Let’s Dance! –  Accepting the Latin jazz invitation with Engagement and Discovery 

By James Dreier and Dr. Steve Shanley

Atychiphobia: Fear of making mistakes, Atychimusicaphobia: Fear of making mistakes playing (or directing) Latin jazz

OK, the second one was made up. But according to carefully done and totally anecdotal research, this is a real thing. The fear of rehearsing a Latin jazz chart with your jazz band only to be “trashed” by the ever-watchful adjudicator, keeps many directors from engaging in it. Or perhaps the fear of the unknown, and wondering “where to start?” keeps that mambo off the music stands. The end result is the same – students, directors, and audience members are denied one of the most beneficial, culturally rich, and popular jazz styles. This article intends to provide some context around the problem, share a bit of personal history, and include some helpful resources. Most of all, we want to encourage and support jazz band directors to come out of the shadows and accept the Latin jazz invitation to dance. 

Dreier’s Perspective

The more time I spend with public school band directors, the more respect and admiration I have for them. Like any field, there are as many types and levels of competency as there are people. Motivations can run the gamut of “we must win contests,” to “we must have fun and learn.” I admire any teacher who gets up at 6:00 a.m. to be at a 7:00 a.m. jazz band rehearsal before a long day of school. If they are trying hard to do their best, I admire them even more. So, before I go any further, thank you to all of you out there in the trenches doing your best. You make a real difference.

Readers of this article may know me. I have followed the muse of Latin music, drumming and jazz for many years here in Iowa. I have traveled to Brazil, Cuba and around the US to study and try to figure it all out. I have sat next to some of the greatest Latin drummers in the world, and in the process, often made a complete fool of myself. And let’s not stop there. 

When our young family moved back to Iowa from Boston in 1986, I found myself in Orquesta Alto Maiz (Iowa’s “Salsa Band”). It was formed by then UNI jazz director Dr. Bob Washut and Panama-born music educator Ed East. We produced 8 CDs, traveled abroad, and enjoyed strong popularity. But when we started, most of us were inexperienced. Mistakes were made (Ed was patient). There are tracks on our CDs that I wish I could fix. But there they are, for all eternity. 

I relate this because making mistakes is how we eventually became a damn good Latin jazz/salsa band. Of course, the right attitude is important. Try it, put it out there…you may stumble, but you learn from your mistakes, find the answers, and make the unknown less intimidating (see resources list below). When you engage jazz of any kind, you engage a rich cultural history that resonates when you play it with authenticity. If you approach it with the respect and care it deserves, mistakes are simply opportunities for success. 

So this is my message to all those who dread the reckoning of a judicator and feel intimidated by the vast, sometimes mysterious world of Latin jazz. It is better to step on your partner’s foot a few times, than to never get to the dance at all. Engage, reach out, be brave, get the information, and let Latin jazz be the inspirational partner it can truly be. 

Dr. Steve Shanley: FAQ and Advice to Begin Working on Latin Jazz Music 

Q: Where do I start a young jazz band with Latin jazz?”

A: One option that I wish more directors would consider is teaching unison (or 2- or 3-part) head charts to their bands. This applies to all styles–not just Latin jazz! But it’s especially helpful with Latin jazz, since there are not a lot of great published options for the big band. “Oye Como Va” by the great Tito Puente (just the first part of the melody) is a great choice, since it only uses two chords and the minor pentatonic scale. There is no “jazz law” forcing you to pick music with 4 trumpet parts, 4 trombone parts, and 5 saxophone parts. Style and improvising are the most important parts of learning this music, and that can be taught–arguably more efficiently–with everyone learning the melody. 

(Note: Bringing in clinicians to work with your bands is one of the best ways to improve it. Find someone who has knowledge of the style or issues you’re needing help with, and ask them to come in. It can make a huge difference.)

Q: What are some good publication resources for Latin jazz tunes?

Get the Sher “Real Easy Book,” which has a bunch of easy heads written in unison and 3-part arrangements, including some Latin jazz, and use it with the whole band. Sher also has the “Latin Real Easy Book” that is all Latin jazz, divided into 2 sections of easier and more advanced head charts. Both books come in C, Bb, Eb and bass-clef versions.

Also: get Jim Dreier’s “Latin Jazz Guide,” and use it to help you convert easy swing tunes to cha-cha or bossa nova (in my opinion, the two easiest styles to start with).

Parting Advice

When teaching a new-to-the-students style like Latin jazz, it’s nice if the students aren’t also trying to work an additional “new thing” or “difficult thing.” In other words, make the technical demands (especially in terms of range, chromaticism, part independence, etc.) easier, so you can focus on the new style.  If they are trying to remember fingerings, strain their chops for the high notes–AND learning a new style, that’s a recipe for being overwhelmed (for the students AND the teacher!).  That’s why something like “Oye Como Va” with D minor pentatonic scale (notes they already know and not in the upper register), a 4-measure melody, and 2 chords, is a great first step.

(Note: Dr. Shanley has arranged several authentic Latin big band charts for young bands that are approachable and yet musical. Contact Steve for information on how to get a hold of these charts. sshanley@coe.edu)

For lists of recommended Latin jazz instrumental books, method books, jazz arrangers and publishing houses, see “resources” in the Latin Jazz Guide website (www.latinjazzguide.com).  

James Dreier is a drum set, Latin percussion specialist, educator, clinician, and performer. He holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Berklee College of Music (Boston, MA) and a Master of Arts degree in music theory from the University of Iowa. Dreier is an Associate Professor of Instruction (jazz) at the University of Iowa. He joined former Orquesta Alto Maiz alumni Dr. Bob Washut and Al Naylor as an inductee into the JEI Hall of Fame in 2019.

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