James Latimer, the founder and a longtime performing member of the Madison Marimba Quartet, has been playing marimba now for 80 years. He can still remember that time — in the early 1940s — when he first began to play.
“I was about 7 or 8 years old when my dad bought my sister the instrument,” says Latimer, who is about a week shy of his 89th birthday. “For some reason, we found out that if I stood on a case of Coca-Cola cans, which back then were about four or five inches high, that I could see and play the keyboard … and that’s where I started learning.”
Latimer, the recipient of the Wisconsin Percussive Arts Society Lifetime Achievement Award, founded the Madison Marimba Quartet in 1980 and over the years they have become a Madison favorite. The group has had some time off like they’ve never had before — three years because of the COVID-19 pandemic — but are slated to perform their “Our Gift to You” concert tonight — a concert that was originally scheduled for summer 2020 — at 6:30 p.m. at Rennebohm Park, 115 N. Eau Claire Ave.
“We are back. After a three-year absence, we are back,” Latimer tells Madison365. “We’ve been practicing and are looking forward to getting back in front of our audience once again.”
Latimer is Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While at UW, Latimer spearheaded a Duke Ellington Festival, initiated the first of 300 Young Audience Concerts held in public schools from 1969 to 1984, and hosted the Wisconsin Percussive Arts Society “Days of Percussion.”
Members of the quartet also include Tim Gruber, a recent retiree from the Madison Metropolitan School District who now serves as volunteer coordinator for the Madison Children’s Museum, and returning marimbist Nancy Riesch-Flannery of Middleton, who is a recent retiree and substitute teacher for the Middleton-Cross Plains School District and a devoted grandmother. The newest member of the quartet is Latimer’s son, James D. (often referred to as JimD) who lives in Mineral Point.
“The four of us get together as often as we can to practice which is usually once a week,” Latimer says.
Like so many art and music events around the country, the Madison Marimba Quartet had to shift to practicing individually for awhile and then as a quartet as the epidemic protocols evolved. In March 2023, when the Capitol City Band Association invited the quartet to perform on one of their dates at Rennebohm Park, Latimer says, “We jumped at the chance.”
In February 2023, the quartet was actually scheduled to play for Ms. Opal Lee’s reading of her book, Juneteenth, a Children’s Story at Milele C. Anana Elementary School. A snowstorm wiped out that opportunity.
“That day, the weather canceled everything,” Latimer remembers. “I had written background music for her children’s book and we were going to premiere the marimba quarter with Opal Lee reading the book. That was a heartbreaker for us.”
The Madison Marimba Quartet did end up playing and recording the event with Ms. Lee in Latimer’s studio that houses the quartet.
Latimer is also the conductor of one of Wisconsin’s finest professional concert bands, the Capitol City Band (CCB), and is getting set to kick off the 55th season of free (CCB) concerts in Rennebohm Park on Thursday, June 29.
In the meantime, Latimer says tonight’s program has music for all ages and all cultures and will include a quartet from the classical literature (Kalliwoda Quartet Opus 61), more popular songs of the Beatles, and jazz selections featuring Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. The concert will also feature original compositions by Latimer and his son.
Tonight’s concert is free and open to the public and for the quartet members, Latimer says, this is “our way of giving back to the community.” The concert, Latimer adds, is brought to the community by the Capitol City Band Association in cooperation with Madison Parks and will be about an hour and ten-minute concert.
“Bring a chair and a friend,” Latimer says. “It’s going to be fun.”
For more information about the concert tonight at 6:30 p.m. at Rennebohm Park, 115 N. Eau Claire Ave., call (608) 835-9861. Visit www.mmqccb.org or the Madison Marimba Quartet Facebook page.