Associate Professor of Music
Musicians are often a sum of their influences filtered through the prism of their own experience. The progression goes something like this: Muddy Waters begets Chuck Berry, Chuck Berry begets Keith Richards. Or for drummers: Gene Krupa begets Buddy Rich. Buddy Rich begets Keith Moon. Jim Latten, associate professor of music at Juniata, is a drummer. Some of his influences are listed above, but the important ones are far less famous and far more significant in completing the portrait of the percussionist as a young man.
The road to Wellsville, N.Y., some miles west of Corning, is hardly a crammed throughway and the road leading out of town to the rural house where Jim Latten grew up is even more isolated. Growing up there, Jim did typical kid things; started a stamp collection, hung out with friends, started fooling around on a musical instrument.
"One Christmas I got a chord organ, a real small keyboard that came with a music book, and I taught myself to read music," Jim recalls. "I still have the song book. It has Misty, the George Harrison tune Something, and a lot of other '70s era pop."
Music was not a major chord in the Latten household. Jim remembers his mother singing to him as a kid, but he can't think of a single relative who played an instrument. Soon though, the little keyboard was replaced by a console organ in the living room and then--a fateful day with his dad shopping in the local five-and-ten store.
"I remember looking up at this child's drum set and I guess I must have kept looking at it because eventually my dad asked 'Do you want that?' and we brought it home," Jim says.
It takes a parent of great patience to willingly bring an entire drum set into a house, but once Jim had mastered the rhythm of percussion there was little discussion in the family about whether drumming was an apt choice. Then, when Jim scored highly on a standardized music test, it was decided that music lessons were in order.
Before he knew it, Jim was playing in more bands than Eric Clapton: marching band, stage band--everything but a rock 'n' roll band. "I would have loved to be in a garage band, but it wasn't in the cards for me to ask my dad to drive me to yet another band rehearsal," he recalls. He did, however, master the rock 'n' roll attitude--by writing a letter to the superintendent of schools outlining why the administrator should buy the high school a drum kit. "He called me into his office--I expected to be in trouble--and he picks up the phone and orders the drum kit," he laughs.
By his senior year in high school he had not decided on going to college--after all, no one in his family had pursued higher education--until he met the new band director at his high school. Taking the place of an older band director who had retired, the teacher deeply influenced Jim's idea of music education.
"His personality was great and how he related to us made me think, 'This would be a nice career if I could be like this guy.' He told me I should audition for college music programs." Jim's musical path led him to Mansfield University (then a college), a Pennsylvania college near the New York border. They had a music major program and a marching band.
He was lead drummer in the marching drumline, which helped him hone the teaching techniques he was learning in coursework--except his classroom was mobile. Jim's career was on the move as well. He was accepted as a graduate student at the University of Indiana--considered one of the best band music programs in the country--where he wrote all the drum parts for the 30 percussionists in the 290-member band. All of a sudden, Jim's classroom had turned into Big Ten football stadiums.
At the same time he was in college and graduate school, the would-be music maestro had been invited to play in the Empire Statesmen Drum Corps and later the Garfield Cadets, where he participated in the group's 1985 national championship, an influential experience Jim characterizes as, "like someone calling me and asking if I want to be the kicker for the New Orleans Saints. It was there I learned about excellence in music-making."
After Indiana, Jim achieved his dream of leading and teaching a high school band program. He taught in the New York school system for 10 years and eventually started inviting college bands to perform at his high school. He saw college band directors doing more with music and creating dazzling shows and thought "What do I need to do to teach in college?"
The answer was go to Penn State, where he worked with the Penn State Blue Band. As he earned his doctorate he also looked away from the football field and saw that the university's concert bands offered a different musical experience. Even after his first post-Penn State job, as band director for the University of Dayton from 2000 to 2002, he was torn between the marching field and the concert hall. His concert hall inclinations were cemented by taking conducting lessons from Mark Scatterday, band director at Cornell University.
"I never thought I'd walk off the field, but I asked myself if I really wanted to spend another fall out in the rain, the cold and the wind and put on a show for an audience who weren't very interested in it," he says.
In 2003 when Juniata advertised its professor of music position, Jim decided to leave his marching shoes behind and take on a new challenge, increasing participation in Juniata's band program. He was familiar with the College and had taught here as an adjunct during his Penn State days. His students seem to think he doesn't miss the football stadiums much. "He's a very thoughtful person and does a good job in picking pieces that give everybody a chance to play," says Abby Kress '10. "Like any conductor, as the concert gets closer he gets a little frantic, but he is really good to work with," adds Katy Vanderau '10.
Despite a colorectal cancer health scare early in his tenure at Juniata that is fully in remission, Jim Latten has created a composition of contentment at the College. His wife Kelly is the choral teacher at Altoona Area High School and they have two children--Emily, 7, and Tyler, 6. Emily is a singer and Tyler is a drummer, showing an almost perfect genetic inheritance diagram. Jim's daughter Bethany, of Cortland, N.Y., age 16, plays oboe and studies and teaches dance.
After a lifetime of following his own influences, he's content to influence others.
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