This year's residency brought the acclaimed jazz singer, songwriter, and visual artist to campus for a week of teaching, discussion, and performance.
New England Conservatory’s annual “Grow Your Art” residency, presented by NEC Jazz & Entrepreneurial Musicianship, brings accomplished musicians to the NEC campus to share their wisdom with the community through a series of teaching events, panels, and concerts. This year’s residency featured jazz singer, songwriter, and visual artist Cécile McLorin Salvant, who at only 32 has already been the recipient of multiple Grammy Awards, performed across the globe, and most recently, in 2020, won a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “Genius Grant.”
Salvant brought her dazzling presence to NEC during the last week of November to work with students in a master class, share her perspective on a music business panel with other female-identifying musicians and professionals, and give a concert with the NEC Jazz Small Ensembles. Here, we share some highlights from these inspiring events.
Insights from the Music Business Panel
The Music Business Panel Discussion featured not only Salvant, but a towering array of perspectives from across NEC, including President Andrea Kalyn, Jazz and CI professor Dominique Eade, Director of Cultural Equity and Belonging Monique Van Willingh, and Jazz Composition alumna Ayn Inserto '01 MM, in a lively conversation moderated by the chair of NEC’s Jazz Studies department, Ken Schaphorst ‘84 MM.
The discussion featured powerful reflections from Salvant and her fellow panelists as they discussed the challenges of being creative women in male-dominated music fields and leaders in challenging times: confronting sexism, racism, and the COVID-19 pandemic. “This present moment is a big challenge,” Salvant said, but she reflected on the power that comes from overcoming struggles and rejection – “every time I get a ‘no’ it makes me feel stronger and more empowered to continue.”
She shared insights from her family life as a woman growing up in a “matriarchal household,” and other panelists including President Kalyn echoed similar experiences, showcasing the commonalities of female strength that had inspired these professionals to pursue their crafts and careers with grit and determination.
Reflecting on her experience as a student, performer, and teacher, Salvant commented, “I feel very much like I’m still a student – I don’t see there’s a transition out of school, it’s more of the same, but different spaces.” A valuable insight for the students of NEC, who are learning that lifelong development of their craft never ceases.
Learning from a Master
Salvant put her words into action the day before the panel, when she worked with three jazz singers and backing musicians (Garrett Frees '23, George Behrakis '23, Anna Abonodolo '22, and James Nadien '22) during her engaging master class. Two of the singers, Ariel Vera '23 and Astghik Martirosyan '22 MM, had composed original pieces – Vera's was a jaunty, theatrical piece, "Say What You Mean," that Salvant commented she wanted on her playlist, and the other piece by Martirosyan, "Spring is on its Way," was a moving meditation on the recent armed conflict in her home country of Armenia; while the third student, Yifei Zhou '22, arranged the Duke Ellington jazz traditional “In a Sentimental Mood” with classical pianist Hanwen Shi '22.
“You should always be open to changing it, and changing the lyrics, as long as you live,” Salvant counseled the musicians on their original compositions, encouraging them to dig deeper into their own experiences and others’ to better grasp the meaning of the songs. “Continue to write about your specificity, that’s why we go hear you – don’t come to us, you bring us to you,” Salvant advised.
Salvant’s own diverse repertoire across her acclaimed albums, paired with her energetic, modern approach, made her an ideal teacher for these talented up-and-coming performers as she challenged and inspired them to hone various aspects of their singing, songwriting, and musical philosophy.
As part of her residency, Salvant performed with the NEC Small Jazz Ensembles for an in-person audience at Jordan Hall, a memorable finish to a powerful week of inspiring the NEC community with her talent and insights.