Jazz percussionist and Fort Lewis College instructor Jonathan Latta sidled up to a large marimba in the empty music room of Jones Hall on Tuesday afternoon, two mallets balanced in each hand.
He paused for a moment, and then began to tap out an intricate, ethereal piece of music, using all four mallets to create peals of sound that echoed off of one another.
Latta was rehearsing for a Thursday night performance – his final concert as assistant professor of music at Fort Lewis College.
After six years of teaching music at the college, performing extensively in the community and spearheading music outreach and education beyond the classrooms of FLC, he is leaving Durango to work as the assistant dean at the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music in Stockton, California. Latta, who is an alumnus of the school, starts his new job July 1.
It is a step up for his career and a chance for him, his wife and children to be closer to their families. But, he says, he will miss his students, and he will miss the strong musical partnerships he forged in the region.
“This community has been wonderful to us,” he said.
Latta’s colleagues say Durango is losing a brilliant performer and superb music educator who has contributed generously to the local music scene and was a font of ideas for exposing new audiences to jazz and classical music.
“We are very sorry to see Dr. Latta go,” said Maureen Brandon, dean of the FLC School of Arts & Sciences. “He did so much for Fort Lewis College, from the pep band to music for our theater performances, the Durango community and his students. Those contributions will be missed.”
Mark Reed, chairman of the FLC Music Department, added a sentiment common among Latta’s colleagues.
“He was a really great face for us, always making music more visible and always extremely professional,” Reed said. “While I’m happy for him, I’m really sad that we’re losing him.”
Latta came to FLC in 2008, filling the spot vacated by his predecessor, John Pennington, another widely respected music educator. At the time, Latta was completing his doctor of musical arts degree from the University of Arizona School of Music. He had previously earned his bachelor of music from the University of the Pacific and master of music from East Carolina University, where he discovered his love of teaching college students through a teaching assistant position.
Teaching college students, he said, allows for dialogue on all types of music, “in addition to helping them strategize and realize their professional goals. I’m very much a proponent of helping to develop the person as well as the musician. At the college level, I’ve found myself being able to do that with many different types of students over time.”
At FLC, Latta has taught jazz band, percussion ensemble, world music and culture, orchestration, private percussion, conducting and jazz history. He’s also been the musical director for five college theater productions and the director of the pep band for five years.
Latta, a percussion master who plays everything from jazz drum set to orchestral timpani to West African drums, also has performed extensively in the area. He has been the principal timpani/percussion player for the San Juan Symphony, performed as percussion/drum set with the Music in the Mountains Festival Orchestra, performed regularly as part of the 3rd Ave. Arts recital series and played with many chamber and jazz projects over the years.
And he has played a prominent role in educational outreach, overseeing the artistic direction of the Music in the Mountains Goes to School program, volunteering as a drum circle facilitator with the DeNier Youth Services detention center and coaching music in regional high schools.
“He’s been very – pardon the pun – instrumental in our education programs,” said Angie Beach, executive director of Music in the Mountains. “He has always been so full of ideas. He’s just got boundless energy; he said yes to everything; he cares passionately about music education.”
Scott Hagler, executive director of 3rd Ave. Arts, said Latta came to him with many creative ideas for programming over the years, such as an all-percussion Bach performance at the last Durango Bach Festival or a world/music jazz concert he created for the Durango Chamber Music Festival. He’s also hardworking, Hagler said.
“He’s just a consummate performer,” Hagler said.
Latta, who has been obsessed with percussion since he started playing the drums in fourth grade, said it’s important to him to demonstrate to his students the value of practicing and mastering his craft through performances.
“It really has helped me to be a good role model to be actively performing in the community,” he said.
It doesn’t hurt that he loves performing – be it in a symphony orchestra, small jazz ensemble or informal gathering of musicians.
He has watched his students go on to teach in the region, freelance as musicians in Denver or perform regularly in the community. And he is proud of his accomplishments, such as taking a relatively young jazz band to perform at a state educators conference – their performance brought the house down – and leading the percussion program to record a CD called “Blazing Trails,” which will be released later this summer. He’s also proud of the growth in Music in the Mountain’s educational outreach, he said.
“We’ve reached and met many students in the public schools and helped them embrace music in new and exciting ways,” he said.
Reed said Latta’s teaching style is defined by both professionalism and enthusiasm.
“Very disciplined, very direct, everything was top-notch,” Reed said. “I think the best thing is, he had really high standards for our students.”
Latta said he has enjoyed being part of the community.
“The campus community has allowed me great collaboration and teaching opportunities,” Latta said. “The Durango community has been open-armed in terms of my service and volunteering and expanding my career. I’ll really miss those two things.”
Durango is a great place for a musician or music-lover, he added.
In California, he’ll be moving to more of an administrative role, but he said he has every intention to continue performing and spreading music.
And he’s not quite finished in Durango. After starting his new job on July 1, he will fly back into town to perform with Music in the Mountains.