Oscar Hernandez Photo courtesy of the Community Music Center

For arts organizations seeking to survive in the age of Covid-19, strength in numbers might be the key. A new collaboration between the Community Music Center and the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble is reaching far beyond the Bay Area’s deep pool of talent to offer aspiring young musicians contact with some of Latin jazz’s most important artists.

Their first joint endeavor, the MusicLab Workshop Series in Latin jazz, kicks off Thursday with an online session by flutist/arranger Dr. John Calloway, the co-founder and director of the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble (LJYE). Discussions about a possible partnership between the LJYE and the CMC pre-date the pandemic, but the advent of live-streamed instruction highlights the benefits of working together.

“It’s a developing, brand-new relationship that hasn’t been fully defined yet,” Calloway said. “But we’re working on developing a strong partnership. There’s even the possibility of folding the LJYE into the CMC at some point.”

John Calloway. Photo courtesy of the Community Music Center.

Ambitious students have already paired the LJYE with the CMC, which offers an extensive roster of classes taught by vaunted artists like bassist/bandleader Marcus Shelby (who was just tapped to run the Healdsburg Jazz Festival). Thomas Bombara credits his experience in the CMC’s Young Musicians Program and Teen Jazz Orchestra with preparing him to study music at the New School in New York City, where he’ll start classes next week.

A saxophonist who recently added flute to his bailiwick, he plans on attending all three of the Latin jazz MusicLab Workshops, and is looking forward to connecting again with Calloway. In the months before he graduated from the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts he started playing in the LJYE’s older ensemble, where “some people referred to me as their secret weapon,” said Bambara, 18. “We started a cumbia band right before the shelter in place started, and we’re getting tight.”

He’s been taking classes at the CMC since he started middle school, “which was immeasurably important in my musical formation,” Bombara said. The experience was actually enhanced by a glitch in the center’s computer system that assigned him a new teacher every semester. “I had so many influences and philosophies when it comes to teaching and practice,” he said. “I really enjoyed discovering my own sound.”

He started playing jazz under the direction of Shelby in the CMC’s teen jazz orchestra, and the bassist became a mentor on and off the bandstand. “When my brother got in trouble, Marcus visited him in juvie when he was doing his series of concerts in jails and prisons,” Bombara said. “Last summer, I did a gig or two with Marcus professionally; an amazing opportunity.”

The LJYE has played a similar role for many members who come through the ranks since Calloway launched the organization in 2001 with Sylvia Ramirez, who’s also a co-director. Over the past two decades, the LJYE has served as a launching pad for some of the most acclaimed young musicians to come out of the Bay Area, including flutist/vocalist Elena Pinderhughes, trombonist/vocalist Natalie Cressman, and Beyoncé guitarist Francesca Simone.

Beyond his work as an educator, Calloway has been at the center of the Bay Area Latin music scene for some four decades. He was a mainstay in Mission District-native John Santos’s Machete Ensemble, and has led various groups of his own over the years.

He’ll be offering a session “for students who want a baseline understanding of how to approach improvising for Latin jazz and Cuban music, as opposed to more straight ahead jazz,” Calloway said. “It is in part about clave,” the fundamental West-African derived pulse in Cuban music, “but also about providing examples of how to phrase rhythmically. Latin music tends to have less chord movement, so how do you improvise and not get repetitive.”

Pianist and Grammy Award-winning bandleader Oscar Hernandez presents the second workshop Oct. 8, “50 Years of Musical Innovations in Latin Music.” As the leader of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Hernandez has participated in many of those innovations first hand. He earned his salsa stripes recording with conga master Ray Barretto in the early 1980s. But he became a major player as music director for the popular Grammy Award-winning band Seis Del Solar, which served as a vehicle for some of Ruben Blades most innovative and literary songs.

Looking to rekindle the spirit of hard-hitting New York salsa, Hernandez launched the Spanish Harlem Orchestra two decades ago, and the 13-piece combo has earned three Grammys and international acclaim as one of the most exciting salsa bands in the business.

Calloway had already made a name for himself on the Mission District scene playing with the Cuban roots music combo Tipica Cienfuegos when he moved to New York City to study at CUNY in the early 1980s. He ended up living in Queens, where he befriended Hernandez, who lived in an apartment above him in a neighborhood brimming with Latin musicians.

“I learned a lot about how to think about the music in an authentic way studying and being around Oscar,” Calloway said. “I got to pick his brain, understand, in the social sense, what Latin music was all about. He taught me about the life and the culture associated with playing salsa music. I learned the correct way of thinking about clave from Oscar.”

The Latin jazz Workshop series concludes on Nov. 12 with pianist and bandleader Michele Rosewoman’s “Creative Expression Through Afro-Cuban Rhythms & Improvisation.” Tickets for each session are $15 (though no one will be shut out due to lack of funds). Raised in Oakland, Rosewoman came to Cuban music through her spiritual practice, which was largely separate from her jazz studies under the tutelage of the late great Bay Area pianist Ed Kelley.

Michelle Rosewoman. Photo courtesy of the Community Music Center.

She experienced an epiphany after moving to New York City that led her to combine sacred Yoruba chants, Afro-Cuban batá drums, and post-bop improvisation. A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts made it possible to assemble all the different elements in 1983 when she presented “New Yor-Uba: A Musical Celebration of Cuba in America” at the Joseph Papp Public Theater to a standing room only audience.

It’s a sweeping vision of Latin jazz welcomed by CMC violin student Mai Lam, who’s been studying at the center for the past three years. A fifth grader at Alice Fong Yu Elementary, she has embraced the challenge of learning new rhythms.

“It’s a different type of music,” she said. “It’s interesting but also hard because it’s a new type of music. I’m looking forward to learning the history of that type of music.”

While she’s excited about the opportunity to study with illustrious teachers, what Lam is really looking forward to is the chance to play with her fellow musicians in person. Studying music via Zoom, “you learn about the same,” she said. “The bad thing is some kids have really bad connections, and the lag means you can’t play together.”

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