Miami Jazz Master Who Died of Brain Cancer at 56 Is Honored With Scholarship

Michael Orta
Michael Orta
Diego Carvajal
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Michael Orta, the celebrated jazz pianist who taught for 26 years at Florida International University, graduated from Miami Dade College and University of Miami thanks to full music scholarships.

Now, four months after Orta’s death from brain cancer at the age of 56, his jazz colleagues have found the perfect way to pay tribute. They’ve established the Michael Orta Jazz Piano Scholarship at FIU’s School of Music and will jump-start the fund with an all-star concert Friday, April 26.

International headliners saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, percussionist Sammy Figueroa, and vocalist Nicole Henry will lead a company of more than 20 South Florida jazz musicians at FIU’s Herbert and Nicole Wertheim Performing Arts Center Concert Hall.

“Almost everybody in the ensemble is somebody who had a connection with Mike,” says Rick Katz, a founding director of Miami Jazz Cooperative, which along with FIU is presenting the concert. “One student each year will be the recipient of the Michael Orta Jazz Piano Scholarship. Our goal is for it to cover the current year’s tuition at FIU, which is somewhere in the $6,000 range right now.”

Among the performers will be jazz pianist Kemuel Roig, a 30-year-old Orta protégé.

“Mike was not only an amazing pianist; he was an amazing teacher. He was also a great friend, a great human being,” says Roig, who earned a bachelor’s degree in jazz performance from FIU eight years ago. “He made an impact on everybody’s life. That’s why all these amazing musicians want to participate in this event.”

As a child in Cuba, Roig was trained in classical music. He moved to Miami in 2002 at the age of 13 and, three years later, bought his first jazz albums, including one by Henry, with Orta on the piano.

“I was listening to that album day and night,” Roig recalls. “Later on, I found out that Mike Orta was a piano teacher at FIU. I began doing all my research about Mike Orta.”

Roig bought Orta’s book, Jazz Etudes for Piano, and eventually enrolled in his music class at FIU.

“For me, that was such an honor, really, to be next to him, learning,” Roig says. “I had many, many questions about the piano and how to play certain things. He was able to explain many things that I was confused about, like improvisation. We would listen to music and analyze everything that was going on.”

Orta was born in Reading, Pennsylvania. In 1970, at the age of 8, he moved to Miami with his Cuban-born father Ernesto, mother Catherine, and younger brother Nicky, now a well-regarded bass guitarist and music instructor.

Both boys got their start playing in Los Martinos, a '70s Latin-jazz trio that included their musician dad. Mike was 16 at the time and knew immediately music would be his life, according to Nicky.

As a young man, Orta traveled the world, touring with stars such as D’Rivera and trumpeter/pianist Arturo Sandoval, and recording with musicians like Figueroa, guitarist Larry Coryell, and trumpeter Randy Brecker.

When his sons Andrew and David were born in the early '90s, Orta cut back on touring and began teaching at FIU. “It was an opportunity to make money and expand his career in a different direction,” says Nicky, who frequently performed with his brother, along with two other sibling musicians — drummer Carlomagno Araya and percussionist Ramses Araya — in the Araya Orta Latin Jazz Quartet.

In late 2013, Mike Orta collapsed in his hotel room before a concert in Costa Rica. Days later in Miami, doctors at Baptist Health South Florida diagnosed a deadly glioblastoma, the same kind of tumor that killed U.S. Sens. Edward Kennedy and John McCain.

“Well, 2013 is almost over. It started like so many other years, full of wonderful music, the love of family and friends, my two boys growing into young, productive adults. All that changed in a split second December 12 with a stunning health diagnosis,” Orta posted that December on Facebook. “That being said, I choose, with the help of family and friends, to continue doing those things I’ve enjoyed all my life and fight hard every day.”

Despite undergoing several surgeries and constant rounds of chemo and radiation, Orta continued to teach and perform for more than three years. As he neared the end of his five-year illness, the people closest to him — including his longtime partner, vocalist Luz Marina Salazar — asked Orta how he felt about being memorialized with a scholarship.

“Even though this was presented while he was still alive, he knew this was going to be more important posthumously,” says Nicky, 54. “How does somebody who is not around anymore, who is such a brilliant musician himself and an educator for decades, how do you keep this thing going?”

Concert to Endow the Michael Orta Jazz Piano Scholarship. 8 p.m. Friday, April 26, at the Herbert and Nicole Wertheim Performing Arts Center Concert Hall, Florida International University, 10910 SW 17th St., Miami; 305-348-0496; carta.fiu.edu/wpac. Tickets cost $75 for VIP admission and reception, $50 for general admission, $25 for FIU faculty and staff (at the door only), and $15 for FIU students (at door only) via tickets.vendini.com.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly named a member of the Araya Orta Latin Jazz Quartet.

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