EDUCATION NEWS: Connecting Latin Jazz Professionals with Students: Murray Low, Doug Beavers, and the Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble

  • May 24, 2012

By Chip Boaz
Latin Jazz Corner

Jazz education is a tough road that requires hard work and focus; it’s also an entry point into an obscure process that can be somewhat confusing. There’s an incredible amount of information that needs to be consumed, but in most cases, spending all your time in book study won’t help your become a better jazz musician. It demands a good deal of practical experience playing your instrument alongside other musicians, but spending all your time in jam sessions takes away from all-important practice. An overwhelming number of jazz masters have spent decades of music that you need it be hear, but at the same time, you’ve got to stay aware of current trends. Performing the music requires a prodigious amount of technique, but specifically focusing on developing physical skills takes away from an understanding of the music’s soul. Young musicians need some assistance to get through this maze of mystery – the connection to real life experiences through interaction with professional musicians can be the missing piece of the puzzle that brings everything together.

Pianist and educator Murray Low has long recognized the importance in bringing students together with professionals, something that he has embedded in his work with the Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble. A veteran sideman whose resume includes stints with Pete Escovedo, Wayne Wallace, Kat Parra, and more, Low already brings a wealth of professional experience to his students. He recognizes the importance of connections with diverse professionals though, so each Spring, Low brings his students together with a visiting Latin Jazz musician. The annual guest artist concert has brought the students of the Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble together with strong Latin Jazz artists like John Santos, Ray Vega, John Calloway, and more. With four years of experience as leader of the Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, Low has connected a generation of jazz students with some of the genre’s top professionals, insuring their continued inspiration and dedication, as well essential insight into the demands of the career.

The 2012 guest artist concert features trombonist Doug Beavers performing alongside the Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, playing his own compositions as well as standard charts. Shaping his jazz and arranging chops in the Bay Area at Cal State Hayward, Beavers moved to New York where he continued his studies at The Manhattan School Of Music. He studied trombone performance with Conrad Herwig and arranging with Mike Abene, leading to work with the Mingus Big Band, among others. Beavers connected with Eddie Palmieri on a recommendation from Herwig, leading to a key role in the pianist’s La Perfecta II. After diligently transcribing Palmieri’s classic La Perfecta recordings, Beavers became lead trombonist in the band as well as the group’s key arranger, taking him to performances around the world. Since then, he’s become a member of The Spanish Harlem Orchestra, established the Harlem School Of Urban Music And Recording Arts, and grown into a strong bandleader. Beavers will be bringing years of experience to his time with the Stanford students, offering an unforgettable musical experience.

The Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble concert with Doug Beavers promises to be a powerful experience both for the group’s students and the audience. The event promises to hold some musical fireworks, but most importantly, it will be an unforgettable experience for the performing students. In reality, that’s the main point of the concert, delivering a culminating event that will help move the next generation of jazz musicians towards the future. The man that spearheaded the yearly guest artist concert certainly has some ideas on Latin Jazz in education, the impact of Beavers’ visit, and the importance of professional connections in jazz education; in this interview, Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble teacher Murray Low talks on all these topics.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: As you finish your fourth year leading the ensemble, The Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble (SALJE) has some history behind it now. How have you seen the program grow and how has your view of Latin Jazz in music education evolved?

MURRAY LOW: Slowly but surely, the academic world is realizing that Latin Jazz is a field that can stand on its own as an educational pursuit, separate from a traditional Jazz or pure Latin American music program. I am quick to point out to everyone I talk to that it requires at least twice as much effort to learn than the other disciplines, because you have to be able to master both in order to play it effectively. I am very careful to choose my group’s repertoire such that it spans a wide range of influences, and they can see just how vast a territory Latin Jazz covers.

This increasing awareness is a testament to the earnest effort of many of my peers, who started out only as performers but have since found education to be a calling in itself. I don’t adhere to the philosophy that those who “can” play, and those who “can’t” teach. That’s a myth.

I definitely see Stanford’s program as growing in reputation and stature. More and more individuals and organizations are contacting me about it, rather than the other way around. Many people mention it to me without my solicitation when I am out and about in the world. It’s very encouraging.

LJC: The Spring guest artist concert has become a tradition for The Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble. Based on your experiences in past years, what have you seen as the most important part of connecting student musicians with professionals?

ML: At a very basic level, giving my group such first-hand experiences creates a tangible connection between the academic world and the real world. Band members can be inspired by listening to an Eddie Palmieri recording on their IPOD while they are driving or by reading down a chart in a class – but there is still an “abstract” feel to it. By having someone in the room with them who has actually lived the music, they instantly have a more concrete sense of the tradition that is Latin Jazz. I have also lived the music, but seeing me week in and week out dilutes that impact; bringing in someone of stature is needed to “shake” them up (laughs).

Additionally, it’s important that they understand how the professional world works. In such an environment, there isn’t a lot of time to spend actually learning tunes or practicing your part at rehearsal. You have to be totally prepared ahead of time; have full concentration on the task at hand; have good listening skills; be adaptable to change; and focus more on making the music sound great rather than just reading parts. Even if most of the band members are going to be engineers, scientists, doctors or novelists, they will have an appreciation for these principles.

LJC: You’ve always had inspired choices for your guest artists – what led you to connect your students with Doug Beavers?

ML: SALJE entered a band competition at CSU (California State University) East Bay in the Spring 2010. Doug had temporarily relocated to the West Coast at that time and was an instructor there, and hence an adjudicator at the festival itself. After we played, Doug came down and immediately engaged the band. In addition to giving us excellent feedback, he took out his trombone and asked to play a tune with us. It was obvious how much passion he carried into this activity. At that point, I knew it was simply a matter of time before he would be one of our guest clinicians.

LJC: Doug has a wide range of experiences that reach from working with Eddie Palmieri to The Spanish Harlem Orchestra, West Coast mainstays like Pete Escovedo, and his own group, Conjunto Rovira – what are the big picture items that you’d like to see your students pull from his broad experience?

ML: I am hoping my group can get a sense of what they have to do to make the music sound great – beyond just nailing the parts. What makes the music swing? What are the intricacies that go into “good time”? How do we play together? All the “little things” that are, in fact, “big things” that separate a great band from a mediocre one. Doug has experienced that first-hand at the highest level, and from a number of different perspectives and approaches. He will be able to draw from that during his time here with us.

LJC: Doug also has some pretty specific experience doing music with young people through his Harlem School of Urban Music And Recording Arts. How do you think his experience as an educator will shape your students’ experience with him?

ML: Educational acumen is an important consideration as I choose a guest artist. I don’t want he/she to just come in, play a few solos, exchange a few niceties, and then go back home. I want them to work with the group in a truly engaging way, and it’s key that they have some skill in doing so effectively. This means being both capable of explaining how the music works in a logical way, and also having the interpersonal skills to establish a rapport with those to whom you are giving advice.

Let’s face it – if you can be effective working with inner city kids in an urban environment, chances are pretty good that you’ll be effective working with young adults whose SAT scores hover around the 1500 range (laughs). All of the policing and attention deficit issues are completely taken out the equation. My band members are here because they want to be here. I feel incredibly lucky to be in the position I am in.

LJC: Doug epitomizes the best of both worlds – he came up on the West Coast scene and built a professional career on the East Coast scene. What would you like your students to capture about the differences between the two scenes and where do you see that in Doug’s music?

ML: In my mind, it’s not really about the scene, it’s more about the music. The development and evolution of Latin Jazz is decidedly different between the left and right coasts, and it’s the sound of a particular piece that defines it as one or the other.

Over the years, I have brought in a lot of tunes by West Coast arrangers such as Wayne Wallace and John Calloway, a lot of tunes from Cuba, South America and Puerto Rico, and a lot of tunes adapted from the jazz idiom. I started to realize that I needed more repertoire from the East Coast tradition, particularly the Nuyorican Salsa and Latin Jazz traditions, so that my group could get a sense of the sound and how to play it correctly. The fact that Doug has meticulously studied that sub-genre was a big factor in having him come here.

The whole notion that the East Coast is more “traditional” and the West Coast is more “experimental” is a big myth. We live in the interconnected world with YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Geographic distinctions are blurring. You’ve got innovative guys on the East Coast such as Miguel Zenon and Luis Perdomo stretching boundaries; conversely, bands like La Moderna Tradicion on the West Coast are recreating the beauty of the traditional Danzón.

LJC: Looking into your fifth year with the group, what new directions would you like to see the ensemble explore?

ML: I hope to mirror the expansion of Latin Jazz in the professional world within my little corner of the educational environment. More Latin American cultures are fusing their music with jazz in exciting ways. Afro-Peruvian jazz, Afro-Columbian jazz, Tango fusion – these terms were almost unheard of 10 years ago. I’m a newbie myself to these disciplines, and to be honest will only be one step ahead of my students.

I only set a portion of my repertoire for the year, and then take submissions from group members themselves about songs they would like to do. By design, that always takes the band into new territory. More importantly, I want them to feel that they have a stake in this venture, and are as inspired about SALJE as I am. I can’t do it alone.

LJC: Any last thoughts?

ML: Come on down and share the evening with us. It promises to be a great event. Thanks, Chip!

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