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These articles were excerpted from Tapestry, a weekly newsletter that examines the arts and entertainment world in Charlotte and North Carolina.

A free Latin jazz ensemble for young students is launching in Charlotte

Bruno Justo Pego
A new Latin jazz ensemble for youth, Nuestro Tiempo, will be free through JazzArts Charlotte, but auditions are required.

JazzArts Charlotte has long made an effort to inspire the city's youngest creatives through music education. Since it started in 2009, the nonprofit has — among other initiatives — held youth ensemble workshops, music camps and started a music outreach program for local schools.

"Music education for youth is extremely important because they are the ones that are going to allow this music to continue into our future," said JazzArts President, CEO and co-founder Lonnie Davis.

And for the last few years, another idea has been brewing: a Latin jazz-focused youth ensemble that's free for kids. Now, it's finally happening.

Lonnie Davis
JazzArts Charlotte
Lonnie Davis

"With the increasing and rapidly growing Latinx community in our state, we thought it would be really important to do our part as a nonprofit organization to better connect with the Latinx community," Davis said. "And what better way to do it than to bring the music of Latin jazz to the greater Charlotte community through youth education?"

The Nuestro Tiempo ensemble will focus on classic repertoire, clave rhythm and Latin jazz history. Percussion, brass, horns and woodwinds will all be components, and it's for students grades 7-12 who have at least one year of musical experience related to brass, rhythm, woodwind, vocal or percussion. While it’ll be free to participate in the ensemble, auditions are required — and they start next week.

Davis said recent funding from Blue Cross Blue Shield and Charlotte's Arts and Science Council was enough to make the program free. JazzArts has tapped two Latin jazz teachers, percussion expert and ethnomusicologistJohnny Conga and trumpeter and educatorJulio Jeri, to lead the ensemble.

Jeri points out that the growing Latino community isn't a monolith. It's full of people with family origins in a wide range of countries — each with their own musical traditions. The same goes for Latin jazz.

Julio Jeri
JazzArts Charlotte
Julio Jeri

"When you're talking about Latin jazz, it's a combination of Caribbean styles, which is an icon of music in general for the Latino communities," Jeri said. "It's not just Cuban music. It's not just Puerto Rican music. And it's combined through a language of jazz, and jazz is communication through sound. So, it's really about bringing the community together."

Conga, who's based in Monroe, is an Afro-Cuban drumming specialistwho's played with hundreds of acts, including Carlos Santana and the Jackson 5. Jeri has a studio, has taught at the UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem and is currently working on a doctorate at UNC Greensboro.

Jeri says it's not just about the music, though. There's also the aspect of working together in a group, socializing and learning how to manage time. All that hard work and commitment can build skills that are important down the road, whether for college or life in general after grade school.

Jeri has spent the last 15 years teaching music in the Charlotte region. But he remembers being a kid himself, learning not only how to play music but how to navigate the U.S. education system after immigrating from Peru. Music became something of a refuge for him.

"I practiced for four or five hours, and I didn't have to think about all the problems," Jeri said.

Jeri also knows firsthand the impact that representation in the teacher role can have. It's one of the reasons he does what he does.

Johnny Conga
JazzArts Charlotte
Johnny Conga

"When I studied in all these institutions, I never saw people like myself as a teacher," he said. "And then I go in and I help in middle schools and high schools, and then I see Spanish-speaking students looking at me, and they just look at me like, 'Oh, man, hey that guy speaks Spanish, too.' And just that little bit of interaction for them is like, 'Oh, it's possible that I can be like that, too.' And then that was like a 'click' moment in my head where I was like, 'OK, OK. Of course it is possible for you to do this.'"

The goal for the Latin jazz ensemble is to build a full youth orchestra with 18-20 students. Percussion instruments will be provided, though Davis says most students with a year of playing brass or woodwinds likely already have their own instruments.

"All of the students who don't think that they know how to play percussion or currently don't play percussion will learn how to play percussion because that's such an important component to this music," Davis said. "They will be taught and really entrenched in the rhythmic essence of the music."

Right now, the Nuestro Tiempo Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble is a pilot program, lasting 14 weeks. But Davis says JazzArts hopes to bring it back on a recurring basis, starting again as early as the fall. The nonprofit is trying to arrange for some guest appearances by professional Latin jazz musicians to play along with the students — and she says there will "absolutely" be public performances.

There's more information about the new ensemble atthejazzarts.org/education, including how to sign up for auditions, which will be held Feb. 10 and 17.

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Dash joined WFAE as a digital editor for news and engagement in 2019. Before that, he was a reporter for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia, where he covered public safety and the military, among other topics. He also covered county government in Gaston County, North Carolina, for its local newspaper, the Gazette.