Diaz Music Institute gets at-risk youth jazzed about music education

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June 30, 2022 by HCDE Communications

In the more than 20 years since he founded Diaz Music Institute (DMI), a nonprofit dedicated to empowering at-risk youth through Latin music education, Artistic Director José Antonio Diaz has never lost sight of his guiding belief.

“Music permeates and connects all of us,” he said. “When we talk about Latinx, we talk about many different countries, nationalities, and subsets under that category. All of that is unified through music.”

The accoladed musician and educator has been connecting budding musicians with peers, professionals, and life-changing opportunities in the Aldine area as the director of bands at MacArthur High School since 1985. In 2000, he founded DMI with the support of prominent musicians, vocalists, composers, and educators to extend high-level music instruction to underserved areas through out-of-school time workshops and clinics at “an extremely nominal cost.”

DMI is one of 49 nonprofits awarded funds through the County Connections Youth Summer Initiative, a grant offered through a partnership between Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Afterschool, Summer and Enrichment (CASE for Kids) and Harris County. County Connections infuses funding to nonprofits for programming that will take place from June 6 to Aug. 26.

DMI received a total of $80,000 from Harris County’s four Precincts to serve students in the communities surrounding Atascocita, Elsik, MacArthur, and Wheatley high schools and Humble Middle School.

A core component of DMI’s mission is to help youth develop the skills, talent, and discipline for a professional career in the music industry.

“It’s always been my goal to reach students with talent and a dream but no access. We actively seek kids that don’t have access,” said Diaz. “There’s plenty of kids out there who are involved in music but whose parents can’t afford the various events and activities that would help them get knowledge and exposure.”

The benefits of the music education DMI provides are far more extensive than a casual onlooker might assume, says Director of Global Arts Entrepreneurship Initiatives José Valentino Ruiz, Ph.D.

“I’ve worked with other at-risk music education nonprofits before, but I’ve never seen anything like the caliber of the Diaz Music Institute. I think there are fascinating things taught here that are unique from other great music education programs that are reaching Title I communities,” he said. “We use music as a tool to develop cultural and intercultural empathy with one another and find the commonalities between us.”

Ruiz—who is also the chair of business, entrepreneurship, and career-planning for the University of Florida and an Emmy and multi-Latin Grammy-winning artist and producer—says DMI utilizes a four-stage pedagogical training model. The model engages students in scholarship, mentorship, apprenticeship, and entrepreneurship through instruction, interaction with guest artists, and music industry ventures.

Through this model, DMI couples music education with workshops about finance, intellectual property and copyright law, ethics, and arts communications.

“I think the value of music education at Diaz Music Institute is that we’re not just teaching people how to play so that it can be a pastime skill set. There’s a strong emphasis on career planning,” said Ruiz. “They do a great job of bringing in leaders of arts entrepreneurship that teach how to develop initial concepts that address social issues through art and build culture, revenue, and communities.”

Since its establishment, DMI has helped students secure more than $2 million in scholarships to prestigious universities, including Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley. It has been twice selected as a National Arts and Humanities Program Award finalist. The program also boasts 100 percent high school graduation and post-secondary admission rates and several alumni who have become prominent artists themselves.

One such musician is Felix DeLeon, a MacArthur and DMI alumna, trumpeter, pianist, composer, arranger, and endorsed artist for Austin Winds, a Texas-based trumpet company.

Now, the husband and father of four helps Diaz with workshops and events because he “saved” him.

“I was kind of a troubled kid in junior high, and my school was threatening to send me to an alternative program,” he said. “Mr. Diaz knew me because my older sister was in band. She was my babysitter in the summer, so I’d be sitting in the band hall waiting for her to be done so we could go home.”

Diaz heard of DeLeon’s troubles and decided to take him under his wing. During DeLeon’s eighth grade year, Diaz picked him up every day after school for one-on-one trumpet lessons.

DMI instructor Felix DeLeon demonstrates proper form for trumpeters during the Summer Jazz Workshop at Elsik High School.

“I didn’t even play trumpet then. He didn’t ask, he just told my parents ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ He was going out of his way to pick me up and keep me out of trouble,” said DeLeon. “After school, certain people were looking for me to hurt me, but they wouldn’t because he was standing there.”

From age 14 until his high school graduation, DeLeon remained involved with DMI and earned a full scholarship to study under 10-time Grammy-winning Cuban-American trumpeter Arturo Sandoval in Florida.

DeLeon says it means a great deal to him to be a part of the ongoing mission to empower youth through music education. He describes a distinct memory of an epiphany he had while playing in Chicago as a high school student.

“When they introduced us, they talked about how we had to fight poverty and deal with certain things. We had no idea we were dealing with that. Mr. Diaz had always instilled in us the mindset that we can do anything if we put our mind to it and worked really hard. It didn’t matter where we came from. I want to pass that same inspiration to these young players as well.”

DeLeon says his story is similar to many who have gone through the program. Whether or not they became musicians, Diaz’s actions and mentorship left a lasting impact.

“He’s changed the direction and route of their lives,” said DeLeon. “Nobody asked him to do that, but that’s how he’s always been with everybody—trying to lend a hand. I will be forever in his debt. Whenever he needs me, I’m going to be there for him.”

To learn more about County Connections or how to be come a CASE for Kids vendor, visit www.hcde-texas.org/afterschoolzone/funding.

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