Published: Dec. 5, 2016

Engineering and jazz music student shows off trout caught while fly fishingLike any good Colorado native, Walter Gorra loves fly fishing. It's finding time to pursue his favorite hobby that is tricky.

“I’m a fanatical fly fisherman,” he says. “But most days I get to campus around 8, go to class and work on homework; we have jazz rehearsals in the evening, and then I come home and compose and work on my music. It’s a busy day.”

Gorra is working on a double major in jazz piano and civil engineering—all while completing a structural engineering graduate degree. The seemingly divergent pursuits mean long days on the CU Boulder campus for the Glenwood Springs native, his time divided between the Imig Music Building and the Engineering Center.

But that’s just fine by him.

“My parents always taught me to be responsible—accountable. If you want something, you have to go get it. Nobody is going to get it for you . . . I want to play music right now, while my life allows it, so it’s worth it.”

Both of Gorra’s parents immigrated to the United States from Latin America: His father is from Cuba, and his mother is from Honduras. They met while studying engineering at the University of Southern California.

“They’re both civil engineers. I worked for them in their office and interned for them. That was my first job,” Gorra explains.

Though engineering is in his blood—his brother Pablo is also pursuing a mechanical engineering and jazz studies double degree—Gorra says he has always had a passion for music, which his family thankfully supported.

“I always wanted to play trumpet, but then my dad introduced me to a piano teacher, so I learned the fundamentals from her,” he recalls. “Now, I’m focusing on piano and learning jazz organ. I’ve also been messing around with a drum kit for a few years . . . I love the piano because it’s so versatile. It’s useful for composition and for solo and ensemble performing.”

Walter Gorra Quartet

Walter Gorra Quartet: Greg Harris (vibraphone), Manuel Lopez (drums), Gonzalo Teppa (bass) and Gorra (piano)

Eventually the interest in music developed into an art, and now Gorra leads his own quartet in Denver, the Walter Gorra Quartet. In addition to playing gigs around the area almost weekly, the quartet plans to release a recording in the next few months, with help from a Pathways to Jazz grant.

Not bad for someone who spends 40-plus hours a week solving engineering problems.

“[Jazz and engineering] complement each other; because you can’t do music all day long, and you can’t do engineering all day long. Engineering can be creative, but it’s different. And music can be analytical, but it’s different.”

On Tuesday, Dec. 6, the jazz pianist brought that passion to the stage at DazzleJazz in Denver, as he and the CU Concert Jazz Ensemble performed Duke Ellington’s The Nutcracker Suite.

“Duke's compositions are exciting,” Gorra says. “The Nutcracker Suite is music that makes you feel good, and we enjoy sharing that happiness with the listener.”

Performing with the jazz ensemble was Associate Professor of Jazz Studies Brad Goode on trumpet, and Gorra says it’s professional-level experiences like these that drew him to the Thompson Jazz Studies Program.

“I would have come here just to study music. It’s a fantastic program. And I’ve never had to make the choice between music and engineering.”

And whereas engineering is normally an individual pursuit, Gorra says jazz has taught him the benefit of collaboration.

“When you play jazz, you don’t think of yourself. You think about how what you’re playing fits in with what everyone else is playing. It’s not about you. You can’t be shy. You can’t be afraid to ask for help. I’m introverted by nature, so part of my development has been learning to be more outgoing.”