James Dreier, School of Music

Photo by Tim Schoon.

We’ve all heard people say they’ve been doing the things they love “since birth.” In the case of James Dreier and music, it goes beyond that.

“My mother says I moved rhythmically in the womb,” says Dreier, a lecturer in jazz studies in the University of Iowa School of Music, housed in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “I’ve been tapping out rhythms and playing music ever since.”

Dreier received a Bachelor of Music degree from Berklee College of Music in Boston and a Master of Arts degree in music theory from The University of Iowa. He has studied with numerous master drummers and has performed with such jazz notables as George Garzone, Phil Wilson, Jimmy Mosher, Tim Hagans, Steve Swallow, Carla Bley, Victor Mendoza, Willie Pickens, Anthony Cox, Robin Eubanks, Benny Wallace, and Kenny Wheeler.

The musician carved out some time to talk with fyi about Orquesta Alto Maiz, a Latin/jazz group he cofounded a quarter-century ago; his experience at a recent convention promoting jazz education and cultural interaction; and what he loves most about the academic side of music.

Describe your work here at Iowa.

I teach in the jazz department; drum set/Latin percussion is my instrument focus. I teach a variety of jazz classes, including the Latin Jazz Ensemble, the World Beat Ensemble, Intro to Afro Cuban Drumming, co-direct the Afro Cuban Drum and Dance Ensemble and teach a lecture class called Jazz Cultures in America and Abroad. The jazz department is currently housed at Trinity Church (320 East College Street), and we’re anxiously awaiting the new music building.

A few of my favorite things…
Brats from the farmers market

A Dark and Stormy

Lunch at the Bread Garden

The book Cuba and Its Music by Ned Sublette

Latin music

The movie Young Frankenstein

The TV show Treme


Green Bay Packers

I love what I do and my colleagues are great. Because I am technically part-time, I can focus on teaching without too much of the committee and administrative work—a nice aspect of my job.

You recently represented the UI jazz program at the International Associations of Schools of Jazz annual convention. What was that experience like?

This is a group of jazz educators and students from around the world. The organization is led by jazz sax master Dave Liebman, and is dedicated to promoting jazz, jazz education, and developing more interaction between cultures through jazz. I was impressed by the dedication, passion, and level of musicianship I saw there, especially from the students. Being in Brazil was pretty nice as well.

How did you gravitate toward the jazz genre?

I grew up playing soul music, blues and rock & roll. I played with another drummer in a band once who was older and a real jazz drummer. He showed me a few things and I began to think maybe I could play this music. I started listening to Chick Corea, who was playing with Brazilian percussionist Airto at the time, and that really got me interested. I’ve been trying to figure it out ever since.

How did Orquesta Alto Maiz come together?

We just celebrated our 25th year, if you can believe that. Bob Washut put the band together as a “one-time” thing to play the College Hill Arts Festival in Cedar Falls in 1986. I was just back from Boston, and Ed East had been an international student from Panama at UNI and was living nearby. Our first gig was pretty loose, but we had so much fun we did it again. People like it too, and we’ve been going ever since.

Do you prefer to be on stage performing music, or would you rather be in the audience taking it all in?

Playing is always where I want to be.

What would your colleagues be surprised to learn about you?

That I built two big raised beds for my wife’s garden. That’s way out of my comfort zone!

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken, and did it pay off?

I suppose heading off to Boston to go to Berklee College of Music way back in 1977. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it turned out to be a big part of who I am now. My wife and I ended up living there for almost nine years.