By Alex Ginsberg
How did Demetrios Kastaris – a Greek-American trombonist born in Thessaloniki on the Aegean Sea – become one of Queens' leading musicians in the field of Latin jazz?
Kastaris, 44, is the founder and bandleader of the Latin-Jazz Coalition, which he runs out of his Bellerose home. But his story begins in St. Louis, where his parents settled when he was 5 years old. Hearing a jazz ensemble perform at his elementary school, the young Kastaris was immediately drawn to music.
“When I heard the trombone, it was love at first sight,” he said. “(I liked) the mechanical design, but the main thing was the timbre, which to me is so warm and pleasant.”
Kastaris would eventually spend 15 years in the city he called “a huge jazz town,” honing his musical skills by going to clubs and shows.
“I got to hear live concerts of some of the world's best jazz musicians,” he said, citing Buddy Rich, Clark Terry and Sonny Rollins.
Then, in the middle of his college career at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, the family moved to New York City and Kastaris transferred to NYU. The switch came just at the right point for his musical career, he said, because New York afforded more opportunities for a free-lance musician just getting started.
“I was a 20-year-old young man, halfway through college, looking for places to play,” Kastaris said. “The Latino people were the ones who opened the first doors to me. Those were the first gigs I got.”
Today Kastaris is fluent in Spanish. His nickname in the world of Latin Jazz is “El Griego Rhumbero,” which – and something is clearly lost in translation – means “the Greek Rhumba-player.”
Kastaris met his wife, Hilda Mercedes, a native of Colombia, through the Grammy Award-winning pianist, composer and arranger Edy Martinez, who joined Kastaris' band several years ago for a performance.
“He brought his cousin to the gig, and the rest is history,” Kastaris said.
He went on not only to build a successful jazz career, but also to earn a master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music. Kastaris formed the Latin-Jazz Coalition in 1986, calling on friends and colleagues from the New York Latino dance scene and jazz performers he met doing gigs in the Catskills.
He currently teaches music at IS 119 in Glendale, rehearsing and recording with the Latin-Jazz Coalition on weekends and during the summers.
The ensemble consists of a core group of eight to 10 permanent members, with additional players brought in for specific concerts and projects. Although there are six members who have been with the group for more than 13 years, Kastaris is the only player who has been with the group since its inception.
Kastaris said colleagues often asked him about his background.
“People would tell me, 'You speak Spanish like a native Latino and you play Latin music. Why don't you just change your name?'” he said.
But Kastaris is proud of his Greek roots and sees no contradiction in the mixture of cultures.
“It speaks volumes about the magic of this Afro-Cuban music, that people all over the world want to learn about it and play it,” he said.
The Latin-Jazz Coalition can be heard on the CD “Trombon con Sazon,” which means “trombone with spice,” released on Latin Cool Records. The group will perform June 16 at the Seuffert Bandshell in Woodhaven's Forest Park. The concert begins at 7 p.m. and is free.
Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.