The New England Conservatory: Jazz at 50

A look at the historic school’s groundbreaking jazz studies program as it enters its sixth decade

New England Conservatory
Former NEC president Gunther Schuller (1925-2015) during one of many visits to NEC

This is a banner year for 50th anniversaries: Woodstock, the Apollo 11 moon landing—and the founding of New England Conservatory’s jazz studies program.

Although degree programs in jazz at colleges and universities are practically a given nowadays, NEC’s department—the first fully accredited jazz program at a classical conservatory in the United States—was radical and new at its founding. Back in 1969, it was possible to learn about jazz at schools such as Towson, Indiana, and Berklee, but full-fledged jazz departments were few and far between; for 20 years, the University of North Texas had been the only U.S. institution of higher learning to offer a degree in jazz studies.

In America at this time, jazz was largely seen as unteachable in academia—an artform that could be picked up only “on the job” in real-world performance situations—or, worse, a subject not worthy of being taught alongside “serious” music.

Click here for a schedule of concerts and events celebrating the school’s 50th anniversary 

Enter Gunther Schuller

NEC was on precarious financial footing in 1967, the school’s 100th anniversary year; enrollment was a little over 200 students (roughly 500 fewer than the ideal), and there was neither an orchestra nor a chorus, due to lack of funds. Into this atmosphere was brought on musical polyglot Gunther Schuller, a high school dropout who had risen to the rank of principal French hornist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and an advocate of jazz who had played on Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool sessions.

“A staunch modernist, Gunther was always interested in new developments in jazz and concert music, while at the same time having a great respect and appreciation for the history of jazz and Western music,” says Ken Schaphorst, the current chair of jazz studies and an NEC alumnus. And so, on this new president’s second day on the job—as the legend goes—Schuller announced his plans to create a jazz program, then called the Department of African-American Music and Jazz Studies. This wouldn’t be a half-measure, but a full program offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in the subject. From the outset, improvisation would be at its core, and taught by some of the top names in the field.

Saxophonist, composer, and arranger Carl Atkins was hired as the founding chair. During the program’s early days, he put together a group consisting of bassist Donald Pate, drummer Harvey Mason, pianist Ron Fransen, and himself as saxophonist and coach, touring jazz festivals to recruit students to study in the department. He began this new academic venture alongside an impressive roster of jazz faculty. “[Schuller] hired George Russell and Jaki Byard, both musicians who were forward-looking, while at the same time well aware of their relationship to the jazz tradition,” notes Schaphorst. “Ever since then, I think NEC has successfully straddled the occasionally competing pedagogical goals of passing on the jazz language while at the same time fostering creativity.”

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All of the early teachers—including multi-reedist Joe Maneri and pianist Ran Blake (whom Schuller had famously discovered pushing a broom at Atlantic Records some years before)—set a tone for the program that has continued into this century: that of being rigorous and yet with a great deal of flexibility for each student to explore music individualistically. This flexibility extended to the faculty as well. Byard taught his students that “if you were going to really play in the tradition of the great improvisers, the music shouldn’t be too slick—it always had to have that human quality,” says NEC alumnus Hankus Netsky, co-chair of NEC’s contemporary improvisation department. “Jaki’s legacy has stayed very much alive at NEC, for many years through Fred Hersch’s teaching, and still through me, Anthony Coleman, and Jason Moran—all of us were his students.”

Hersch, the celebrated pianist, composer, and NEC alumnus, describes another groundbreaking aspect of those early faculty. “Schuller hired people based on their teaching ability,” he says. “My favorite theory teacher, Joe Maneri, didn’t graduate from high school. NEC wasn’t a state school where you had to have a master’s or doctorate; if you had something interesting to contribute, you could teach there. They always had a tradition of artist-teachers. So, the theory teacher had experience as a composer—he wasn’t just someone with a doctorate from somewhere.”