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New England Conservatory Celebrates 40 Years of Jazz Studies

Gunther coaching a rehearsal in Brown Hall (All photos: Andrew Hurlbut/NEC)
Gunther coaching a rehearsal in Brown Hall
(All photos: Andrew Hurlbut/NEC)

In 1969, the New England Conservatory became the first music conservatory to offer an accredited Jazz Studies program. The program was the brainchild of jazz historian, composer, musician, and then Conservatory president, Gunther Schuller. “I thought it was outrageous that there were no music schools in this country offering Jazz Studies, particularly because jazz was created in this country. I always said this, but was never in a position to do anything about it,” Gunther explains. His first act as NEC president was to announce the creation of a Jazz Department. The point was to not just have a school jazz band, but to offer a full jazz curriculum with degrees. His vision for the program was to nurture the “complete musician.” As current NEC Jazz Department chairman, Ken Schaphorst explains, “Our Jazz majors take the same music theory and music history classes as our Classical majors. This is a very important distinction between NEC and other schools where the Jazz students are often segregated from Classical majors.” It was Gunther’s intent to make the Jazz Studies program a part of the entire school and the NEC community. The program was designed to be free of orthodoxy and boundaries.

In 1986, NEC graduate and long time faculty member, Hankus Netsky, was hired to chair the Jazz Studies department. Hankus explains, “At the time the program had taken a big turn from its original roots, but it was not unsalvageable. My goal was to bring it back to those roots.” In the early 1980s, the Jazz Studies department went through seven chairpeople. According to Hankus, even though the program wandered a bit, possibly losing sight of Gunther’s original vision, it was never without quality. One of the changes implemented by Hankus was student concerts. “Why should a student come in, study for a year and never play for the public, at all?” That aspect of the program is still in place, larger than it has ever been, with great amount of community outreach. Throughout the year, in addition to various concert performances, NEC students showcase their talents at local area jazz clubs. As Hankus sees it, “Being in the Jazz Department is a way of creating an educational program that can inform a student’s identity. This is not a cookie cutter program that encourages students to play just like someone else. My peeve is when a student comes in with a Miles Davis preset because they play trumpet. Ultimately students have to find their own voice. Jazz evolves and NEC has an evolutionary program.”

Ken Schaphorst conducting a rehearsal in Jordan Hall In concert in Brown Hall, conducted by Ken Schaphorst.
Ken Schaphorst conducting a rehearsal in Jordan Hall In concert in Brown Hall, conducted by Ken Schaphorst.

Since 1969, the Jazz program’s faculty has grown, along with the number of students, which has made the admissions process more competitive. The program is still as well rounded as it was 40 years ago, covering everything from classic jazz history, to free jazz, and even world music. A humbled Ken Schaphorst says, “I’m very excited about our 40th anniversary. I don’t think most people are aware that NEC has been doing this for as long as it has and at the level it has. When I think about all of the amazing graduates of the Jazz program, I think it really is worth celebrating.” The NEC Jazz Studies program will mark this anniversary with a two weeklong series of concerts, clinics, and community events in Boston and New York.

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