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Hot and Cool: 40 Years of Jazz at NEC

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New England Conservatory (NEC) is celebrating the 40th anniversary of being America's first fully-accredited Jazz Studies Program at a music conservatory. The merriment kicked off in NEC's home of Boston with a week of events in October 2009, culminating in a performance by the Wayne Shorter Quartet accompanied by the school's Philharmonia, a merger between jazz and classical music—two forms that cohabit at NEC. The party continues this month with eight days of concerts at various New York City venues, the proceeds of which will go to support jazz scholarships at NEC.

NEC's Jazz Studies Program was the brainchild of Dr. Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller
b.1925
composer/conductor
(jazz historian, composer, conductor, author and NEA Jazz Master), who was named president of the Conservatory in 1967 and by 1969 had incorporated jazz into the curriculum along with the Third Stream Department, which started up a few years later and linked classical music and jazz into a new genre. As a teenager, Schuller discovered Duke Ellington and considered jazz just as important as classical music; he recalls that when he first took over his post at NEC, "My first pronouncement was that I wanted to create a jazz department because jazz is the one home-grown music born on this soil" and considered it "immoral" that it was treated like an orphan in this country. Schuller started his post at NEC at a time when the school was in a shaky position but the startup of the jazz studies program soon improved its enrollment and finances. The program was a tremendous breakthrough and Schuller chose the faculty wisely. The first chair was saxophonist Carl Atkins, with whom Schuller created the curriculum. Other faculty members were the late composer George Russell
George Russell
George Russell
1923 - 2009
piano
, pianists Jaki Byard
Jaki Byard
Jaki Byard
1922 - 1999
piano
and Ran Blake
Ran Blake
Ran Blake
b.1935
piano
, the latter the first chair of the Third Stream Department in 1974. Schuller retired as president in 1974 but will be taking part as a panelist in an event covering the musical contribution of George Russell Mar. 21st.

The school lists five McArthur "Genius" Grant Winners (Russell, Blake, Schuller, Steve Lacy
Steve Lacy
Steve Lacy
1934 - 2004
sax, soprano
and Miguel Zenon
Miguel Zenon
Miguel Zenon
b.1976
saxophone
) and four NEA Jazz Masters (Schuller, Russell, Bob Brookmeyer
Bob Brookmeyer
Bob Brookmeyer
1929 - 2011
trombone
and Ron Carter
Ron Carter
Ron Carter
b.1937
bass
) among its faculty and alumni. Instructors over the years in the Jazz Studies program are a distinguished collection of artists—trumpeter John McNeil
John McNeil
John McNeil

trumpet
, saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre
Jimmy Giuffre
Jimmy Giuffre
1921 - 2008
clarinet
, bassist Dave Holland
Dave Holland
Dave Holland
b.1946
bass
, guitarists Gene Bertoncini
Gene Bertoncini
Gene Bertoncini
b.1937
guitar
and Chuck Wayne
Chuck Wayne
Chuck Wayne
b.1923
guitar, electric
—and the faculty includes alumni who return to teach either full time or as Visiting Artists. One example of this is current Chair of Jazz Studies and Improvisation Ken Schaphorst
Ken Schaphorst
Ken Schaphorst
b.1960
composer/conductor
, whose association with the school began as a student. Schaphorst is proud of the history of jazz at NEC and enthused about the present and the future—even in an increasingly difficult environment for graduating students. "We are attracting the very best players who go on to have careers," Schaphorst says. One of the missions of the program, he emphasizes, is to make the students aware of the business end of the music so that they can "create their own niches. We train our students to play jazz in a very broad sense, training them in different areas of jazz so they can achieve a sense of self-empowerment." Schaphorst cited NEC alumnus John Medeski as an example of this "entrepreneurship." Other instrumental alumni the school has produced is a lengthy list but includes such diverse talents such as Bruce Barth
Bruce Barth
Bruce Barth
b.1958
piano
, Regina Carter
Regina Carter
Regina Carter
b.1966
violin
, George Garzone
George Garzone
George Garzone
b.1950
sax, tenor
, Marty Ehrlich
Marty Ehrlich
Marty Ehrlich
b.1955
reeds
and Fred Hersch
Fred Hersch
Fred Hersch
b.1955
piano
.

Another former student now faculty member is Dominique Eade
Dominique Eade
Dominique Eade
b.1958
vocalist
. Joining the faculty in 1984, Eade teaches voice "right alongside of the instrumentalists." Eade remarks, "Any divorce of the lyrics from the melody does a disservice to the song." Along with technique, "it is necessary for singers to develop their own awareness and get deep into the music." She also teaches a history of jazz vocalists that includes Bert Williams, Leo Watson and Mildred Bailey. Graduates of the program include Luciana Souza
Luciana Souza
Luciana Souza

vocalist
, Roberta Gambarini, Rachael Price
Rachael Price
Rachael Price
b.1985
vocalist
and Lisa Thorson
Lisa Thorson
Lisa Thorson
b.1957
vocalist
.

In today's jazz world, graduates of jazz studies face the hard reality of dwindling venues and opportunities to play no matter how talented and learned they are. The guiding forces at the Jazz Studies program at NEC do not sit dreaming in ivy-covered towers. They recognize this harsh environment and do their best to equip NEC graduates to survive and hopefully conquer. In the meantime, there's a lot of good work to celebrate, so let's party.

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