HOUSTON — 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.
The Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/2j7Vw9L ) reports 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 Independent School District 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 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.”
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 award-winning 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.”
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 quarter-finalists, 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.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
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