James (Jim) Latimer was teaching a clinic on Sound-Music-Percussion at the Wisconsin Percussive Arts Society’s annual Days of Percussion event Jan. 27 at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee when he began to get a little suspicious.
His class, at the very start, didn’t seem to have very many attendees. But by the end of it, however, the room was packed. “You could feel the crescendo as more and more people piled in,” Latimer tells Madison365. “I was a little bit puzzled … do these people know something I don’t know?”
The Wisconsin Days of Percussion is an annual event that showcases the diversity of percussion including drum set, Brazilian drumming, marching percussion, orchestral percussion, timpani, cajon, keyboard percussion sight reading, drum circle, and much more. The event, which Latimer has helped host in Madison in the past, typically includes multiple performances, clinics, and presentations.
“They set me up,” Latimer laughs. “I was going through the history of the percussion ensemble. I guess I worked for about an hour. And then, Jim Sewrey and Tom Schneller, very famous in the percussion world, made me come up in front and sit on a stool. They presented me with this award. I was so surprised. It’s a beautiful plaque.”
Latimer was awarded the lifetime achievement award for a lifetime of education, performance, and promotion of percussion as a solo and ensemble art form.
“You know, you do these things one at a time and you don’t realize the total effect of it,” Latimer says. “When they start reeling it off, it’s incredible. I don’t know what to say. I’m just dumbfounded. To me, it was all another’s day work.”
Latimer, who is highly regarded as one of the city’s most-respected musicians, has been doing that day’s work for well over a half-century. In 1968, Latimer became the timpanist with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, a position he would hold for 31 years. That same year, Latimer was hired as program director at UW and served until 1999 when he retired. “It’s been 50 years? Oh, yes it has!” exclaims Latimer, smiling. “It’s been quite a ride molding minds. It’s hard to believe that it’s been that long when you look back over it.”
Latimer is Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While at UW, Latimer spearheaded a Duke Ellington Festival, started the Madison Marimba Quartet, 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.”
Among the greats with whom Latimer worked with over his long career include Duke Ellington, Alan Dawson, Max Roach, William Kraft, Paul Price, Paul Creston, Sarah Caldwell (Boston Ballet) and Arthur Fiedler. Latimer also recorded with Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra.
Latimer may be getting up in years, but he’s still as interested in percussion as ever. “I was practicing just a few minutes ago,” he says. “It’s my daily routine. I’m still going strong.
“Music has always been very powerful for me and my mother was the cause of all that,” Latimer continues. “She was a musician and every morning she would practice and I just grew up expecting to do that.”
Latimer has had that same musical influence on young people for multiple generations. His students have gone on to be deans and professors of music at prestigious institutions, performers in professional orchestras, bands and chamber groups, as well as authors, composers, physicians and successful business leaders. Latimer has devoted his life to taking music to the people of the Madison and beyond.
“There were a lot of young people in the room with me when I received my award and I enjoyed that quite a bit,” says Latimer, who beyond his accolades at UW has also been granted the distinction of honorary doctor of Humane Letters from Florida A&M University (FAMU). “A lot of us older guys are fading away, but it’s great to see all of these young people’s faces, who are fantastic players in their own right, who are so excited about learning about the history of percussion.”
On top of everything already mentioned in this article, Latimer is the founder and performing member of the 35-year-old Madison Marimba Quartet and is the conductor of one of Wisconsin’s finest professional concert bands, the Capitol City Band. Latimer also conducts Madison’s oldest volunteer community band, which gives musicians of any age a place to play and presents public-service concerts in nursing homes, health care and retirement centers, senior centers, hospitals and for veterans’ services.
Latimer has also been recognized for his humanitarian service through Rotary International, United Way, and the University of Wisconsin. Now, he can add the Wisconsin Percussive Arts Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award to his impressive list of accolades.
“It feels good to have my peers recognize me,” Latimer says. “What tickles me the most is that, ‘Oh, wow. Somebody was listening!’ You don’t expect anything. You just go to work … every day … and then, all of a sudden, they are presenting you with a lifetime achievement award.”