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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 alum Cecil Taylor visits his alma mater in February 1990. (photo: Denise Marcotte Photography)

Why NEC?

The jazz studies and third stream programs—the latter of which changed its name to contemporary improvisation in 1992—have been drawing musicians for five decades now. Schaphorst recalls why he went to the school for graduate studies. “I came to NEC in 1982 after getting my B.A. in music from Swarthmore College,” he says. “I was attracted to Boston, where I had spent part of the summer in 1979. I was also attracted to Gunther Schuller’s vision of music without boundaries, because my own music didn’t fit comfortably into any one category or genre. I studied composition at NEC, writing chamber music and orchestral music. But at the same time I was writing for NEC’s jazz ensembles, getting to know the students in NEC’s jazz studies department. NEC was an extremely inspiring place for me, leading me down many of the paths that I continue to explore to this day.”

Dominique Eade, a faculty member in the jazz studies and contemporary improvisation programs, was also inspired to pursue her studies at NEC. “I was taking a leave of absence from Vassar, where I was an English major, to pursue my interest in jazz and consider if I should study music formally by taking some classes at Berklee College,” she says. “I heard Ran Blake play a solo piano concert at Jonathan Swift’s in Harvard Square and never turned back. I was very into Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and more avant-garde musicians such as Anthony Braxton, and Ran’s musical perspective seemed like the missing link in that chronology.”

Eade notes that the atmosphere that first drew her to the school abides to this day. “The CI and Jazz programs are small and are housed within a classical conservatory, so the attention given to each student and the exposure each student receives to all kinds of music are at a very high artistic level. This seems like a perfect recipe for students to develop a deep, well-informed, and individual approach to their artistry. Students don’t come out of NEC with a narrow definition of their abilities, but an aesthetic sense and depth of musicianship that allows them to continue to grow and flourish with each new musical endeavor.”

NEC jazz voice alumnus Michael Mayo says rigorous training and broad exposure can prepare students for performance careers. “There’s incredible music happening there every single day,” he explains. “I saw classical music there that moved me in a way I didn’t know I could be moved. My ears were opened to the endless possibilities of free music like never before. I heard people singing and playing bluegrass, a music that I’d never really checked out before NEC, but now holds a special place in my heart. I learned more about my own craft that I ever thought I would. It speaks to the strength of NEC that I can’t really explain in words how much I value my time there.”

Today, the same supportive and rigorous-yet-free atmosphere continues with the current generation of students. “They’re open about music and encourage students to think outside the box,” bassist Anna Abondolo, a sophomore in jazz performance at NEC, says of her professors.

Of course, as with any conservatory, being able to study with specific faculty members can play an enormous role in students’ academic careers, and make a huge difference in their musical lives thereafter. “A big factor in my decision to come to NEC was who I was going to be studying with,” Abondolo says. “Cecil McBee—he is a legend! He played on so many records that are part of the history of this music. Just to be able to study with him is really eye-opening. He has helped me so much. I got to really focus on getting around my instrument and gaining wisdom from him. There was this one lesson I had with Cecil where we just sat down and I asked him all these questions about his life in music, how he discovered the bass, how he got to all of these places in music, and how he became this important figure in jazz. It was so raw and real and I was so appreciative of him being open with me. There were stories of him when he got to travel to Europe for the first time with the Charles Lloyd Quartet. It’s so exciting for a young musician to hear, because I’m starting to experience those things for the first time too.”