Mason Gross Percussion Instructor Plays in Spielberg’s West Side Story Remake

Mason Gross percussion instructor Javier Diaz
Director Steven Spielberg felt Javier Diaz’s playing was so integral to the authenticity of the "Dance at the Gym" scene that he asked him to stay on to record the soundtrack with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and play a drummer during filming.
Courtesy of Javier Diaz

Javier Diaz contributes to the soundtrack after catching the famed director’s attention during rehearsals

Mason Gross School of the Arts percussion instructor Javier Diaz originally was tapped just to play rehearsals for one of the most iconic scenes in Steven Spielberg’s stunning West Side Story remake.

But Diaz — who has wowed audiences of philharmonic orchestras, Broadway musicals, Afro Cuban street bands, salsa nightclubs, and worked with other musical greats including Lin-Manuel Miranda — caught the attention of the famed director. When the remake of the Academy Award-winning film hits theaters Friday, look for Diaz playing congas during the “Dance at the Gym” mambo number that relies on dance more than dialogue to foreshadow the impending bloodshed between rival street gangs — the Jets and the Sharks.

Spielberg felt Diaz’s playing was so integral to the authenticity of the scene that he asked him to stay on to record the soundtrack with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and play a drummer during filming.

“I thought maybe in the movie you may see my pinky, but to my surprise in one of the trailers, Anita turns to the band and says in Spanish ‘Let’s go Javi, let’s light it up,’” Diaz said. “So, my name got written into the script. If that makes it into the movie, I’m going to be so happy.”

Diaz has been drumming since age 10 after his family emigrated to Venezuela from Cuba — around the same time salsa was still enjoying a surge in popularity in Venezuela in the 1980s. From the start, his training included two schools of influence — classical and cultural music. He enrolled in El Sistema, a publicly financed music-education program, and shadowed expatriate Cuban street musicians in his spare time.

“I was learning how to read and interpret Mozart and Beethoven. But in the salsa and merengue bands, I would hear a very sophisticated sense of groove and time that I wasn’t necessarily hearing in the school,” he said. “I tried my best to become one person while inhabiting those two worlds.”

After high school, Diaz moved in with family living in Los Angeles in 1993 and continued his music education. He earned a scholarship to study at the University of Southern California, and when he wasn’t in school he was recording radio jingles, subbing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and playing gigs with members of LA’s Afro Cuban drumming scene, including members of the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba.

After graduating, he landed a full ride to The Juilliard School and relocated to Manhattan. He was subbing on Broadway productions and playing with local salsa and merengue bands in nightclubs before he finished his master’s degree. His deliberate, multifaceted approach to his training is what makes Diaz such a versatile and sought-after talent today, said Joe Tompkins, head of percussion at Mason Gross.

“The first thing I did when I got the job at Mason Gross was try to hire Javier in any capacity I could,” said Tompkins, who met Diaz not long after he graduated from Juilliard. “His unique skill set was something we needed in our department.”

That opportunity presented itself in 2008, after Tompkins took one of Diaz’s hand-drumming workshops in the Bronx and decided to start bringing Mason Gross students to him for intimate Afro Cuban–style jam sessions. In 2012, Diaz joined the faculty in an official part-time capacity.

Teaching keeps him curious. “It is just another excuse to continue to play and explore,” said Diaz, who has been teaching in some capacity since he was a 15-year-old El Sistema student. “Every time you teach a subject you are relearning it, and I really enjoy that.”

Tompkins, who also performed on the West Side Story soundtrack with the New York Philharmonic, said Spielberg walked around the room with an unlit cigar and a camera capturing behind-the-scenes footage, when he settled in next to Tompkins and Diaz as they drummed.

“It was really interesting to see how Spielberg was listening for those percussive accents. Javier was a big part of that,” Tompkins said. “He was in the room with him for months, and I think that collaboration played a big part in how Spielberg wanted to sync the music and the film.”

While playing West Side Story rehearsals eight hours a day, six days a week for three months, Diaz also worked on Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud, recording Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights soundtrack and teaching at Mason Gross. Throughout the process, Diaz shared his experiences on set with his students.

“I want my students to be better than me and dream of opportunities I never dreamed,” he said. “What I tried to communicate to them about this experience is the passion I was putting into my rehearsals. The oomph I was bringing to the process is the same as when I’m playing a batá session in the Bronx or with my Broadway show, Ain’t Too Proud, or with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall. It’s all part of the same continuum.”

While there are those who may bristle at the thought of remaking a classic such as West Side Story, Diaz said revisiting the material nearly 60 years later offers opportunities to weave in more culturally informed details that have the power to elevate the big picture.

“Steven is super awesome — just a consummate professional,” said Diaz, who lives in Maywood, New Jersey, with his wife, oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz, and their 12-year-old daughter. “You know when you are in the presence of greatness because people don’t have this air of being gods, they are just regular people. You watch them work and you realize they are some of the best in what they do.”