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Hot and Cool: 40 Years of Jazz at NEC

Marcia Hillman By

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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 (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, pianists Jaki Byard and Ran Blake, 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 and Miguel Zenon) and four NEA Jazz Masters (Schuller, Russell, Bob Brookmeyer and Ron Carter) among its faculty and alumni. Instructors over the years in the Jazz Studies program are a distinguished collection of artists—trumpeter John McNeil, saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre, bassist Dave Holland, guitarists Gene Bertoncini and Chuck Wayne—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, 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, Regina Carter, George Garzone, Marty Ehrlich and Fred Hersch.

Another former student now faculty member is Dominique Eade. 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, Roberta Gambarini, Rachael Price and Lisa Thorson.

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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