Wednesday, September 02, 2009

NEC Jazz At 40

This summer was a cruel one for the New England Conservatory (NEC); the Boston-based institution lost two of its stalwart faculty members in George Russell and Joe Maneri. Both were instrumental in making the NEC's Jazz Studies program one of the world's most respected courses of study in improvised music. This fall, the NEC begins a year-long celebration of the program's 40th anniversary.

The program began when NEC President Gunther Schuller hired saxophonist Carl Atkins to head the Department of African-American Music and Jazz Studies, the first such program at a classical music conservatory. Russell and pianist Jaki Byard were faculty members. Iconoclastic pianist Ran Blake, who had joined the NEC faculty in 1968, became the first chair of the Third Stream Department (now called Contemporary Improvisation) in 1974. Since then, faculty members have included players like Miroslav Vitous, Jimmy Giuffre, Steve Lacy, Dave Holland, Bob Brookmeyer, Stanley Cowell, Ron Carter and Danilo Perez. Ongoing big band residencies have featured a who's who of composing, arranging and conducting: Byard, Sy Johnson, Gerald Wilson, Randy Weston and Melba Liston, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Heath, Muhal Richard Abrams and Claire Fischer. Special residencies have been conducted by Cecil Taylor (an NEC alumnus) and Sun Ra.

No fewer than five faculty members—Lacy, Russell, Blake, Schuller and Miguel Zenón—have been awarded MacArthur Foundation "Genius" grants. Four—Schuller, Brookmeyer, Russell and Carter—have been named NEA Jazz Masters.

But it has been the lesser-known faculty members like Maneri and Hankus Netsky (who was named Jazz Studies Chair in 1986) who have influenced dozens of musicians behind the scenes. I've lost track of the number of young players like trumpeter Cuong Vu who have told me that Maneri changed their conception of music and helped shape their careers.

Between October 18 and 24, the NEC will celebrate the achievements of its Jazz Studies program with a series of concerts in Boston. Among those featured are Netsky (October 20), Dominique Eade (October 21), Jerry Bergonzi and Noah Preminger (October 22) and a 40th anniversary all-star band with Brookmeyer, Perez, Perkins, Blake and others (October 23). On the 24th, the Wayne Shorter Quartet (featuring Perez on piano) will perform with the NEC Philharmonia.

Next March, the celebrations move to New York City, with concerts featuring NEC alumni John Medeski, Regina Carter, Fred Hersch, Harvey Mason and Don Byron.

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