Julio Jeri is in his second year of the doctoral program in musical arts in trumpet performance in UNC Greensboro’s School of Music.
Outside of his work in his program, he has created something in Charlotte, N.C., that has never existed there before: a youth Latin jazz ensemble. And it’s not something that’s very common in other cities across the United States.
“There may be a few others in the country, but it’s just starting to come up,” he says. “That’s why it’s been super exciting to spread the word about what the kids are doing.”
Although he studies classical music, Jeri has always played jazz on the side and is pursuing the Certificate in Jazz Studies at UNCG. He’s originally from Peru and came to the United States at age 13. His grandfather loved classical music and introduced it to him. Jeri was also always exposed to salsa, Cumbia, bachata, merengue, and other types of Latin music. He’s played with salsa groups in North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina.
Last year, Jazz Arts Charlotte contacted him to see if he could be a bass instructor, since he is also a bass player. The organization’s mission is to unite communities through jazz education, and Executive Director Lonnie Davis had been laying the groundwork for the Latin jazz youth ensemble for three years. After Davis had a conversation with Jeri, she realized there was potential for him to play a big role in its foundation.
“I think there’s a big gap here, and that we can connect the Latin community and the jazz community,” she said, and Jeri agreed.
“I thought it was a great idea,” said Jeri. “We were talking and sharing all this stuff. And she said, ‘How about you? Are you interested in becoming a director?’ And because I’m doing my doctorate, I was a little hesitant in the beginning, but I talked with my professor Dr. Klein, and he thought it was a great idea. So, I went right in, and we started the group.”
Each week over 14-week sessions, he and a percussion instructor named Johnny Congo meet with 17 musicians who range from seventh to twelfth grade. The program is free to the students, who are required to have one year of experience in their instruments.
In addition to playing, they talk about the music.
“We talk about the Latin jazz genre – how to do some rhythms, how to feel and listen to the Latin music, hear a little bit of jazz history, and then we do some ensemble work.”
They also had a dance instructor visit for one rehearsal, to teach salsa and other Latin dances.
Jeri says that there are some beginning students but also students who have qualified for all-district bands and orchestras. He says he was impressed not only by their skill but by their openness to the music.
“I was very pleased, very surprised by the interest from students. For kids who never listen to this type of music, it’s something different – something new, and especially coming out of COVID. For two years, the kids were staring at a screen. So, this was an opportunity to show them something different, to work together, and create something that nobody knew how to do.”
About the ensemble’s final performance, Jeri says, “The parents were amazed. They were really thankful and happy with what we did. Some of them said, ‘You know, we used to listen to this music, and now my kids play it,’ so that was really fun to hear that.”
Learn more about the School of Music
Recognized as one of the top music institutions in the United States, the UNCG School of Music offers the only comprehensive degrees in music education and music performance in the State of North Carolina, from the undergraduate level through doctoral study.
Story by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography courtesy of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts