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The New England Conservatory: Jazz at 50

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

NEC jazz in the ’70s: Alan Pasqua ’74 (piano, far left) rehearses in Jordan Hall with an ensemble led by Jaki Byard. Also in the photo are bassist Ed Schuller ’76 and saxophonists Ross Bauer ’75 and Lance van Lenten ’70 MM.

Theory and Standards

In particular, the hiring of George Russell—composer, arranger, and author of the groundbreaking 1953 text The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization—sent a message that the theoretical aspects of jazz should be analyzed and studied. “Much of the chord-scale theory that jazz students now learn started with George Russell’s theories,” says Schaphorst.

“George Russell was probably the toughest teacher in the department back then,” Netsky recalls. “He really challenged the students in every way. He was constantly writing major new pieces, using his big band and small ensembles to workshop them and, since he had been used to working with folks like Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, and Art Farmer, his standards were really high.”

High standards were present in all aspects of the program. Students in the jazz program at NEC were (and still are) expected to achieve high levels of facility on their instruments, as well as a depth of musical knowledge. In addition to providing a rigorous musical education in a conservatory atmosphere, the jazz program also fostered an atmosphere of outside-the-box thinking that prepared musicians for real-world performance careers.

“We’ve really never lost sight of the goal Gunther Schuller set for NEC over 50 years ago, which was to train the complete 21st-century musician,” says Netsky. “Conservatories and other kinds of music schools are generally geared toward training classical and jazz musicians who deal with notated music. Musicians who perform in folk, world, rock, and popular genres often have little or no background in notated music; it’s more about sound, gesture, and personal expression. We make certain that our students are fluent in both kinds of vocabulary. By emphasizing the entire continuum of skills that contemporary musicians use, we prepare students to be ready for any musical challenge they might encounter.”

Many of NEC’s jazz students have been well prepared for impressive careers. Hersch had what many today may consider an unorthodox acceptance process into the undergraduate program. “I heard that Jaki Byard was at NEC, and he’d done some of my favorite records,” he recalls. “So I literally drove up to NEC with a couple of friends and I found Jaki in the hallway. I said, ‘I want to come to study here. Can I play for you?’ I played a few tunes and he said, ‘You’re in.’ That was it—it was very simple. Gunther Schuller was there and Ran Blake was there. I was part of the semi-illustrious class of 1977—people who went on to have great careers, including Marty Ehrlich, Jerome Harris, Michael Moore, Anthony Coleman.”

Fellow alumnus Netsky remembers the high-caliber atmosphere during his time as an NEC student in the 1970s, as well as the equally high-caliber fellow students who went on to become well-known names in jazz circles. “It was a very special place and everyone knew it. When I got there in 1973, the ‘star’ students included Leon ‘Boots’ Maleson, Anton Fig, Akira Tana, Ed Schuller, Jerome Harris, Lance Van Lenten, Gary Valente, Alan Pasqua, Bob Hanlon, Stanton Davis, and Ricky Ford, truly some of the greatest players of their generation. Soon they were joined by Mike LeDonne, Anthony Coleman, Marty Ehrlich, Santi Debriano,” he recalls. “It wasn’t a very big program in those days, but very selective. The faculty were very generous with their time.”