From West Coast to Western, trombone player Denis Jiron’s musical road has been long — and also high and wide.
Along the way, the newly minted professor in the Don Wright Faculty of Music has formed his own Afro-Cuban salsa orchestra, played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and shared a stage with pop greats from Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin to Kanye West and Sting.
As he steps into a teaching role here in London and launches two new course offerings, Jiron remembers his own musical mentors, who were session musicians in the Los Angeles recording scene in the 90s.
“At that time, LA was the capital of studio recording. It was the epicentre, and it was amazing,” said Jiron, who grew up in LA. “I got to learn from multi-talented working musicians who became mentors and friends.”
Two decades of rich, eclectic musical experiences gave Jiron a strong grounding in professional music performance. “Throughout my 20s, I survived almost exclusively [from] playing salsa gigs at clubs in LA, with the occasional better-paying gigs here and there.”
Over the next 10 years, Jiron began securing more diverse and higher-profile opportunities, and established his own salsa orchestra in 2004.
“We were called Rumbankete, and it was a ton of work. I ran it and played as well, working with a collective of prominent salsa musicians, a mix of ages,” he said. “We started out playing popular cover songs, but once we started creating our own music and recording, we really broke new ground.”
Rumbankete became one of the West Coast’s most exciting and progressive salsa orchestras, featuring an explosive rhythm section and powerful trombones. Members hailed from Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Germany and the United States.
Throughout his career, Jiron also played trombone for dozens of major music stars on shows and tours. As well as Stevie Wonder, Aretha, Kanye and Sting, he shared stages with Queen Latifah, Andrea Bocelli, Gladys Knight, Chris Botti, Eddie Santiago, and Jimmy Bosch. He played with other orchestras, too, and was appointed acting 2nd trombone of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 2017 to 2018.
About seven years ago, Jiron was fortunate enough to discover another passion: “I had my first chance to teach in an adjunct position in California, and it was a match,” he said. “I really enjoyed teaching at the collegiate level, and I could see myself doing this for the rest of my professional life.”
With this goal in mind, Jiron relocated to East Lansing, Mich., where he enrolled in the Doctor of Musical Arts program at Michigan State University. He graduated in 2022 as a University Distinguished Fellow.
Now at Western, Jiron is not only teaching trombone, but leading two new section offerings in the department of music performance — Salsa Band and Pop Band. These are linked with a third section, the well established and highly popular Jazz Combo (Music 3952y-001) taught by Kevin Watson.
Steeped in salsa roots, Jiron feels that the genre isn’t always fully understood or appreciated, and he’d like to change that.
“Many North American musicians tend to view salsa as something primitive, underdeveloped, kind of raw,” he said. “But I’d like to move people away from that kind of ethnocentric view, because salsa is actually very sophisticated — just not in the same way as other music.”
Salsa Band (Music 3952y-003) explores performance practices within Afro-Cuban music and dance in an ensemble setting.
“This section covers the finer and more intricate points of this genre, welcoming students who may have grown up with it alongside others trying it for the first time,” Jiron said. “Each player will learn the heart, the excitement, the musicality and the expectations to become a salsa musician in professional settings.”
Students interested in vocal, bass, keyboard, drum set, Afro-Cuban percussion, horns and strings are encouraged to consider it.
Pop Band (Music 3952y-002) is also ensemble-based, but it explores the performance practices of American popular music from 1950 to today. “The pop music industry has incredible potential, but actually making a living from it is not easy,” Jiron said. “This course prepares musicians who wish to perform pop music in everything from wedding bands to corporate event bands to world-famous acts, giving them practical skills and the keys to being successful.”
The course is for students interested in vocal, guitar, bass, keyboard, drum set, percussion and horns.
Both new sections start this fall and are open to music majors and non-music majors by audition.