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40th Anniversary Celebration of Jazz at New England Conservatory in Boston

Timothy J. O'Keefe By

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Jazz 40 Summit
Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory
Boston, Massachusetts
October 23, 2009

Perhaps it was only fitting that the opening piece for the Jazz 40 Summit, part of the 40th anniversary celebration of jazz at the New England Conservatory, was conducted by Gunther Schuller. After all, it was Schuller founded NEC's jazz studies program in 1969, making it the oldest advanced jazz degree program in the United States.

For this occasion, Schuller dusted off his 1954 arrangement of Rogers and Hart's "Blue Moon." As Schuller instructed the band, a bouncing, breathy melody filled Jordan Hall. With seeming ease and grace, the 83-year-old Schuller led a 20-piece orchestra on a journey of starts and conclusions. "Keep swinging!" he said while exiting the stage, encouraging the audience.

Today, the phrase "blue moon" most often means "rare," as in "once in a blue moon." While it can imply luck, it sometimes hints at impossibility. Perhaps all three connotations apply to Schuller in the context of jazz at NEC.

The music maestro, who played with Miles Davis during the Birth of the Cool era (1949-50), was named president of the New England Conservatory in 1967. From the start, he would would face trying times. Typically, enrollment at the conservatory was around 700 students. By 1967 it had dwindled to mere 215. With low enrollment, NEC was facing severe financial challenges, and in this turbulent climate, Schuller saw the opportunity to create something new, something different.

Schuller's first act in office was to create a jazz studies curriculum leading to a degree. In the mid-sixties, teaching jazz in the classroom environment was still something of a novel idea. "There was very strong resistance from the board," Schuller stated. "I paid no attention to that." Schuller recalled that while the program was still being formulated, one faculty member even resigned in disagreement.

"I brought in a lot of modern music in a way it had never been done," Schuller said. At the time, jazz didn't have an official theorist and people were still learning how teach the art form in a methodical, organized manner. To help address the problem, Schuller recruited composer-theorist George Russell as a member of the jazz faculty.

In 1953, Russell published The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, a pioneering work discussing theoretical approaches to music, such as the modal concepts common to jazz. Don Byron, an eclectic musician who studied under Russell, noted: "He just really gave a way of organizing your thinking."

"He was about heart, he was about soul, he was about knowing the roots," recalled saxophonist Carl Atkins, first jazz studies chair.

Because Schuller acknowledged that maintaining the improvisational nature of the art was crucial to the program's success, he also hired pianist-saxophonist Jaki Byard. "This was a guy who wouldn't touch a sax for 6, 7, or 8 months, and then he'd take out his horn and blow me away," said Atkins. "He'd give a class and there would be about 8 guys just playing and hanging out," Byron fondly recalled.

The music at the Jazz 40 Summit reflected both the past and present of jazz at NEC. Ken Schaphorst, present jazz chair, directed George Russell's arrangements of "A Bird in Igor's Yard." This piece, which sat in a vault for 30 years, brings together influences of Charlie Parker and Igor Stravinsky. Don Byron's clarinet work was central to the performance.

Carl Atkins directed one original, "Sands of Time," reflective of a trip to the Great Pyramid. He also directed Russell's "All About Rosie," which contains a piano solo originally played by Bill Evans.

Schaphorst also conducted Jaki Byard's arrangement of the Billie Holiday song "God Bless the Child." This rendition included captivating contributions by vocalist and NEC graduate, Rachael Price. As the band melted into a slow tempo, bending notes, and evoking a sultry atmosphere, Price swayed to the beat, emitting gripping tones and silky phrasings.

Pianist Fred Hersch, who attended NEC in order to study under Byard, paid homage to his former instructor with Eubie Blake's "Memories of You."

With unique contributions from trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, saxophonist Ran Blake, and Don Byron, the Jazz 40 Summit, a culmination of sound lasting nearly four hours, was truly reflective of the jazz artistry housed at the New England Conservatory.

"We are indebted to Mr. Schuller because he was the only person who had enough clout on both [the classical and jazz] sides to make it happen," said Don Byron.

You can call it lucky. You can certainly call it rare. You might even be able to call it an impossibility. But no matter what you call it, Schuller's jazz legacy at NEC is a story worthy of sharing.


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