When it comes to music professor Mike Davison’s Salsa Meets Jazz living-learning program, his approach is to teach his students a lot — but without them knowing it.

“They get music, they get sound, they get video, they get eating, dance, all kinds of things,” Davison said. “The model is learning outside the classroom, which is what I love to do.”

Davison, who also directs the UR Jazz Ensemble, has built his musical career around Cuba — he has been there 17 times in 10 years. During that time he made a 70-minute documentary called “Cuba: Rhythm and Motion,” which he regularly shows his students.

“Salsa is basically the blending of Cuban rhythms and American jazz,” Davison said. “I used the word salsa in the program’s title for two reasons — one, because when people hear salsa they think, ‘Whoa, does this involve food?’ and two, because salsa was performed mostly by Puerto Ricans and Nuyoricans in New York City in the ’70s.

“Puerto Ricans have adopted it as their national music. Even Tito Puente, the famous timbale player, said he only played Cuban rhythms. There’s an interesting dialogue between Puerto Ricans and Cubans because the Puerto Ricans have kind of made salsa their own music.”

Davison first started playing salsa music in the late ’70s when he was asked to play a gig. He showed up, excited and ready to go, but soon realized he had no idea what salsa was really all about. It was the height of disco, he said, so he assumed it was similar, especially because all of it included the trumpet he played.

“In Cuba, the fourth beat sounds like the first beat, so the first beat has no emphasis,” Davison said. “So here’s me with my gringo ears thinking, ‘Yeah, I got this music!’ But when I started playing, I realized I didn’t know how the notes lined up, the Cuban conception of the beat — even though simple — is completely different.”

Cuban music has affected all popular music, Davison said, especially in the Western Hemisphere. He started playing it regularly, and then about 10 years ago he started teaching a course on it. A decade later, that course has morphed into an entire living-learning community.

“This class meets like a regular class, every Tuesday and Thursday for an hour and 15 minutes, but every Wednesday we have activities,” Davison said. “[The students] have to write concert reviews for the concerts they attend (about five or six per semester). We had a salsa dance class one night, we had Latin percussion night, we had Cuban food and movie night at my house.”

Davison stresses the importance of interaction with his students, inside and outside of the classroom. The group traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico the first week of January, and what the students saw, heard and experienced during that time set the tone of the rest of the semester.

“There were three teams, and each team’s charge was to videotape certain elements of San Juan, Puerto Rico,” Davison explained. “They had to record the two castles, the people, the salsa dancing and salsa clubs. We also set up interviews for them with various people and musicians during those five days.

“Now we meet separately as teams, so they’re doing independent studies this semester putting together these little mini-documentaries. It’s learning from all different angles.”

Davison said that this is the first general education class he’s taught that’s felt like a family. He said that because the University of Richmond makes it really easy for him to teach and accelerate this program, he wins and the students win.

“Being a part of the Salsa Meets Jazz program has been a wonderful experience,” said Jade-Evette Strachan, ’13, the program’s resident assistant. “We have studied various topics about the lifestyle of Cuban people, ranging from the food to the music and dance.”

Davison’s goals for the program include tweaking the syllabus and taking the students to Cuba next year, now that President Barack Obama has eased travel restrictions for students. Davison thinks of the class as a family, and his students praise the incredible influence he has had on them and on the program.

“Dr. Davison is the kind of professor that everyone hopes to find in college,” Owen Hutchinson, ’13, said. “He offers every student the opportunity to become a part of the jazz culture and insists that everyone has an incredible time along the way."