Arturo Riera

No Resources?  No Problem!  Starting A Free, After-School Music Education Program In Your Community
by Arturo Riera
There is an after-school youth performance ensemble that has no school, staff, or Board, is not a 501(c)(3) organization, yet has been free to all musicians for the last 16 years. There is no audition, and the ensemble is open to any student whose family or guardian signs a performance agreement. They have produced three original CD’s of music written by the youth: LIVE at YoshisGeneraciones and Con Mis Manos..two of which feature Latin Jazz greats like the late Armando Peraza, Jerry Gonzalez, John Santos and Fania’s “El Timbalero”, Louie Romero.

How does an organization survive for 16 years, make professional recordings with some of the most respected Latin Jazz artists in the world, and train scores of musicians? There is a word in Spanish for it: “ganas”, or will. That is exactly the model for the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble of San Francisco, whose musical director, Dr. John Calloway, co-founded and leads the ensemble along other co-founders and directors (including my wife Sylvia Ramirez and myself).

I am a development consultant and, in 2001, I was asked to produce a fundraising concert for a local non-profit. My creative approach was to do a Tribute to Cal Tjader, the Latin Jazz icon and hometown hero. John Calloway was my son’s elementary school music teacher and told me he always wanted to put together a youth ensemble. So, I asked him if he could put together a group of young musicians and rehearse a few of Cal Tjader’s tunes. My idea was that the young people could open for the adults and charm the crowd. For six weeks, they rehearsed at my home.

On the day of the concert, which took place only four days after the tragedy of 9-11, something magic happened. All the pain and anxiety and fear of the audience of thousands we had collectively experienced was washed away by the inspirational performance of this young group of performers. They got on stage with Poncho Sanchez, Claire Fisher and other members of the original band, and they more than rose to the occasion.  The audience was moved to tears by these earnest young musicians playing their hearts out with, and for, the masters of the genre.

At the end of the concert, Calloway and I agreed that the young performers were just too good not to continue. But how?  We were not part of a school or a non-profit and we were not even officially an after-school program. Calloway, my wife, and myself were just three passionate individuals, organizing, managing the coordination of musicians and guardians, securing major paid performances and protecting the interests of our young musicians who are, after all, only ages 10-17.

For the first six years, the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble rehearsed in our home. It was a family affair with our son also in the band. A home environment with adult role models and family supervision of the musicians has become our model for working with no outside resources. Because we are not a company or a school, we make an agreement with our parents, asking them to sign a release that says should something happen to their young people under our care we will not be held liable.  We are providing a wholesome and life changing opportunity that is free for their young musician and family, and they appreciate that.

Over the course of the years, we’ve been asked to think about traveling on tour or going to exotic places like Cuba. We have always been clear that with only three volunteers, we never intended for the group to be a professional touring company. Our model has always been very simple: teach young musicians Latin Jazz so they can be role models for other young musicians. Single purpose and single focus.

As opposed to looking for outside funding, we charge for our performances. We don’t play private parties or weddings, but focus instead on major civic events and corporate fundraisers who need a band that will inspire. San Jose JazzYerba Buena Gardens Festival, and Union Square Live are three examples of organizations who appreciate what we do, love our music, and hire us for an annual performance. When you add up all of the performance opportunities provided by a supportive community, it allows us to have a robust performance calendar and underwrite Dr. John Calloway’s time for rehearsals and performances.  This year, we have incorporated our alumni, who are now musicians themselves to act as co-directors and help provide leadership and mentorship.

In 2018, we will launch the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble of Los Angeles with two-time Grammy winner Oscar Hernandez of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra as the musical director. Our Youth Ensemble has always been diverse and had women playing instruments normally not played in a Latin Jazz context. We are able to do things that institutions with funds and staff cannot. The formula is simple: three people who are single-focused in their vision of providing free after-school music education that teaches Latin Jazz — without economic barriers — as a social justice issue.  A boot-strapped organic solution to create music and performance training in Latin Jazz.

Arturo Riera is Co-Founder and Managing Director of the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble of San Francisco.  He is also CEO of Riera Digital LLC, a marketing, development, and education consulting firm that uses cultural awareness to drive civic and social engagement.  He may be reached at [email protected]