Grammy-Winning Duke Grad's Jazz Roots Run Deep

Eric Oberstein, associate director of Duke Performances, discusses his lauded work in jazz production.

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Eric Oberstein, far right, with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra at the Grammy Awards in February.

As a child growing up near New York City, Eric Oberstein could be found beating out Latin percussion rhythms on his leg during family gatherings.

“My mom was born in Cuba and left the island when she was six in 1961, a couple years after the revolution,” Oberstein said. “My family came to New York. I grew up around that whole sound in Queens. I had such a passion for not just Cuban music but all sorts of Latin music, like salsa and merengue.”

Now 29, Oberstein has successfully channeled that raw passion into a career as a Latin jazz producer. He has already won a Grammy and Latin Grammy for his work with the jazz musician Arturo O’Farrill. But Oberstein, a Duke graduate and the associate director of Duke Performances, does not do it for the awards or accolades; he just loves Latin jazz.

“I don’t feel any different about my work or myself now that I’ve won a Grammy -- I didn’t get into this work for the awards,” Oberstein said. “This is truly my passion.”

The beginnings of Oberstein’s multi-faceted career in the arts began in 2003, as a first-year student at Duke. After taking a seminar on Cuba and researching the evolution of its music after the communist revolution—a topic that eventually became his honors thesis -- Oberstein participated in the Duke in New York program.

After interning at Jazz at the Lincoln Center, Oberstein returned to New York after graduating from Duke in 2007. While a graduate student at Columbia University, Oberstein encountered a familiar face: the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, the Lincoln Center’s resident big band from his days as an intern.

“The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra had started a new residency program on the Upper West Side and I saw them at that venue, Symphony Space,” Oberstein said. “I filled out one of those audience response cards—you know, the ones that fall out of the program that end up getting thrown away or ignored—and turned it over and wrote a quick note saying that I’m a big fan of the orchestra studying arts management in the city and that I was interested in helping out with their new nonprofit.

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Eric Oberstein with a Grammy.

The group touched base nearly a year later, having lost and later found his note. He became the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance’s (ALJA) first intern and in his first year helped Arturo O’Farrill, the jazz orchestra’s director and pianist, expand his nonprofit’s educational and artistic efforts. After completing another master’s degree at Harvard, Oberstein soon returned to New York as the ALJA’s new executive director.

By then, Oberstein’s relationship with O’Farrill had blossomed into a productive professional and artistic relationship. In addition to his work at ALJA, Oberstein began to help O’Farrill and his orchestra produce albums in 2009, a so-called “side gig” that would earn him a Grammy five years later.

“Eric’s the yin to my yang,” O’Farrill said.  “I’m all up in the air and I don’t have that kind of hyper-focus that it takes to really pull an album together the way Eric does. But Eric is also the gentlest person you’ll ever meet. He can tell someone to ‘get the hell back in the studio’ without it sounding like that! That’s why he can deal with so many crazy musicians without losing his cool and end up with a great final product.”

“When I started working with Arturo, he knew of my background as a [saxophone player and percussionist] and he needed my help in the studio,” Oberstein said. “That’s when I started learning in earnest what it means to be a producer. The producer is the person who is collaborating with the artist to decide on the vision for the project, raising money, negotiating rates in the studio, finding a label, working with sound engineers on-site to record and mix the album. In short, you have to wear many hats.”

Three albums later, Oberstein added another “hat” to his already diverse career in 2012 when Aaron Greenwald, executive director of Duke Performances, invited him to return to Duke as the performing arts series’ associate director.

“I knew Eric would be a good fit because he is both extremely passionate about presenting the arts and fiercely loyal to the institution in a way that only Duke alums are,” Greenwald said. “I also thought he was experienced enough to take on the role [of associate director] but still young and dynamic enough to develop with this new position.”

Oberstein helps manage all of Duke Performances’ events throughout the year as well as overseeing artist residencies and master classes with members of the Duke and Durham communities.

Although Oberstein is no longer involved in the day-to-day affairs of the ALJA, he continues to produce O’Farrill’s albums on the evenings or weekends, flying to New York for recording sessions several times a year. Despite the time-intensive nature of album production (one record can take more than a year to produce, from studio sessions to mix and mastering), Oberstein says his time in the studio has helped him become better at his Duke Performances job.

“I’ve always found that the skills you pick up as a producer were very useful for my day job here -- it’s a complementary skillset,” Oberstein said.

The accolades for Oberstein’s production work began in 2014, when Arturo O’Farrill and the Chico O’Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra’s “Final Night in Birdland” won a Latin Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Album. Just a few months later, the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s “Offense of the Drum” took home the Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album.

While attending the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 8, Oberstein couldn’t help but view the ceremony through the lens of an event manager.

“They presented our award in a pre-telecast ceremony in the theater next door [to the Staples Center],” Oberstein said. “For the actual telecast, we were up in the nosebleeds. But as someone who works in event production, it was very cool for me to see how the telecast works behind the scenes. You get to see them setting up the stage while the rest of the world is in commercial break!”

Oberstein is already deep into his next album with O’Farrill, “Cuba: The Conversation Continued,” which was recorded on the island in December. In addition, he said his work with Greenwald at Duke Performances continues to inspire him to listen to new music. As for Latin jazz, Oberstein expects the genre to flourish in the coming years.

“Through my work here at Duke Performances, I’ve been exposed to so many kinds of music from all over the world,” Oberstein said. “As much as we use labels now to help us understand what [kind of music] we’re talking about, I admire artists who break those boundaries and defy labels. Overall, the style of music is less important to me than the artistic statement. I’m most excited by the future of Latin jazz because within each country [in Latin America] it’s fascinating to see how jazz mixes with indigenous sounds.”

For more information on Eric Oberstein, visit his personal website.