Tom Everett: Jazz at Harvard
Founding Harvard's First Jazz Band Under the Radar
AAJ: How did you put together your own jazz band your first year at Harvard?
TE: I wasn't teaching any courses, I didn't have any academic rank. I was the band director, and it was almost like, "You're the band director, good luck." I was a department of one, the previous band director was no longer there so I had no one to sit down and talk to. My support team, my fellow workers, my colleagues and comrades were the students. I had an office surrounded by students, and unless I went into Harvard Yard or sought one out, I'd never see another adult, much less a Harvard official.
There was very little funding at the time. The marching band had to raise most of the money on its own. It was a question of, "How do I raise money to do some jazz things?" There was no interest on campus, there weren't grants you could write for that I knew of at the time, but fortunately I owned some big band charts and I had the enthusiasm, and Harvard kids can be pretty curious. I didn't say all the kids were great players, or had a lot of experience, or were even proficient technicians, but they were curious. If you get someone who is curious, a lot more can happen than with someone who can play all the notes, but is just standing there biding their time.
Very few of the students were aware of jazz at all. I had a few that were very into Weather Report, which was big at that time. A lot had listened to Maynard Ferguson's band, which transferred popular and rock tunes to a big jazz band. I had a tenor player who liked Sonny Rollins, but the majority of these students had no idea of the history of this music or its players. They came through high school in stage bands during the sixties, and often they were playing the music of Glenn Miller or Count Basie, which is terrific, but there were no Duke Ellington charts available; no one was playing Duke Ellington.
The majority of repertoire that these kids came through, playing in public school bands, was crap. It really was nothing substantial or connected with anything real, with some exceptions. But I had some charts and got some students together from the marching band. Some of them had never played a jazz thing in their life.
I was very pleased to find out the kids were excited, partly because this was something we weren't supposed to be doing, because they did it on their own, late at night, at the band office. It wasn't supported by anyone, but they were doing it and [whispers] no one else on campus was. So what we were doing was kind of undercover, underground.
Plus [the early seventies] seemed like such a competitive time in some ways. Everybody was upset about something and everybody seemed to have a gripe. And these students got together one night a week to play this music, and it built camaraderie. It was something new, a little outrageous, yet it fit into some of the things going on. It was music coming out of the Afro-American tradition, in some ways not protest music, at least not consistently, but it did have a different statement to it, something other than mainstream America.
And they started listening, on their own, to Freddie Hubbard, Dizzy Gillespie and even Roy Eldridge, trying to imitate these musicians, to speak the language; not trying to read something that was supposed to be like something else, but (as best they could) conversing with a record of how this artist played. Students would ask "Did you ever hear of Art Blakey [sic]?" [laughs], and tell me, "I could almost dance to that!"
Yet there weren't many improvisers. Put that all together with the joy of taking a risk, of [students asking] "what do I do with my solo? Is the music written down?" [And I would reply] "Well, can you sing the melody? Now, can you find that on the horn?" [The students would look back and say] "Huh?" If we played the melody, everyone knew what it was. If you played the chord changes, they would have no idea. Now we put the melody and harmony together and [students] would say "Oh yeah," and then if you took the melody away again, they would say "That was kind of there all along, I never really listened to it before, but I understand, it made it sound fuller!" You can't imagine how different that was from many of their other musical experiences.
Inviting Heroes to Campus and Teaching Harvard's First Jazz History Course
AAJ: Harvard has also hosted a different visiting artist every year, which must also be an illuminating experience for these students.
TE: Observing students' facial expressions while Max Roach played was as rewarding as hearing him play Sanders Theatre. I can still see the kids' eyes popping out as he played. Just his timekeeping changed their whole rhythmic approach, without Max saying a word. Max did something to galvanize them and tap into an energy and intuition that I had not been able to develop.
AAJ: How did the visiting artists series originate?
TE: I started by inviting people I knew, personal heroes (usually trombone players in the early years). The jazz band was two years old when we had our first concert in Sanders Theatre. I went to the Director of the Summer School [who had previously helped me organize both the Harvard Summer Pops Band as well as the first jazz history course]. I told him I'd like to bring Carl Fontana (who had been a hero of mine) in from the West Coast, and it's going to cost a thousand dollars. When the Summer School Director asked about Carl, what he heard was "Woody Herman, Stan Kenton," that he had played with bands he knew.
At that time you had to pay rental for everything in Sanders Theatre. The director thought about it, and asked if can we put Summer School catalogs out at this concert. We could do the concert, but in his mind it was a release party for the Summer School catalog. As you walked in the door there were no tickets. We printed up a program, but outside the door and in front of the stage were piles and piles of catalogs. That's also why our concert has been in April ever since. This is how things happen, they're really thought out.
That got us started: to have a major artist there, to have it in Sanders Theatre (which is a lovely venue), and to have the major expense picked up. Plus, I didn't know much about publicity. A news release from Tom Everett or even the Harvard band didn't have the same distribution as a release from the Harvard Summer School. That got calendar listings. People were more aware of the concert than with just us spreading the word among students. Now, we have Harvard's Office for the Arts for the major concerts, who do a remarkable job.
AAJ: How did you start teaching?
TE: [The Director of the Summer School] was a fan of Erroll Garner, Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum, but he hadn't found many other people who had that interest. It so happened that one fall he was filling in for the Director of the Extension School. He said "Hey, we don't have any courses on jazz. Would you like to teach a course on jazz in the Extension School?"
That first year (I'm still laughing at this), the course was titled "The History of Jazz," covering its roots to the present day, in one semester, two hours a week for eight weeks. Eventually we split it up into two semesters, and even that is too much for the average listener who doesn't have a lengthy listening background. You could almost do a whole course on just the Swing era, or Duke Ellington, or bop or piano players.
I got a foot in the Department of Music by teaching a course through the Department of African and African American Studies. Through an alumnus' donation for jazz to the Office for the Arts, we worked something out where this sizable amount would go to a jazz course one year. Since it was a course about music it was cross-listed; because it involved a piano and some recording equipment, it was held in the music department.
That course met two days a week for an hour, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Tuesday I'd lecture on Louis Armstrong, and on Thursday Doc Cheatham would come in to play for the class, talk about Louis and explain how he was different from other players. Another Tuesday would be an introduction to the Swing era, and on Thursday Teddy Wilson would come in. Believe it or not, Teddy Wilson kept writing, [offering to come up another time from Connecticut]. He was scuffling. In the early seventies, Teddy Wilson wasn't revered. Some people who weren't in a position to do anything about it revered him. I said to the kids "Teddy Wilson is going to be here!" [and they replied] "who?"
It was really very exciting: talk about Charles Mingus and the new music, and Jimmy Knepper would come in. Talk about the history of drumming, and Alan Dawson would come in. Jazz singing? Joe Williams would come in. Talk about Lester Young? Al Cohn and Zoot Sims would come in (actually they were in town for the Boston Globe Jazz Festival). Impressionism in jazz? Bill Evans would come in, and I got to meet one of my heroes. It's also when I first met Illinois Jacquet [Harvard's most frequent visiting artist], when he came in to talk about the Swing era.
What's interesting is that for the music department, this was not a full music department course. I don't think they really wanted it listed there, but that's the way the course got listed anyway. It turned out to be the largest music class at the time, and it increased the music department's numbers, so they kept it as is.
Finally, in the late seventies, I approached Harvard's Office for the Arts and said, "Hey, Help; we're trying to do something, we have no support, the music department is not Interested. Do you think jazz deserves some visibility on campus?" Myra Mayman, the director of OFA at the time, thought so, and since there was no one else to support this investigation or engagement in music making, they would lend their support. So that gave us more of a connection to the university, as well as funding, and it's just grown from there.
The Office for the Arts and I developed a plan to teach the class one year so that all funding goes to artists coming in, and for the next year to bring a jazz artist to campus, [starting] a new residency. The first year was the Bill Evans Trio and John Lewis. We commissioned John Lewis to write a piece called "The Gates of Harvard" for the trio and the Harvard Jazz Orchestra, which was actually the jazz band plus a string quartet. It was something that the Harvard establishment could see [and say] "Strings! This must be a good piece! This belongs to Harvard." I'm still dealing with that in some cases. It was not so much putting things down (in some cases it was), but mostly it was a matter of little to no exposure to jazz or unintended ignorance on their part. For professors in their forties and fifties at that time, their education was during the Swing Era. To them, [jazz was] pop music. [Their sentiment was] "That was fun, I used to dance to that, but we're talking about Goethe, Michelangelo, Mozart and Bach with these students."
[Back] in my second year, I was getting a one year appointment and I went in to talk to my supervisor (one of the deans) and mentioned that I'm working with a jazz band now. My supervisor looked me and said, "Thomas [laughing in haughty accent], Harvard has not had a jazz band in its 345 years of existence. It does not need one now." That was the response. I was not amused. I wasn't angry. I was just taken aback. That was the last response I expected (but I don't know what I expected). If you believe in something you go for it, and hopefully find others that will go along and lend whatever support they can.