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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

A recital at NEC with Dominique Eade (left) and Ran Blake

The Rise of Third Stream

Schuller expanded the offerings at NEC in 1973 with the founding of the third stream department, appointing Ran Blake as chair. “When Gunther Schuller started the program, Ran was the only faculty member,” Netsky remembers. “The school was starting a new department from scratch. Gunther had that kind of faith in Ran, based on his work with him at the Lenox School of Jazz, his enthusiasm for his solo recordings and recordings with Jeanne Lee, and his ability to transform any piece of music into something that sounded like an original masterpiece. It’s interesting that he didn’t pick someone who had a big name. Instead, he picked someone he really believed had a unique gift and truly original ideas.

“The third stream program was more of an experiment, a laboratory,” Netsky adds. “Of course, students in the program sometimes split their studio lessons with other teachers, and there were plenty of us who came from other departments. I was a composition major but, since the department was small and Gunther Schuller wanted to encourage students to try new things, we were also allowed to take Ran’s courses and play in departmental concerts. Our department has always challenged our students to move outside their comfort zones and beyond traditional boundaries. In the early days, they might have taken their inspiration from folks like Ran, Randy Weston, Paul and Carla Bley, Cecil Taylor, Annette Peacock, or Ornette Coleman. A bit later down the line, Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson, Björk, and Stevie Wonder joined the lineup and, more recently, we see them looking to the likes of John Zorn, Carla Kihlstedt, and Thom Yorke, but it’s really all the same thing, finding role models who are original artists.”

In 1977, Schuller retired. But he stayed involved with the school until his passing in 2015. “He seemed to know that, whatever his musical legacy might be, the school that he had reinvented was right at the top of it,” says Netsky.

Carl Atkins moved on from his position as chair of the third stream department that year as well, but Netsky observes that both programs abided even through tumultuous times. “The truth was that it hardly mattered because Jaki Byard and George Russell were really the soul of the program,” he says. “They were major creative forces in music, something you really couldn’t find at a lot of the other schools. And there were others on the faculty who supplemented that core very well through those years.”