Vet­eran Al­dine teacher named a fi­nal­ist for Grammy Award

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Keri Blakinger

Jose An­to­nio Diaz snaps his fin­gers and shuf­fles his feet as the trum­pets blare around him.

There are no classes to­day, but the high school band di­rec­tor is hard at work.

“Man, y’all play­ing pretty good,” he says, dol­ing out a hard-earned com­pli­ment to his Latin jazz en­sem­ble.

That no doubt has some­thing to do with the mu­si­cians’ tal­ent. But it also has a lot to do with Diaz, a tire­less taskmas­ter who has been coax­ing sweet sounds out of stu­dents at MacArthur High School for 32 years.

He’s done it with the school’s jazz en­sem­ble, the march­ing band, its sym­phonic band, con­cert band, win­ter guard, in­door per­cus­sion and jazz combo, trans­form­ing the school’s once av­er­age mu­sic pro­gram into one that reg­u­larly scores Divi­sion I place­ments.

His in­flu­ence, though, hasn’t been lim­ited to the north­east Har­ris County cam­pus. He reached out to the broader com­mu­nity, cre­at­ing an ac­claimed non­profit mu­sic in­sti­tute, and has won a num­ber of arts and mu­sic awards in Hous­ton and be­yond.

Though it’s usu­ally his stu­dents who soak up the lime­light, the 55-year-old Al­dine ISD teacher is now firmly in the na­tional spot­light af­ter years of work­ing qui­etly be­hind the scenes to bring mu­sic — es­pe­cially Latin mu­sic — to the masses. Diaz is one of 10 fi­nal­ists na­tion­wide for the Grammy Foun­da­tion’s Mu­sic Ed­u­ca­tor

“You can’t keep teach­ing kids the same way from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. The way kids learn con­stantly changes, as tech­nolog y im­proves, as the cul­ture changes.”

Jose An­to­nio Diaz, a fi­nal­ist for the Grammy Mu­sic Ed­u­ca­tor Award

Award, which will be pre­sented on stage at the gl­itzy Los An­ge­les mu­sic show in Fe­bru­ary.

“I think for us it’s not only his skill in the class­room that stands out but what he’s done in the com­mu­nity as well,” said Grammy Foun­da­tion Vice Pres­i­dent Scott Gold­man. “Many of these teach­ers all have an im­pact but what he’s done as an ad­vo­cate for Latin jazz and salsa is truly re­mark­able.”

Diaz’s for­mer stu­dents in­clude three Grammy win­ners, a for­mer mem­ber of Bey­oncé’s all-fe­male band and a slew of other pro­fes­sional mu­si­cians. He was among more than 3,000 ed­u­ca­tors nom­i­nated for the award, now in its fourth year.

“He should have al­ready been nom­i­nated a long time ago,” said BraShani Lewis, one of his cur­rent stu­dents, a 17-year-old se­nior per­cus­sion­ist whose love for mu­sic has flour­ished un­der Diaz’s strict tute­lage.

“Work­ing with him I re­al­ized I wanted a ca­reer in mu­sic,” she said dur­ing a quick in­ter­view be­tween songs. “Be­fore, it was just a habit. But with him I re­al­ized this is what I wanted to do in life.”

Be­yond the class­room

Diaz has shared his sym­phonic skills with gen­er­a­tions of MacArthur High School mu­si­cians.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Univer­sity of Ar­kan­sas and fin­ish­ing a Texas Chris­tian Univer­sity fel­low­ship, he started work­ing at the Al­dine high school and soon took over as band di­rec­tor. Over the years, he has adapted to the chang­ing times in a district of 69,000 stu­dents that is now 71 per­cent His­panic and 25 per­cent black, with 82 per­cent of stu­dents con­sid­ered eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged.

His fo­cus is on the kids and the mu­sic.

“One of the things I found out pretty early on is that you can’t keep teach­ing kids the same way from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion,” he said. “The way kids learn con­stantly changes, as tech­nol­ogy im­proves, as the cul­ture changes.”

Af­ter build­ing up the school’s pro­gram, he turned to the com­mu­nity, found­ing the non­profit Diaz Mu­sic In­sti­tute in 2000.

The in­sti­tute helps pro­vide mu­sic ed­u­ca­tion to low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties through work­shops, fes­ti­vals and the award­win­ning Caliente, the Latin jazz en­sem­ble that presents its Noche Caliente per­for­mance an­nu­ally at Miller Out­door The­atre.

It has twice been se­lected as a fi­nal­ist by the Pres­i­dent’s Com­mit­tee on the Arts and Hu­man­i­ties for the Na­tional Arts and Hu­man­i­ties Youth Pro­gram Awards.

“They’ve played at the Mid­west Clinic three times,” Diaz said. “It’s con­sid­ered to be the most im­por­tant mu­si­cal ac­tiv­ity for in­stru­men­tal mu­sic of this kind in the world so when a group is asked to per­form at this event, it’s like win­ning the Su­per Bowl.”

Diaz has brought home a num­ber of awards him­self. In 2014, he was awarded a His­panic Her­itage Award by the mayor’s of­fice. He also won the Arts in the Com­mu­nity Award, been in­ducted into Down­Beat Mag­a­zine’s Jazz Ed­u­ca­tion Hall of Fame and TCU’s Univer­sity Band of Fame, and been awarded a Hous­ton Arts Al­liance In­di­vid­ual Artist Grant and the ac­claimed Berklee Col­lege of Mu­sic’s John LaPorta Jazz Ed­u­ca­tor of the Year award for 2016.

“He doesn’t ac­cept medi­ocrity,” said Robert Martinez, a for­mer stu­dent who later worked on a 2007 Latin Grammy-win­ning al­bum.

“But the main thing I think he pro­vided was the op­por­tu­nity and the plat­form. It’s in­valu­able. You can’t re­ally put a price tag on that.”

Mar­cie Chapa, a for­mer stu­dent who went on to play in Bey­oncé’s all-fe­male band for five years, said that Diaz stands out for his abil­ity to con­nect with stu­dents and bring out the best.

“He can pull out of kids that not many teach­ers can pull out of,” she said. “I’m grate­ful for what he pulled out of me be­cause if I hadn’t ex­pe­ri­enced that with him I prob­a­bly wouldn’t be where I am to­day.”

Grammy spot­light

That knack for bond­ing with stu­dents helped Diaz stand out from the thou­sands of qual­i­fied ed­u­ca­tors nom­i­nated for the Grammy Foun­da­tion Mu­sic Ed­u­ca­tor Award.

Af­ter eval­u­at­ing all ini­tial nom­i­na­tions and ques­tion­naires, the foun­da­tion whit­tled the list down to just un­der 300 quar­ter­fi­nal­ists, who were then asked to send in videos to show­case their teach­ing style. Twenty-five semifinalists were named in Oc­to­ber and af­ter an­other round of scru­tiny, the 10 fi­nal­ists were an­nounced in De­cem­ber.

The win­ner — who will be

hon­ored on stage dur­ing the awards show and will walk away with a $10,000 hon­o­rar­ium — is to be an­nounced dur­ing the week lead­ing up to the Gram­mys.

The other nine fi­nal­ists and their schools will each re­ceive $1,000.

“We’ve had lit­er­ally thou­sands of ed­u­ca­tors nom­i­nated from all over the coun­try. So the fact that he is among the fi­nal­ists is truly an achieve­ment in and of it­self,” Gold­man said.

“We have found story af­ter story of mu­sic ed­u­ca­tors at ev­ery level who have made and con­tinue to make a dif­fer­ence in the lives of young peo­ple un­like any oth­ers that we could imag­ine. These peo­ple are all in­di­vid­u­ally ex­traor­di­nary.”

Marie D. De Jesús pho­tos / Hous­ton Chronicle

Al­dine ISD ed­u­ca­tor and com­poser Jose An­to­nio Diaz di­rects the mu­sic youth group Caliente.

An­drew Camey, 16, An­gel Ti­rado, 17, and Joseph Jen­zen, 14, play trum­pets as part of Caliente.

Marie D. De Jesús / Hous­ton Chronicle

Al­dine ISD ed­u­ca­tor and com­poser Jose An­to­nio Diaz turns to lis­ten as the mu­sic group Caliente re­hearses dur­ing win­ter break at MacArthur High School.

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