Toasting its unique niche

Boston Globe, September 13, 2009

When it comes to launching jazz musicians into the big leagues, Boston schools have long been a key feeder. The well-known behemoth is the Berklee College of Music, but it was the New England Conservatory that launched the nation’s first jazz degree program, 40 years ago. This fall NEC celebrates that anniversary with a rich menu of events that highlight not just the history but the unique niche the school has honed as the jazz world has changed.

The festivities peak Oct. 24 with a marquee two-part concert by saxophone master Wayne Shorter – first with his quartet, then with the NEC Philharmonia orchestra. But starting Oct. 18, various NEC faculty and alumni will perform at local clubs (the Regattabar, Scullers, the Lily Pad, the Western Front) and at NEC’s Jordan Hall. Panels and master classes complete the program.

Today jazz education is an industry, but in the ’60s, jazz was still an art of the streets and clubs; in the schools, it was on the outside looking in. That was certainly the case at NEC, the venerable conservatory founded in 1867. “The saxophone was not allowed in the school, even as a classical instrument!,” Gunther Schuller, who became NEC’s president in 1967, reminisced to a panel audience at the school earlier this year.

That changed when Schuller, a French horn player turned composer and passionate jazz advocate, took over. “The first act of my presidency was to declare that we will have a jazz department,” he told the panel. Having awakened to jazz hearing Duke Ellington and gone on to work with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and other luminaries, Schuller found it appalling that no full-fledged jazz degree program existed.

Pianist Ran Blake, who arrived to teach at NEC the same year as Schuller and remains on the faculty today, says even Schuller’s friends were shocked at how fast he started the program. He says they made connections in the Boston community, where young players from Roxbury in particular would surface in the local clubs, and invited them to study at the conservatory.

Schuller was a high-school dropout, and rather than create a complex academic structure, he sought to bring the jazz tradition of apprenticeship under the school’s roof. Conversely, his “Third Stream” concept sought to awaken classical players to free improvisation. The result, says multi-instrumentalist Hankus Netsky, who arrived as a student in 1973 and stayed on as a teacher ever since, was a unique atmosphere.

“I would characterize it as a noncommercial esthetic,” Netsky says. “It’s the idea that musicians should hone their skills in a very different way. If you play saxophone, you don’t have to sound like Wayne Shorter. You play trumpet, you don’t have to sound like Miles Davis. There’s nothing pre-set that you have to conform to.”

Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii, who went to Berklee then later returned to Boston to attend NEC, says during her time at the conservatory, she never once played the blues – an illustration, she says, of the program’s nonstandard approach. Instead, she has fond memories of two-hour sessions with pianist Paul Bley that didn’t necessarily involve playing at all – just talking about approaches to the art.

Other famed NEC teachers have included Jaki Byard, Cecil McBee, Carl Atkins, and two major music theorists who have passed away this year, George Russell and Joe Maneri. George Garzone, Jerry Bergonzi, and Dominique Eade are some of the well-known names on the current faculty. Recent grads Rachael Price, Michael Winograd, and Noah Preminger will return to perform during the October celebration.

Department veterans say the program has retained its signature approach and aesthetic, but changes in jazz education and the music industry keep them on their toes. “There is excitement here, but it’s taken for granted,” Blake cautions. “So many students are concerned about the economy. There’s an overabundance of musicians and not enough listeners.”

But Netsky takes an optimistic tack: He says the industry shakeout is giving musicians room to experiment with fewer commercial pressures. That vindicates the NEC approach, Netsky says. “I think the environment favors us.”