The first fully accredited jazz studies program at a music conservatory, NEC’s program was the brainchild of Gunther Schuller, the jazz historian, horn player, composer, author, and conductor. Principal Horn in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at age 19, Schuller had discovered Duke Ellington as a teenager and pronounced jazz as important as classical music. Named President of the Conservatory in 1967, he moved quickly to incorporate jazz into the curriculum. By September 1969, he had gotten his unprecedented program approved by the National Association of Schools of Music and began offering classes. Closely allied to the Jazz Studies program was his Third Stream department, which came along a few years later and which linked classical and jazz into a new genre.
Schuller chose his jazz faculty with a connoisseur’s discernment. The first department chair was saxophonist Carl Atkins. Composer and NEA Jazz Master George Russell, who conceived the Lydian Chromatic Concept (which has importantly influenced jazz greats from Miles Davis to Maria Schneider), began a Conservatory association that continued for 35 years. Pianist Jaki Byard, called a “walking encyclopedia of jazz,” brought his eclecticism and generosity of spirit to his NEC teaching. And Ran Blake, who Schuller had discovered pushing a broom at Atlantic Records, came to NEC in 1968 and became the first chair of the Third Stream Department in 1972.
During the early years of jazz at NEC, Atkins formed a trio composed of Donald Pate on bass, Harvey Mason on drums, and Ron Fransen on piano. With Atkins as saxophonist and coach, the group toured jazz festivals recruiting students and attracting national attention to the new NEC program.
Among the earliest students to enroll were Stanton Davis and Ricky Ford. Brought in by Ran Blake, Ford fronted the house band at Wally’s Café while playing in Jaki Byard’s big band and Schuller’s repertory band at the Conservatory. “My participation in the NEC jazz ensemble under Jaki’s direction prepared me for entrée into the Ellington Orchestra,” Ford has recalled.
By the time Schuller retired as President of NEC in 1977, the list of jazz graduates was already impressive. They included Anthony Coleman (who has returned to teach at NEC), Marty Ehrlich, Fred Hersch, Jerome Harris, Michael Moore, and Bo Winiker.
Throughout the history of NEC’s Jazz Studies program, the faculty has been distinguished by its wide range of important artists including trumpeters Ralph Alessi and John McNeil; saxophonists Jerry Bergonzi, Jimmy Giuffre and Steve Lacy; drummers Billy Hart and Bob Moses; pianists Fred Hersch and Jason Moran; bassists Dave Holland and Cecil McBee; and trombonist-composer-arranger Bob Brookmeyer. Vocalist Dominique Eade, who graduated in 1984, became the first jazz performer to receive an NEC Artist Diploma in 1989, joining the faculty and becoming a magnet for gifted young vocalists such as Kris Adams, Rachael Price, Luciana Souza, Sara Serpa, Lisa Thorson and Patrice Williamson.
So illustrious is NEC’s jazz faculty that six of the most eminent have received MacArthur “Genius” grants (Lacy, Russell, Blake, Schuller, Moran and Miguel Zenón). In addition, Schuller, Brookmeyer, Russell, and Ron Carter have all been named NEA Jazz Masters.
Similarly, prominent former NEC students reads like a Who’s Who of Jazz and includes: Darcy James Argue, Bruce Barth, Richie Barshay, Jamie Baum, Don Byron, Regina Carter, Freddy Cole, Marilyn Crispell, Dave Douglas, Dominique Eade, Marty Ehrlich, Anton Fig, Ricky Ford, Satoko Fujii, Roberta Gambarini, Jerome Harris, Fred Hersch, Roger Kellaway, Sunny Kim, founding members of Lake Street Dive, Brian Landrus, Mat Maneri, Harvey Mason, Michael Mayo, Andy McGhee, Bill McHenry, John Medeski, Vaughn Monroe, Ingrid Monson, Michael Moore, Alan Pasqua, Noah Preminger, Matana Roberts, Jamie Saft, Antonio Sanchez, George Schuller, Sara Serpa, Matthew Shipp, Luciana Souza, Chris Speed, Cecil Taylor, Dan Tepfer, Ryan Truesdell, Tom Varner, Cuong Vu, Phil Wilson, Bo Winiker, Bernie Worrell and Rachel Z.