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All That Jazz: Eric Oberstein

By Katy Kroll on August 10, 2011 11:15 AM

Eric ObersteinGrowing up on Long Island, N.Y., Eric Oberstein, Ed.M.’10, spent his days playing saxophone and drums and listening to all kinds of music including jazz and the Latin music of his mother’s native Cuba. As an adult, he parlayed this passion into a career that has included stops at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Office for the Arts at Harvard.

Last year, Oberstein was appointed executive director of the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance (ALJA), the New York–based nonprofit that supports the work of the Grammy award-winning Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. There he oversees the performance, education, and preservation efforts of big band Latin jazz.

Oberstein first worked for ALJA as assistant director in 2008, having met the orchestra’s director, Arturo O’Farrill, while a master’s candidate at Columbia. Working at ALJA proved fulfilling, allowing Oberstein experience both professional and personal.

“My mother was born in Havana, but left as a child shortly after the revolution,” he says. “When I traveled to Cuba for the first time in 2009 with Arturo [O'Farrill], it was my first time going. I got to meet cousins I had never met before and visit the house where my mom grew up. It was a very special and emotional trip for me.”  When Oberstein returned in December 2010, the Chico O'Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra performed mere blocks from that same house where his mother lived.

But, the continuing call of education – both his own and that of others – temporarily led Oberstein away from ALJA to HGSE.

“I always knew education was central to what I do,” he says. “If we can’t share what we do and explain what we do and pass it on to others, we’re really limiting ourselves. The opportunity to enrich the arts experience with education and share it with others was essential to my professional mission, and that’s why I went to the Ed School.”

Upon graduating, Oberstein returned to ALJA with a new outlook and approach. “My year at the Ed School was life-changing,” he says. “[Lecturer] Steve Seidel, director of the Arts in Education Program, was an incredible mentor to me. I learned how to be an advocate for the arts, and being surrounded by so many bright, driven, and passionate people gave me more confidence in myself and the work I was doing. It gave me a renewed sense of energy and focus, and really prepared me for my new role at ALJA.”

Underscoring the confidence O’Farrill has in Oberstein, ALJA created the executive director position just for him, making him the first full-time staffer at the organization. He now oversees the orchestra’s performances, touring schedule, album production, and library of Latin jazz scores. Educational programs are also a top priority, with ALJA offering residencies at two New York City public schools.

“Twice a week we provide instruments and music lessons to students in Manhattan and the Bronx,” Oberstein notes. “There are five artists, including members of the orchestra, teaching students who normally don’t have access to music education. We’re very committed to the education side of things.”

To learn more about the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance.

UPDATE: On November 30, 2011, the recent album Oberstein produced for Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, 40 Acres and a Burro, was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album.