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Tom Everett: Jazz at Harvard

Tom Everett: Jazz at Harvard
Andrew J. Sammut By

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Jazz is an art music that the world looks upon as developing and flourishing in the context of this country, despite encountering great hardship and prejudice. It's a wonder it survived in some ways, but I think the artists had to play it.
It's no accident that forty years of jazz at Harvard coincides with forty years of Tom Everett at the esteemed university. Everett founded Harvard University's first student jazz band, taught its first jazz history course and welcomed the campus' first visiting jazz artist. He now leads two jazz bands at the prestigious university, continues to teach jazz history courses and welcomes a different visiting jazz artist each year, working with and commissioning works from Anthony Braxton, Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, J.J. Johnson, Steve Lacy and many others. In April 2011, Harvard celebrated "Forty Years of Jazz at Harvard" with an exhibition of manuscripts and memorabilia, a discussion about the history of jazz at Harvard, moderated by Everett and Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music Ingrid Monson, and a star-studded concert at Harvard's Sanders Theater.

Yet Everett's accomplishments at Harvard are just one part of a long career as a performer, educator and musical advocate. Everett has played with established big bands and premiered over thirty works for bass trombone in the world of classical music. Through it all, he's combined the resourcefulness and imagination of an improviser with the tireless devotion of a teacher.

Chapter Index
  1. Laureates and Pulitzers, No Dukes or Counts
  2. Early Influences and Playing in Ithaca's First Jazz Band
  3. Founding Harvard's First Jazz Band Under the Radar
  4. Inviting Heroes to Campus and Teaching Harvard's First Jazz History Course
  5. Improvising a Jazz Curriculum
  6. Playing (and Pranking) with Dorsey and Dizzy
  7. Getting the Bass Trombone Heard
  8. Many Roles, One Responsibility
  9. Eighty Years and Beyond



Laureates and Pulitzers, No Dukes or Counts

All About Jazz: When you were hired as Director of Bands for Harvard University in 1971, there was no jazz band and no jazz courses. You organized the first jazz band in Harvard's history the same year you started, and a year later taught the first jazz history course (in the Extension School, with the first undergraduate course to follow in 1976). What motivated you to tell your brand new employers, at the oldest institution of higher education in the nation, "we need a jazz band"?

Tom Everett: That's really interesting, because no one "told" the employers. In fact, I'm not sure anyone was aware I was even employed here. As the band director, I was hired to conduct the concert band (which was not of a jazz nature at all), and to serve as advisor and overseer of the university marching band. In some ways I actually took the position at Harvard because I was a [trombone] player and I figured Boston was a pretty good place if you're going to play; I found that extremely tempting, as a way to pursue my own musical interests on the side.

But jazz was a love of mine. I was still getting into it; I wasn't an authority by any means (if I am an authority today) but it hit me that Harvard is a very intimidating place. To see who's teaching some of the courses, just to see some of the titles of the courses, some of the alumni, the positions where Harvard people are, yet when I went over to the music department and other places on campus, I could not find any acknowledgment of jazz in 1971, much less any opportunities to get involved in it or study it.

These students are going to be influential people: politically, business-wise, leaders in the community, educators, setting standards and priorities. They have insights into what is substantial, significant, and valuable in peoples' lives. These kids were coming through this school not having taken a course in jazz, much less coming face to face with an award-winning jazz player or former secretary of the state jazz player. There was nothing like that, and yet this is substantial music, from the standpoint of having a better understanding of the social growths, economics and racial minority history in this country, as well as pop culture [and] ethnomusicology. I just didn't think that was right.


Early Influences and Playing in Ithaca's First Jazz Band

AAJ: How did that love for jazz develop in your own life?

TE: I had very little formal contact with it as a high school student [playing trumpet at that time]. I had a private teacher who was smart enough to expose me to something outside of method books in band and orchestra, and he encouraged me to get a Harry James album [the soundtrack to Young Man with a Horn (Columbia, 1950)"]. Listening to Harry James, the first thing that amazed me and that I identified with was James' technical prowess: a crisp sound; he could play fast and he could play high, but as far the feel and the idea of improvisation, I didn't get that yet. That started in my mid teens.

One of my first (and everyone else's) jazz records was Dave Brubeck's Time Out (1959, Columbia), and the inside sleeve had pictures of other Columbia records, from Nat "King" Cole, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, and Miles Davis ....another trumpet player. I don't know why but I went out and bought his album Round About Midnight (Columbia, 1957). I got improvisation when I heard that: they're creating in the moment, the head is when they play together, and then they're doing their own thing. I got caught up in the excitement [and thought] "How do you do that?" After repeated listening I would just sing the solos.

When I got to Ithaca [College], someone said to me, "Who do you think you are, Miles Davis?" I came back humming part of Mile Davis' solo on "Milestones" and the guy started humming it along with me. And that was an incredible realization. I never knew anyone else was as passionate about this music. "Someone else likes this," how naïve. [laughs]

AAJ: What was rest of the jazz scene at Ithaca like in the sixties?

TE: There was no jazz playing at Ithaca. The signs in the practice rooms actually said, "No Jazz Playing On These Pianos." It was a good school, but very conservative, very stuffy. There was very little contemporary music until my senior year. It was a successful school in turning out music educators, particularly in the New York state area and particularly Long Island, but it was really behind the times.

To be fair there weren't very many jazz programs in the country, but there were actual programs at [University of] North Texas State, Berklee [College of Music] and at Indiana University. There were jazz bands, but not many programs. [University of] Notre Dame had one of the most famous jazz bands, in fact they had a jazz festival for college bands in the late fifties and sixties. [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] had a terrific band directed by Herb Pomeroy. Berklee has had jazz bands since the fifties but they never got much publicity. [New England Conservatory] never had a formal band till 1967 or 68, when Gunther Schuller got there. So Ithaca wasn't different from a lot of other institutions, where students formed a jazz band and rehearsed at the fraternity house or something, and maybe played off campus occasionally, but there was no formally recognized group that was part of the school's program.

AAJ: How did you start playing jazz at Ithaca?

TE: [This fellow jazz loving friend of mine] had some charts, and said "Hey, you want to play in a big band?" The only things I'd ever played in high school were stage band arrangements, no original charts, just stock arrangements. And it was really exciting [to play those jazz arrangements]! He had some Stan Kenton and some Woody Herman stuff, which was different but authentic jazz. He had also arranged some other charts. That started it, and it was exciting enough that I said him, "Why don't you do this on a regular basis?"

I was bored compared to his enthusiasm; he was just going to make this happen. Eventually he petitioned the college, and they would have nothing to do with it. They said you don't have a faculty advisor, so he got a faculty advisor. They said there was no repertoire to substantiate it, so he came to them with a program for a concert that included third stream compositions, which they had to admit was "kind of acceptable" music. I think we did J. J. Johnson's "Poem for Brass," Jimmy Giuffre's "Pharaoh," and a modal arrangement [professor of composition] Warren Benson made of "Nature Boy," featuring Ithaca's saxophone professor (who couldn't improvise a note). Here we have a professor playing with us, and Warren Benson raving, putting up flyers on his bulletin board and [telling people] "Hey, there's a jazz concert this Sunday afternoon, everyone go!" That was very exciting, and after that, the college had to acknowledge us, or at least let us rehearse, so that band started taking off.

Some things take their own energy. It just takes a couple of people to take risks, put it together or yell loud enough, and to bring the balls and bats and gloves to get things started.


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.

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