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NEC's Ruby Celebration

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By Timothy J. O'Keefe

Boston's South End was once home to a thriving jazz community. Places like the Hi-Hat, the Savoy, and the Local 535 lined the intersections of Mass Ave. and Columbus Ave. Wally's Cafe is the lone remnant of this nearly forgotten era. The sounds of jazz aren't quite dead in this community--they just moved. A few blocks away you can still find jazz, housed in halls bearing names like Brown and Jordan.

For 40 years, students have journeyed to the New England Conservatory, that's right, a conservatory, in pursuit of jazz studies. Today, students like Mike Tucker, Ezra Weller, Logan Strosahl, Clayton DeWalt, and Aquiles Navarro breathe life to the music.

Gunther Schuller, who founded NEC's jazz studies program, cites the origins of jazz around 1915. Some 50 years later, during the mid 60s, he observed that here in the U.S., the birthplace of jazz, not a single school of higher education offered jazz studies as full-time, accredited curriculum. Schuller set out to change that...in a place where the saxophone wasn't even allowed as a classical instrument.

“Jazz music in the hands of the great practitioners of that art are just as great as Beethoven, and Brahms, and Bach," says Schuller.

In 1969, NEC began offering jazz studies. Although Schuller was president of the Conservatory, his ideas faced resistance. Maintaining the level of integrity of the art form of jazz was central to Schuller's vision. He wanted the highest level of jazz education, both improvisational and in terms of composition. NEC was to teach jazz not only as an art, but as an art that was evolving.

Ken Schaphorst, present jazz studies chair, was an NEC student in the early 80s. He recalls that time, stating: “The quality and consistency of the students and faculty has been strong. One thing that was interesting to me was that Tom McKinley taught both jazz and classical, and that was pretty typical at the time. I think NEC's approach was to find connections between classical music and jazz."

Schaphorst elaborates on the jazz studies curriculum, explaining: “There is a tradition going back before jazz was taught in schools, a process, I guess you would call it mentorship. I think that's part of the NEC approach." At NEC, each jazz student is encouraged to pursue mentorships with different faculty members.

A student who plays the saxophone is not only limited to faculty members who play saxophone. In fact, students are encouraged to expand their learning, by studying with artisans who play other instruments as well. NEC believes in giving students lots of freedom. Through experimentation and mentorship, the emphasis of the education is on the individual student finding a unique voice.

Tupac Mantilla, a percussionist and 2007 NEC graduate, is also a member of the Julian Lage Group. Mantilla recounts his time at NEC stating: “I changed and developed in a way I'm pretty sure I couldn't anywhere else. They have you study with private teachers. You can pick from any faculty. I think the level of exposure you get at a place like NEC is rare." Among Mantilla's mentors were percussionist Bob Moses, pianist Danilo Pérez, drummer Gary Chaffe, and pianist Ran Blake, who founded NEC's improvisational arts curriculum.

Mantilla strives for obtaining new and unique sounds. His percussion array includes: Djembe from Africa, Flamenco Cajon from Spain, Middle Eastern Frame Drums, Asian bells, cymbals, cluster drums, and even pen and paper - not quite what most people might expect at a music conservatory.

“A few years ago, when I got there, the Conservatory didn't have many percussionists," Mantilla explains. “I honestly thought I was mostly going to be at a drum set." Because Mantilla was offering something different - playing percussion, drawing from a wealth of ethnic music, and expanding the limits of his sounds - he was afforded numerous opportunities to play and record with faculty members.

“Playing with Julian is a result of the experimentation. It was something I wasn't expecting to happen. I opened up to a lot more things, including playing jazz."

Mantilla feels NEC is in the midst of an interesting change. “When they changed presidents, it brought a new and fresher perspective. I think they're opening up to a broader world. I'm really excited to see what happens in a 5-10 years."

2009 marks the 40th anniversary of jazz studies at the New England Conservatory. A week-long celebration, including live performances, panel discussions, and master classes, occurs in Boston between October 18th and the 24th. Some of the events are free and open to the public. For more information, visit NEC's official site

The ruby is symbolic of fortieth anniversaries. A ruby's color is said to represent flame or passion. Sure, NEC shares Boston with Berklee College of Music, a renowned jazz institution. But nobody should ever question the passion and legitimacy in which jazz is handed down through the generations at the place where the saxophone wasn't allowed.

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