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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

Shots from rehearsal with NEC faculty member Ethan Iverson and the NEC Jazz Orchestra for the “Bud Powell in the 21st Century” program on February 28, 2019 (photo: Andrew Hurlbut)

The Present and the Future

In 2001, Schaphorst took over as chair of the jazz studies department and worked to maintain the foundation laid by his predecessors while building towards the future.

“The previous chairs—most notably Carl Atkins, Hankus Netsky, and Allan Chase—did an excellent job developing the department’s philosophy and the curriculum, ensembles, and policies supporting that philosophy,” he explains. “When I started as chair in 2001, I didn’t feel as if there were any glaring curricular issues. But I did add a few things, including requirements for undergrads in piano and rhythmic training. And we hired quite a few new faculty over the past 18 years: Billy Hart, Dave Holland, Donny McCaslin, Jason Moran, Miguel Zenón, among others. We’ve also added quite a few ensembles, including the Jazz Composers Workshop Orchestra, a big band dedicated to playing the music of our jazz composers, as well as ensembles focusing on African music, Brazilian music, gospel music, and songwriting.”

Since 2010, NEC has been developing its entrepreneurial musicianship program, providing students and alumni with individual advising and career consulting, experiential learning, and opportunities to fund and develop new work. In November, the conservatory will present its second annual “Grow Your Art” residency with Luciana Souza, an NEC alum.

“This residency is unique in focusing not only on music, but also on how to build a life in music, featuring master classes on the business of music and the building of artistic communities,” Schaphorst explains. “In 2017, we opened a wonderful new facility, the Student Life and Performance Center, which included the first room designed specifically for our jazz students, including a state-of-the-art recording studio. And this year we’re initiating a weekly jam session in the cafeteria, which will be administered through the ensembles program. Trumpeter and alum Jason Palmer is joining the faculty this fall.”

The CI program, too, continues to be forward-looking in its approach. Netsky notes, “Over the past few years, we’ve added a much broader world music ensemble curriculum, courses like ‘ecomusic’ that deal with current issues such as climate change, courses that teach principles of free improvisation and reading and writing graphic scores, and more opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations.”

As jazz at NEC enters its sixth decade, the program shows no signs of slowing down, or being anything less than a welcoming environment for musical education, combined with a build-it-your-way ethos that encourages students to find their own voices in the world of 21st-century jazz performance.