A New Generation of Latin Jazz Artists Steps to the Stage
The Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble of San Francisco was founded with a simple but ambitious mission: to preserve the traditions of Latin jazz and Afro-Cuban music by teaching it to young musicians, who can then become role models for future aspiring artists.
Now in its fourteenth year, the ensemble has been home to over 120 young Bay Area musicians, developing a love for the music and joining a community of elder players who’ve helped shaped it. The group has opened for greats such as Poncho Sanchez and the Cuban bassist Israel “Cachao” López, jammed with the likes of pianist Chuchito Valdés, and recorded three albums — including Con Mis Manos, released earlier this year, which includes student musicians playing alongside notable guests including Louie Romero, John Santos, and Jerry Gonzalez.
As the artist-in-resident youth ensemble of the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, the group is often seen headlining energetic dance salsa concerts around town, performing classics like Celia Cruz’ “La Vida Es Un Carnaval” and Miguel Matamoros’ “Lágrimas Negras.” In addition to their fresh arrangements of popular favorites, they also play original tunes, often melding funk and soul with Latin jazz.
“It’s definitely opened up my world, working with and getting to know some incredible musicians who I never would’ve met otherwise,” says 17-year-old Xiadani Avila, one of the group’s singers who has commuted from Modesto — sometimes weekly — for band practices and performances since joining the group three years ago. “I’ve learned to be confident, and to trust myself, which I lacked when I first started.”
Musical Director John Calloway has witnessed countless members take a similar journey. “That’s my joy, watching them grow from having difficulty keeping time and holding the ensemble together, to becoming prominent soloists,” says Calloway, a music teacher and professional musician.
Calloway runs the group with partners Arturo Riera, a leading Bay Area curator and promoter of Latin music who manages the band and its bookings, and Sylvia Ramirez, who brings television industry experience in marketing for the group and coaching the youth in stage presence. Together the three have managed to sustain the group on earnings from gigs, and they’ve stayed committed to keeping young musicians’ participation in the group free.
“We were intentional about starting this group with zero limits to entry, and unlike a lot of groups that have to cream the crop, we are able to achieve real diversity,” says Riera.
The ensemble attracts young musicians from diverse racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds, and girls and young women in the group find themselves equal participants in roles playing piano, trombone, sax, and bass, where they’re often underrepresented in the music industry.
Many alumni have continued as professional musicians. Standouts include Natalie Cressman, who’s played with jazz luminaries like Nicholas Payton, Wycliffe Gordon and Peter Apfelbaum; Charles Ferguson and his Afro-beat band Zongo Junction; Daniel Riera and the newly-formed Soltrón SF, recently gaining fanfare for its “New Mission” sound; and guitarist Francesca Simone, who recently joined Beyoncé’s stage band.
“We don’t treat the members as kids, but as you would any professional musician,” says Riera. “Practice, show up on time, and when you play, give the performance of your life every time.”
Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble of San Francisco: Press
Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble: Young, professional
The strains of Latin jazz will heat up the city streets when the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble plays this Sunday in Union Square as part of the ongoing free Jewels in the Square performances. Far from a kiddie show, this group of about 15 young musicians, who range in age from 10 to 18 years old, display a serious professionalism.
Founded in 2001 by Bay Area bandleader and San Francisco State University faculty member John Calloway along with Arturo Riera and Sylvia Ramirez, the ensemble boasts a resume that any professional would envy, including opening for jazz greats such as the Cuban bassist Israel "Cachao" López, and jamming with the likes of noted pianist Chuchito Valdés.
"It's quite an opportunity for a student musician," Ramirez says. "We are really unique - we've been around since 2001 and have never charged the students to participate. We recruit from all over the community, especially public schools, where kids may have a lot of natural talent and some training, but they might never have had access to private instruction in music."
But while its ensemble (for advanced musicians) and LJYE workshop (for intermediate students) give the kids access to training with Calloway in everything from playing to composing and arranging music, Ramirez is quick to note that they're not really like an official educational program with a schedule of classes. She prefers to describe the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble as a grassroots band.
"John isn't teaching them how to play an instrument," she explains. "These kids all come to the group already knowing how to play. He teaches them how to play the style, how to find the right feel for the music, how to be stronger in soloing, and improvisation skills. I'm a television producer, so I work with them on stage presence and how they present themselves. We're not a nonprofit, but we provide free musical instruction for the kids."
Although the group keeps the kind of erratic rehearsal schedule any working Bay Area musician would recognize, the members meet most Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings, and managing director Riera books the group for enough gigs to pay for its programs and for its upcoming CD - featuring several original compositions from the young ensemble members - scheduled for release next January.
"Our group is very much a family," Ramirez says warmly. "I love these kids - they walk in shy and nervous and see all these other kids who seem so much older and more accomplished, but we help them develop. I don't want people to see a bunch of kids, I want people to see a professional band playing good music at a high level."
(Regarding the CD, "LJYE Live at Yoshi's") "From the first bars of the opening track...you know you are in for a special treat of succulent Latin jazz...Dramatic arrangements and phenomenal improvisations prevail throughout this recording."
GENERATION NOW. A wave of young musicians is splashing onto the SF Bay Area enriching the Latin music diaspora. In this edition of Desde La Bahia we profile instrumentalists, singers and bandleaders, from teens to young adults, who are contributing their energies to the future of this music.
THE LATIN JAZZ YOUTH ENSEMBLE OF SAN FRANCISCO. Ranging in ages from 10 to 18, the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble of SF is directed by musician/composer/arranger John Calloway. Working with Arturo and Sylvia Riera (whose son Daniel plays flute in the band) they maintain a self-sustaining performance group whose mission is to motivate young people to play Latin jazz and act as role models for young musicians.
In late May of 2004, Carnaval San Francisco selected them as the Best Youth Music Group in the annual parade. August found them swinging at the San José Jazz Festival. In October, they performed at the San Francisco Latín Jazz Festival at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Playing a repertoire of Latin jazz, salsa and Cuban music, their cohesion as an ensemble is impressive, a credit to Calloway's teaching and direction. A perfect example is Paquito D'Rivera's Chucho. Like old pros, they take the piece at an uptempo pace and stretch it out with potent solos and tight execution on the Irakere-style ensemble parts. Pianist Samora Pinderhughes is a treat to listen to. Hearing him riff with technical ease and melodic facility leaves you breathless. Quoting tunes like Maria Cervantes in his solos demonstrates the depth and promise this young teen has.
Many exceptional young musicians have now gone through the band. Kyle Athayde, who plays trumpet, vibes and drums, is a present member of the National Grammy High School Jazz Ensemble and a three-time Down Beat winner in their Student Music Awards for Outstanding Soloist.
Their debut performance at the Cal Tjader Tribute at the Masonic Auditorium in SF, on Sept. 15, 2001, is still one of their best shows. That original band consisted of Daniel Riera (flute), Elizabeth Dorman (bass), Eric Méndez (drums/congas), Hans Stern (piano), Erik Stern (timbal), Kyle Athayde (trumpet), Sam Ferguson (vibes) and Samora Pinderhughes (piano).
John Calloway is renowned for his musical abilities as a flutist and pianist. He writes and arranges excellent music for John Santos & The Machete Ensemble and others, but it's his gift as an educator that will be his lasting contribution. A music educator in the San Francisco Unified District, and now teaching at SF State University, he has groomed this group into an incubator for the future of Afro-Caribbean jazz and popular music in the SF Bay.
The Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble of San Francisco allows young musicians to experience Latin jazz and salsa at a professional level. It's non-profit and fun. Much love and gratitude to Calloway, the Rieras and the rest of the parents of these neophyte performers.
(English translation follows) "Este grupo puede tocar en cualquier club de jazz mundial. Me gustaron sus arreglos originales y su balance harmónico y la percusión sigue la marcha bien. La flauta tiene un concepto harmónico muy avanzado. Este grupo me impresiono mucho musicalmente y por su juventud."
"This group can play in any jazz club in the world. I enjoyed their original compositions and their harmonic balance and the good time kept by the rhythm section. The flute player shows advanced harmonic concepts. This group impressed me very much with their musicality and their youth."
"We saw these guys at the San Jose Jazz Festival in 2004 and were very impressed-the most entertaining group we saw there! They are great! We remain impressed with the tight quality that the band exhibits. Keep the good stuff coming.....we'd love to hear some more of your upbeat Latino selections!!
"A pleasure to listen to even without being impressed by the young age of the musicians. The music provides such a pleasureable and joyful listening experience that it made me even more astonished at what these relatively young musicians have accomplished. The music reflects a technical profiency and soulful maturity that belies the ages of the performers."