Sounds of Latin jazz finding home in West Kendall

By Richard Yager….

Steve Kirkland (standing) at work with Dr. Ed Calle, tenor sax great.

The rhythmic tattoo of bongos, coupled with a big band beat, has turned Hammocks Middle School into Tuesday night jam sessions. It’s largely the inspiration of two-time Grammy nominee tenor saxman Ed Calle and Steve Kirkland, the school’s 25-year band director who also blows a mean alto sax during off-campus hours.

Wander into the school’s band room between 6 and 8 p.m. on any Tuesday night this spring and you could hear Woody Herman’s flag-waving Opus de Funk rocking to a Latin beat by a 22- piece crew of four trumpets, three trombones, eight reeds, three percussionists, two pianists and a bass.

Joining aspiring mid-teen musicians who play in the Hammocks Middle School band program are adults like retired Pembroke Pines police officer Jose Orlando, 56, of Cutler Ridge, once a bongo player with the famed Tito Puente.

With Victor Giol, a computer instructor at Miami Dade College’s Kendall campus, the pair furnishes authentic Latin rhythms for students such as Daniel Proctor, 15, a trombonist from Felix Varela Senior High School.

“I’m learning about the Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson in addition to Troy ‘Shorty’ Andrews, my favorite on jazz trombone,” Proctor said. “They’re both great soloists but the playing is a little too structured; I like a freer jazz style.”

The community program is co-led by Eduardo J. Calle, EdD, most often introduced in worldwide jazz “gigs” and festivals with other Latin jazz artists such as Arturo Sandoval and Nester Torres, and as director of his own Fuego Caliente Latin jazz orchestra.

West Kendall’s Latin Jazz Community Orchestra is an experiment–in-progress for Miami Dade College’s successful three-year Latin Jazz Summer School, designed especially for musically inclined aficionados of Puente or Perez Prado.

Open to anyone wanting to learn or hone Latin jazz skills from middle school through adult ages, the communi-ty ensemble is now completing the second of two six-week sessions and preparing for a May 3 concert appearance.

“We wanted to extend the program into a community due to the great response we’ve had to our summer Latin jazz program,” explained David Lotke, MDC program manager for the School of Community Education. “Steve, as an instructor in our summer program, was a natural choice to lead a Latin jazz group.”

In session through May 3, Kirkland said, “It’s been a great experience, especially for adult musicians who still love to play Latin jazz but have no place to use their talent off hours.”

Devotion to band directing could be Kirkland’s middle name, having graduated from the University of Miami’s School of Music in 1986 with a plaque for “Outstanding Achievement” from Pi Kappa Lambda music honor society.

Immediately thereafter, he became band director at Hammocks Middle School, a post he has held for a quarter century, starting his teaching career at age 21 and gaining his master’s degree in Music Education from FIU in 1990.

Born in Naples as a great grandson of a post-Civil War settler, Reese Kirkland, Kirkland’s jazz roots are reflected by a framed photo of the Big Band era’s trumpeter Harry James, gracing an LP album cover of the 1950s, hanging just inside the entry door to the band room.

A close-up shows James’ mouthpiece pressed against his lips. Kirkland explained: “The mirror right next to it is for my horn players to practice looking like James’ embouchure [mouthpiece position]. It’s perfect positioning.”

Kirkland praises legendary alto sax men from Johnny Hodges of Duke Ellington days to Charlie “Bird” Parker, but says, “Cannonball (Julian) Adderly is my own favorite and Dave Sanborn another.”

Father of four, all of whom are students in their dad’s band classes, Kirkland chuckles: “I’ve been driving to work with one of my kids in the seat next to me ever since I got here. I’m really looking forward to the day when I will be drive to and from the job by myself.”

In occasional off hours, Kirkland plays live Latin jazz and funk with his own group at the Sports Grille, 9090 SW 97 Ave., Thursday nights from 7 to 10 p.m. He’s also featured at the new Blue Martini clubs at The Palms and downtown Brickell Avenue.

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