by Dennis Green
“When you play jazz, it really shows your whole life experience, all your influences. You’re playing your life for everybody to see,” says 2020 JEI Hall of Fame inductee Jim Dreier. “And I think if more students listen to jazz that way, it makes it all the more interesting.”Jim is one of Iowa’s most in-demand jazz clinicians and adjudicators. He’s dedicated much of his life to the study and teaching of Latin Jazz, a large part of his job as an Associate Professor of Instruction in the University of Iowa Jazz Studies department.
His playing career has ranged from his role as a founding member of Iowa’s Salsa Band, Orquesta Alto Maiz, to jazz groups that range from mainstream to avant-garde, as well as his own Latin band Ritmocano, and reliving the rock and roll of his youth in The Beaker Brothers.
The JEI Hall of Fame nomination submitted for Jim sums up the positive influence he has had, and continues to have, in the classroom and on the bandstand.
Jim has single-handedly given Iowa music educators a serious appreciation of authentic Latin styles. His book, ‘Latin Jazz Guide’ has helped many directors in the Midwest and beyond to teach authentic Latin percussion rhythms to their students. He also makes himself available for percussion help across the state, judges and clinics (our) bands each year, and performs in jazz and all genres of music.
Jim received nearly half of all votes in the 2020 Hall of Fame balloting, a testament to the esteem in which he’s held by his peers.
But growing up in Cedar Falls, Jim had to largely teach himself, because he couldn’t get into band!
“They said they had too many snare drum players,” he explains with a rueful smile.
Which meant that like generations of musicians before him, Jim was self-taught in the beginning. But he soon began playing professionally in rock and soul bands. Here he found mentors to help him improve not just the pop tunes that formed his nightly set lists, but jazz as well.
“Kreg Kelly played in a band with me that was a lot like the Beaker Brothers, a two-drum band. He was a jazz drummer, and he started showing me jazz beats and stuff. And at the same time, the Chick Corea album ‘Light as a Feather’ came out.”
It was the Latin-rock of Carlos Santana that first attracted a young Jim Dreier to Latin rhythms, which he honed as a member of those rock and soul bands in the early Seventies. But it was that landmark Chick Corea album that cemented his connection to jazz.
“When I heard Airto (Moreia) playing with Chick Corea, that kind of electric Brazilian sound really attracted my ear,” he explains. “And that was my doorway. Then I started to develop more of an ear for other jazz. Eventually, I found myself at Berklee College of Music and pretty well entrenched in the study of jazz.”
Jim arrived at Berklee at a very opportune time for a drummer interested in Latin Jazz, as the school had just hired its very first Latin percussion instructor, Richie (Pablo) Laundrum.
“He was very knowledgeable in Cuban music, and I just sucked it all up. I still have this thick notebook where he would write down these rhythms and play them.”
But Jim would have to move back to Iowa, of all places before he could find a band that played Latin jazz full time.
That group, of course, was Orquesta Alto Maiz, Iowa’s legendary Salsa Band.
“I had met Bob (Washut) when we came back to Cedar Falls to visit my parents, and we played a little bit. And then he started this band with Ed East and Al Naylor, and he called me.”
The Salsa Band, which began its life with the tongue twisting (at least for Iowa Gringos) moniker of Orquesta de Jazz y Salsa Alto Maiz, was wildly popular pretty much from day one. But Jim remembers that musically, they were very far off from where they wanted to be.
“Our first gig was at the College Hill Arts Festival in 1986. And we were horrible! We couldn’t make it through more than one or two tunes without getting lost rhythmically. But everyone loved it! That’s the only band I’ve ever been in where the music itself propelled the band to get better.
“We were popular before we should have been,” he continues, “because the music was so attractive. The more we played, the more we were incentivized to get better because we were representing this music. It was a fantastic place for me to learn the music, invaluable. And then I began going to Brazil and Cuba, studying more and getting into it.”
Jim has made four trips to Cuba, the first in 2001 and most recently in 2018. He’s spent hundreds of hours not just learning about Afro-Cuban drumming, but also has taken classes in singing and even dance. He feels a deep obligation to teach his own students in the same manner he learned.
“(The clinicians) would always say at the end, ‘we give you this information and we want you to share it when you go back to the United States, but do it authentically.’ So we try to teach it as we learned it.”
Afro-Cuban music, like American jazz, is inextricably tied up with the history of enslavement and discrimination in the Americas. In his college Latin music classes as well as high school clinics, Jim doesn’t shy away from talking about how the music comes out of strife and from people who had to overcome disadvantage to make and perform music.
“I try to reference how (jazz) came from an African-American experience as an African-American derived music. And that it comes from a very complicated and difficult part of American history. But at the same time, it’s very inclusive and joyful.
He tries to meet the students where they are. “Maybe it will help you get up and get to school if you understand that this (music) is a really important part of your legacy, even though it came from a part of American history that is so far away from Mid Prairie High School in the middle of Iowa at seven o’clock in the morning. But to me, that’s fantastic. I love the dichotomy of that. That to me speaks to the power of jazz.”
As far as the Hall of Fame nomination goes, Jim is humbled by the recognition from his peers. And he’s quick to note that he gets to teach and clinic and share the love of music due largely to the efforts of the teachers working with young musicians in districts big and small, rural and urban, all around the state.
“…The high school band directors that get up at five thirty, six o’clock in the morning to have a before school jazz band rehearsal in some small rural community, who may never get recognized. Really good hearted, good intention people out there working really hard. To me, they’re the real heroes of jazz education in Iowa.”