway represents the West Coast Latin Jazz sound with its identifiable mix of influences; and Ray Vega infuses the concert with the New York jazz-oriented sensibility.
LJC: What do you think the students and general public will walk away with after all is said and done next week?
In the end, it’s all about raising awareness and increasing understanding. By seeing these artists perform in an academic setting – in a rare collaborative event — I am hoping that the public will see that this idiom has a justifiable place in higher education, and that Stanford is such a place where this is happening. They will be able to see that it is indeed a rich field of music and study, and perhaps will want to pursue it on their own. Yet at the same time, it can be vibrant, fun, and make you want to dance!
The grant has allowed me to give my students valuable professional mentoring and experience beyond what I can offer on my own. They will walk away with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Latin Jazz and be able to see just how rich and vast it is, and how much history is behind it. That goes for the student community in general. Let’s face it – most students familiar with jazz only have combo or big band experience, and have a very naïve idea about what Latin Jazz is. Hopefully I can re-educate them and bring them into the program.
LJC: Any other thoughts?
ML: Just come out and join us for a fun evening and master class! We have other events coming up this year, a master class with Flautist Andrea Brachfeld, and clinics and concerts with John Santos. I hope that Stanford will continue to be a conduit for this type of activity so always check back at our website. The band sounds great too, so watch out for where we are performing.
Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble
The Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, under the direction of Murray Low will be presenting two important events, involving guest artists Ray Vega, John Santos, Jesus Diaz, and John Calloway – you don’t want to miss this! Check out the info below:
“New York Roots of Latin Jazz” clinic presented by Ray Vega
WHERE: Braun Rehearsal Hall, Bran Music Center – Stanford University
541 Lasuen Mall
TIME: 4:15 p.m.
Masters Of Latin Jazz Concert Featuring Ray Vega, Jesus Diaz, & John Calloway
WHERE: Dinkelspiel Auditorium – Stanford University
471 Lagunita Drive
TIME: 7:30 p.m.
Do you have pictures to contribute to the Latin Jazz photo album? I’d love to have everyone in the Latin Jazz community contribute! I’ll be posting five to ten pictures a week – I’m looking for live performance shots, not promo pics. I’d like to keep them centered around one artist per week, but if you’ve got another idea, let’s talk. So come on Latin Jazz photographers, musicians, and fans – let’s put some more memorable pictures in the Latin Jazz Photo Album! Get my contact info HERE.
Check Out These Related Posts:
Latin Jazz Photo Album: Wayne Wallace
Latin Jazz Photo Album: Pete Escovedo
Latin Jazz Photo Album: John Calloway & Diaspora
Latin Jazz Photo Album: Charlie Sepulveda